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The Changers

Protest Art

by David Lee on Jul 6, 2020
Protest Art

From the beginning of time, art has always been the spear for social change. That’s because it has the power to channel an invisible feeling – of the pain and sorrow stemming from injustice and unfairness – onto a medium and into a message that can galvanize change.

And so, I’ve been thinking a lot about the Bus mural, recently. Yeah, that bus mural.

Mac and I spoke about it on our podcast episode on protest art with LaShawndra Vernon a few weeks ago.

It was just a little under a year ago when a group of Milwaukee area high school students created a mural wrap for Milwaukee County buses that depicted the separation and detention of children from their families at the border by ICE. The piece asked us to consider a simple question: what would we do if we saw the state separating children from their families on our streets?

The reaction was explosive. Some thought the piece was anti-law enforcement, others thought it raised an important issue about something that was not just happening to immigrant families at the border, but what has also happened here in Wisconsin.

It’s incredible to me that in just under a year, as our city has both struggled and risen up to address the dual public health crises of COVID-19 and institutional racism, art has once again taken center stage as a tool of protest to organize, raise awareness, and in some cases, to heal.

In Milwaukee and around the country, the first thing that people did after that first weekend of protests was start creating art.

First, they made signs to carry and t-shirts to wear in the protests.

Then, murals were painted memorializing George Floyd, Dontre Hamilton, and Breonna Taylor, just a few of people who were killed at the hands of police. On the podcast, LaShawndra talked about the artful board-ups in Bronzeville, where beautiful murals of Black and Brown figures celebrated all Black Lives and Black thought. An alley near Locust and Holton was filled with Black leaders as diverse as Vel Phillips to Nipsey Hustle.

Then, hundreds of Milwaukeeans drew in chalk on the sidewalk leading up to the Milwaukee Art Museum. 

Then, songs about George Floyd and freedom were written, recorded and produced.

Then, posters and hand drawn signs started appearing in the windows of houses throughout our city with messages expressing love and solidarity.

Taken together, this was a stunning output of creative production in just a few days.

The art that is being produced in this time is so important because it helps us make sense of the senseless. It gives voice to the feeling of dislocation and disconnection from our humanity. And, it plugs our city right into the national conversation about how we begin to reckon with and heal from its history. While unprecedented and uncertain, this is also undoubtedly an exciting time where change feels possible. The art that is being created not only serves as a record of the time, but also helps to accelerate our ability to understand the changes needed.

As Milwaukee is ignominiously known as being one of the most segregated big cities in America and one of the worst places to raise a Black child, our city – and our city’s Black and Brown artists and creatives – cannot miss its moment to lead this conversation.

On July 10, The Portrait Society Gallery will open Art + Protest, an evolving, summer long exploration of the art and ephemera being generated in this unprecedented moment. The project will feature “This is Milwaukee,” the Mary Louise Schumacher and Kevin Miyazaki-produced series of interviews with Milwaukeeans discussing citizenship, democracy, and community.

It will also feature art work by Mutope Johnson, Akira Mabon, Waldek Dynerman, Jerry Jordan, Eli Rosenblatt, Della Wells, M. Winston, and others, as well as locally designed posters and t-shirts by artists such as Webster X.

Portrait Society Gallery will also present a floor-to-ceiling installation of protest signs. A series of images of the Milwaukee protests by a number of photographers will be projected as well.

In conjunction with Art + Protest, there will also be a parallel weekly online exhibition featuring photographers, artists, and individuals who have been on the front lines of the protest. You can learn more at

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