By Maria Cristina Tavera
Seitu Jones is a 2017 McKnight Distinguished Artist recipient and a multi-disciplinary artist who has created over forty large-scale public art works in his hometown of Minneapolis, Minnesota, and elsewhere.
I first met Seitu Jones about 30 years ago at Perspective Records, founded by Minneapolis musicians Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. That year, the label released the debut single, “Optimistic,” a song of inspiration by Sounds of Blackness. In its second verse, the lyrics of the urban gospel song say:
“If things around you crumble
No, you don't have to stumble and fall
Keep pushing on and don't you look back
I know the storms and strife
Cloud up your outlook on life
Just think ahead and you'll be inspired
To reach higher and higher”
Three decades later, the Twin Cities (Minneapolis and Saint Paul) community continues to struggle to find optimism. One wonders if we have made any progress in Minnesota toward repairing socioeconomic disparity, racial injustice, and lack of accountability for police brutality. Accumulated anger, sadness, and frustration has enveloped our society in recent months, following the circulation of the video of a Minneapolis police officer choking to death a Black man while onlookers begged him to stop.
Civil unrest ensued after the unjust death of George Floyd on May 25, 2020. The number of demolished and damaged boarded-up buildings in the Twin Cities is devastating. However, the community reacted quickly, and activist artists began to inundate the city with street art demanding justice. Impromptu murals were produced by taking advantage of the plywood plastered on broken windows to serve as canvasses for memorials.
As a Black visual artist, Seitu Jones understands how public art can reach a wider audience and foster dialogue with difficult subjects while raising consciousness and strengthening communities. After the first protests following Floyd’s killing, Seitu returned home immediately to create the project Blues4George to encourage public participation in being a “catalyst for change” anywhere in the world. To mobilize people, he disseminated two digital designs with images of George Floyd’s face: a single stencil design and a more complex design involving five stencils. Through mainstream social media techniques, Seitu encourages participants to download the patterns from his website for free, and to print, paint, and post a photo of the images on Instagram using the hashtag #Blues4George. Shades of blue paint are recommended but he emphasizes any colors available will work just fine.*
I wanted to share your project with the larger art community through Public Art Dialogue (PAD) and celebrate your ability to help us mend during a very difficult time. In his book, The Culture War in the Civil Rights Movement, historian Joe Street uses the term “cultural organizer” to describe the role artists played in the Civil Rights and the Black liberation struggles. Do you consider yourself a cultural organizer?
I find it interesting because it is hard to define terms about what I do. I am focused on passing on knowledge, skills, and culture to folks that I work with. So yeah, I guess you could say that I'm a cultural organizer. My roots are in [the arts of] the 1950s and 60s. I mean, at that time, what you're describing is now called the Black Arts Movement. And there were just a handful of folks that called it that at the time, people just called it “the movement.” During that whole period of time is when I was really able to put down a philosophical foundation.
This is a new term to me as I was more familiar with the expression “Community Organizer.”
It’s like the Black Arts Movement itself. You know, there are scholars that look at it and put the specific date on the beginning and the end of it. As a kid growing up, there were the stories in the 1950s about these World War II Japanese soldiers found in some South Pacific Islands, isolated, thinking that the war was still going on 10 years later. And that's the way it is with me. I mean, I never thought that the Black Arts Movement ended, you know, so I'm still out here in the jungle fighting. Folks never told me that it has ended.
Well, unfortunately, [the need] hasn't ended. I mean, we haven't made as much progress as we would have liked, right at this point.
For folks like me now, who have been around long enough to see terms come and go, you know, I'm not sure how much longer “cultural organizer” will be around. I don't want to necessarily pin myself or limit myself to that, because muralism just came and went like that. [There are] so many other terms, especially terms that I pay attention to that relate to race and class, like “multiculturalism,” remember that term?
Do you see most of your work as predominantly Black art? Addressing Black issues? I mean, do you consider your work to emanate from Blackness?
Like any artist, there's a frame, a cultural frame...There's no way that I can create work that isn't reflected by my cultural framework…You know, the work that I do is all contextual. And this is probably the reason why I have a hard time with terms. The work that I do comes from a whole set of cultural frames that I see the world through. There is no question about the African American cultural framework…it’s part of my upbringing. Deep down in there is Christianity, and I studied Buddhism for a while. You know, all of those are the things that affect and infect my work. At the same time, the work that I do is also framed by my Minnesota brain. So there are some times when it's perfectly appropriate to call me a Black artist. And then there are other times and it's perfectly appropriate [to be classified] in Minnesota art, or among artists who are Frogtown [Saint Paul neighborhood] artists.
