JEFFVANDERLOU — In honor of Black History Month and HIV/AIDS awareness, the Griot Museum of Black History and Culture hosted a panel discussion with local artists Enrise Williams and De Andrea Nichols.
The two artists shared a unique history: both were inspired by their lived experiences to create separate art exhibits using mirrors and caskets. Williams, a health activist and founding member of Blacks Assisting Blacks Against AIDS, created his Mirror Casket project in the late 1980s to protest the stigma of HIV/AIDS in the Black community.
Almost 30 years later, Nichols, also an artist and activist, created her Mirror Casket project in protest of police brutality during the Ferguson Uprising in 2014 after the death of Michael Brown.
“Part of the intention with both pieces is that you see yourself and empathize with others who are struggling,” said Nichols. “Public health, social injustices are expressed on a national scale, and people want to shy away from things that affect Black folks.”
Fighting the Stigma of HIV/AIDS
Williams said he became very conscious about some of the structural barriers that affect African-Americans after reading the Autobiography of Malcolm X. Williams’ first experience in activism was when he joined anti-apartheid protests at Saint Louis University and Washington University. Protesting for international causes inspired Williams to focus on his own community in north St. Louis. He said he noticed a high level of oppression in the community.
Around the late 1980s he picked up on the stigma toward those with HIV/AIDS, especially toward black people with the disease.
“I was uncomfortable with the number of black men dying from HIV/AIDS. Most of my friends were sick, and I got uncomfortable having to go see them in the hospital,” said Williams.
Williams remembers several of his friends were diagnosed with HIV, and during this time, there was a lack of affordable health insurance and community outreach programs for people with HIV. Williams says many of his friends didn’t live past a year after their diagnosis.
He says witnessing his friends’ experiences of discrimination and unfair treatment at different healthcare facilities inspired him to protest the neglect and ostracism of individuals living with HIV/AIDS.
The Mirror Casket project was a collaboration between Williams, Joan Ferguson and Harold Lowery. The group decided to put a mirror in a casket and do a mock funeral procession while marching in the streets. As onlookers looked inside the casket, they would see their reflection. According to Williams, the three hoped the audience would make the connection that the disease can affect anyone.
Giving Police Brutality a Hard Look in the Mirror
Nichols said she grew up in rural Mississippi and her experience with racial bullying laid the foundation for her perspective about race relations. She first channeled her anger through fighting, until the elders in her town taught her how to use that energy in her art.
Today Nichols uses art to create social change; she is the visionary artist of the Mirror Casket of 2014.
During the Ferguson Uprising, Nichols participated in the protests against police brutality. Her experiences during the protests caused her to have recurring nightmares of a casket covered in mirrors. Nichols reached out to some friends and asked them to help her build the casket she was seeing in her dreams.
Nichols covered the casket in shattered mirrors so people could see their reaction to being reflected on a casket. Nichols says she this was to provoke a visual question: “who am I, who am I becoming?”
The two artists hope their projects bring inspiration to their communities.
“Both projects put you in a space that you can’t escape. It got you to think and that’s what art does and that’s what movements do,” said Williams. He adds, “It’s those little small things that happen as a result of your big action. Now more people want to get involved and volunteer and that is the commonality of both pieces.”
Nichols said, “Take note of what’s pissing you off, and don’t suppress that. That is where powerful and magical ideas emerge, and that can be transformed into something beautiful.”