Softening the Situation
This past August I had the opportunity to work on a collaborative public art project with some amazing individuals. The main team consisted of floral artist and organizer, Raveen Lemon, Liz Egan (Owner of Floral Alchemy), and Sally Vander Wyst (Owner of Milwaukee Flower Co). They started working on this project back in June during the uprising after the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. The team was able to pull off two grand installs at Sherman Phoenix and America’s Black Holocaust Museum. With two projects under their belt, they proceeded to expand further.
Raveen thought of bringing on some fresh visual perspectives from local artists of color. So, she brought Gabriela Riveros and I on for the job. We were assigned roles, I, taking lead artist and Gabi, as supporting artist. Giddy as I was, I was sold when Raveen explained why it was crucial to have a black artist leading the project since the mission called for bringing beauty and softness to black neighborhoods throughout the city. I can recall countless examples of controversy throughout the city where white artists/organizers take up space in black and non-white spaces where they simply don’t fit.
Fast-forwarding into August, we approached install day! Six installs went up in selected historically black neighborhoods in the city. This included Sherman Park, Arlington Heights, Franklin Heights, North Division, Triangle North and Columbus Park. These neighborhoods were chosen due to personal significance, if they're highly trafficked, or a neighborhood staple. Due to the sculptures’ longevity, each install stayed up for a maximum of two days. No media or promotion took place, the reason being it was strictly for the communities where they were installed. Gabi created a map via social media that was posted everyday during that weekend to ensure where they’d be. We were relying on Milwaukee’s rapid word-of-mouth style to carry out the message. We communicated to shop owners pre-install to make sure they were on board with what we were up to. Just to cover our bases and to ensure we wouldn’t run into any permitting issues.
I’d like to speak a bit on my elements in conjunction with the flowers. In my own work, I use black hair care as my main source of materiality. I find that universally these elements can be recognized across the diaspora because the way we tend our hair is unlike anyone else. Something so simple as a barrette or an afro pick is ephemeral to us. We associate these objects with memories, our ancestors and places in time. It’s important for black people to be represented in every facet. This country tries it’s damndest to eradicate blackness by any means necessary. There’s so much violence against our existence that we need to see our beauty and uniqueness reflected back at us. With these two elements, I felt, people could take as much or as little as they needed from it. I mean that in a literal way; taking the flowers you wanted, down to photo ops with the fam.
During install, the brave and curious would ask us what we were doing. The most enjoyable part of this process was speaking with the neighborhood folx-- especially, the elders. We were out there starting as early as 7-8am and the elders were strolling around while the hood was sound asleep. They were the most expressive about their appreciation and gratitude for the project. The word “necessity” came up a lot. People were saying things like “we really need this right now.” As one person put it “softening the situation.” These conversations helped me reach a place inside myself I had longed to connect with.
I want to break away from academia but I'll always be ball and chained to it. Academia can be sterile-- it hardens you and doesn’t make space for real life experiences. So, being out there speaking to people, meeting them where they're at, it just hits differently. You analyze your placement, in hopes that your ego doesn’t take a beating. Let all that go! The project putting the spotlight on the community rather than the artists was humbling. It was much easier to be expressive because I wasn’t creating for self fulfillment.
Personally, I walked away from the situation in hopes that it wasn’t over yet. I was grateful for having the opportunity to contribute a piece of myself to this. I met some hard working people who still see a silver lining through in the wake of our current atrocities. Let’s keep that same energy.
If you’d like more info on the MKE SEEN project visit @mkeseen via Instagram and Facebook. For more images of the project visit www.anikakowalik-artist.com and Instagram @anikakowalikartist
Image captions (in order they appear)
Columbus Park Neighborhood - a median at the intersection of 76th and Congress / Fresh Flowers, Spanish Moss, Barrettes, Wood and Metal. 6’x 5’. 2020.
North Division Neighborhood - Coffee Makes You Black Cafe / Fresh Flowers, Fruits, Fresh Greens, Beads, Kanekalon, Mesh tubing, Bubbles and Barrettes. 10’x 12”. 2020.
Arlington Heights Neighborhood - Atkinson Triangle Park / Fabric, Fresh Flowers, Fruits, Glitter, Wood, Acrylic, Kanekalon, Barrettes, Bubbles. 5’x 6’. 2020.
Headshot by Basha Harris
About the author:
Hailing from Milwaukee, WI, A. Kowalik has spent the last few years excavating what it means to live in a Black, Trans and Queer body. Their current practice revolves around black joy and comfort while unintentionally addressing the melancholy of existing in black skin. They draw inspiration from the black ephemera, mythology/folklore from the African diaspora and readings from Margo Jefferson, Kwame Ture (fka Stokely Carmichael), Dr. Angela Yvonne Davis, and many others.