What was your inspiration for making Blues4George?
Well, after watching [the footage of] this horrible murder of George Floyd, the next day I was just shocked to get up in the morning to see it [in the news] over and over again. I had attended the first day of protests at the corner of 38th Street and Chicago Avenue. I just saw the way that folks were reacting, both in pain and anger, knowing that something was going to take off and wanting to be able to participate in this movement. You know, once again, I had been through this 50 years before. I grew up here [in the Twin Cities], but my mother was from Chicago. And, so we were in Chicago for the Easter weekend after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. (MLK) and I saw the same thing happen. That happened here with the pain and the anger. And, I wanted a way to use my work to remember George Floyd. And so that's what it came from, really. It came from going back to those old tenets from the Black Arts Movement, which was the cultural component to the Black Power movement in the Civil Rights struggle and thinking about how my work could add to this struggle. I wanted to create this portrait of George Floyd to remember him, and recently, many of my artworks have been created utilizing shades of blue.
I was intrigued by how the murder of George Floyd propelled the conversation of injustice at the national level. This was evident in the vice-presidential debate [between Vice President Mike Pence and Senator Kamala Harris] last night when one of the questions referenced George Floyd. I realized how this was a pivotal point in our history…when his name and his image have become global. What I mean is MLK was also a martyr, but he geared his life towards becoming an accomplished leader. But George Floyd, a regular guy, unintentionally becomes an icon of social injustice.
Well, I'm hoping we can grow something from this [experience], such as having the conversation at the national level. Or having people at all levels talking about what institutional changes need to happen. That wasn't happening before…people are talking about the Black Lives Movement that have never mentioned it before. On many levels, that dialogue is happening. And on some levels, there is this adverse reaction. For example, the current [U.S. presidential] administration’s reaction to Black Lives Matter. And how Trump has said it's terroristic, socialistic, and communist. And, I think well damn, what's so wrong with socialism and [when did] we turn it into a bad word?
You created a website so that people could easily access the stencils. But did you have any other strategies for dissemination?
I wanted folks everywhere to be able to download them using social media and word of mouth. What I didn't expect and was a big surprise...was that the Whitney Museum [of American Art] downloaded it and used it “in there.” And I'm using these air quotes here as an act of acquisition. Now, even though I put it online so folks could download it for free – folks that could use this as a way to remember George Floyd – I had no intention of this thing ever going into an exhibition. And there were 80 other artists that were also surprised by the Whitney's “acquisitions” [for this exhibition]. The way that they collected the work [for the exhibit], is that there were a number of African American artists who donated their work for auctions. And so, the price was relatively low. Nobody knew that the Whitney Museum was bidding against them to acquire these works. Fortunately, there were a couple of folks that led the rest of the 80-some-odd folk to write a response to press the Whitney to stop the exhibition… [for the cancelled September 2020 show Collective Actions: Artist Interventions in a Time of Change]. Now the leadership is working with the Whitney to address [the issue].
There have been a lot of debates [about ownership] with public art, especially when it's street art and tied to the George Floyd murals, about whether the person who paid for the plywood owns the artwork or whether the owners are the artists. To me, it's a really interesting conversation, I think, in how this has evolved. There have been so many artists that have responded artistically to the death of George Floyd.
I have heard some folks describe it as self-endowed, you know, people digging into their own pockets, using their own time. Not asking for any compensation, just wanting to add our voice to this rich mix of dissent.
To me, it is really exciting that you found a way to distribute an artistic expression by using public space and that you gave permission for people to participate in disseminating Floyd’s image to contribute to that iconography. I really appreciate that aspect of encouraging and providing people a way to contribute and participate. How do you see this piece as a continuation of your collaborative public artworks?
The George Floyd [work] was a singular effort. It was my vision, and the way that I could add my voice to this struggle. At the same time, I wanted to offer a simple way for folks to use this portrait. And so, in that sense, it's collaborative. And I've seen the images all over town – folks that have downloaded this thing, stenciled, and sent me images of it in other places. It is also a real quick way to get this work out into the public sphere, as opposed to a long community process.
Your artwork often has historical references to racial inequities within the United States. By contrast, this addresses a current topic. Do you see it as being distinct in the sense that you typically reference historical topics?
Yeah. Oh, absolutely, and I knew as well, too, that this piece is now this cultural icon, not to pat myself on the back at all, but the piece will hopefully reverberate for a while.
*This interview has been lightly edited throughout.