Artist Sheila Gaskins performed all over the city before she noticed the arts community was segregated. On one part of town, audience members were predominantly black. On the other, they were all white.
“I didn't understand how divided the city was when it came to race relations. In Station North and a couple areas downtown, they kept getting these young white kids [who were] having buildings and theaters and spaces to do art,” Gaskins said.
As a black artist, she began to wonder how they were able to solidify those spaces.
“We don’t have buildings to express ourselves and do art,” she thought.
Gaskins decided to find out. She and eight other people distributed a flier with the question: “Is Baltimore Segregated?”
The flier caught the attention of the community, leading Gaskins to eventually co-host a panel discussion on Baltimore’s racial divides at 2640 Space for more than four hours. On Super Bowl Sunday in 2015, around 500 people attended to discuss city segregation through dialogue, poetry and art.
Three years later, Gaskins and her group of organizers are still having these conversations with their arts group, Artpartheid. Named after a poem Gaskins had written years before about disparities in the city’s art scene, the local arts group acts as “a place where we can have some really intense conversations about equity and race and not feeling bad about any of it,” Gaskins said.
In October, Artpartheid partnered with local organizations and spaces, including the Living Well Center, WombWorks and Arch Social Club to launch the “Monumental Moments” series, along with artist Pablo Machioli, who created the anti-hate statue “Madre Luz” to protest the since-removed monument of Confederate generals Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson in Wyman Park Dell. In the wake of the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va., which spawned Baltimore’s removal of its four Confederate monuments in August, the sessions enabled residents to discuss and process the removal of the monuments and their history, and to brainstorm what should stand in their place after Mayor Catherine E. Pugh asked residents for “creative ideas” and the Baltimore Office of Promotion and the Arts opened an online portal, calling for suggestions, Gaskins said.
Thanks to a $1,200 grant from nonprofit Maryland Humanities, the conversations will continue this year. Artpartheid launched “Reimagining Monuments” on Feb. 3, a dialogue and art series that allows residents to further the discussion about the monuments while also sharing poetry, performances, presentations and other inspired artworks. The money has been used to provide food and beverages, and to solidify safe spaces for dialogue, which include Baltimore Clayworks, MAXgallery and Jubilee Arts Baltimore, Gaskins said.
Typically, “You don't get a chance to talk about this at all,” said Gaskins, but residents of the city, and even members of BOPA, have attended past sessions to figure out what can be done. ”We’ve been having these really intense conversations. You can't just remove a statue. There’s energy there. It’s like a spiritual thing.”
Local teacher and community organizer Owen Silverman Andrews said the sessions centering on the monuments have been exciting to attend and hear new ideas. Participants have pitched replacing the monuments with those of people with local and national significance, including well-known Marylanders like Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall and abolitionist Harriet Tubman, as well as the lesser-known, like the first Baltimore woman to earn a nursing degree. Other attendees have asked that the places where the Confederate monuments once stood remain empty “so it’s never forgotten what was there before” or that the statues stood “largely uncontested by the power structures in the city,” Andrews said.
But what really makes Artpartheid important is the level of community accessibility, he said. The events have been held in varying spaces in the community at different times, in hopes of allowing all people to attend and weigh in.
“It’s a highly accessible and welcoming community space that is focused on racial justice as a starting point for these conversations,” said Andrews, 30, who helped stage interventions over the years at the former Lee-Jackson monument with Machioli, a site the Baltimore City Council gave preliminary approval Monday to rename for Harriet Tubman.
Gaskins said the sessions, with art as an emphasis, have been educational.
“I learned a lot. … so much about structure, monuments and how much they cost,” Gaskins said, but the most profound things she learned from the discussions “is you really need to remove the Confederate monument in your heart,” she said.
“That’s where the real damage is.”
Attend Artpartheid’s “Reimagining Monuments” series: 6-8 p.m. Feb. 27, Baltimore Clayworks, 5707 Smith Ave.; 1 p.m.-3 p.m, March 10. MAXgallery, 126 N. Madeira Street; Time TBD. March 18, Jubilee Arts Baltimore, 1947 Pennsylvania Ave. Free. For more information, visit the “Artpartheid: Special Events” Facebook page.
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