The words “There Are Black People in the Future” was blazoned on a rooftop billboard in East Liberty last year, confusing and even offending some. Indeed, critics got the billboard art project taken down in April 2018, a move that sparked its own outcry.
The phrase, it seems, is both disarmingly straightforward and provocative. But while the original text is gone, a new artwork-in-residency program will explore exactly what those seven words might mean.
The residency was launched by Alisha B. Wormsley, the artist who coined the phrase, and Carnegie Mellon University art professor Jon Rubin, whose Last Billboard project gave the text a platform. Eleven artists or educators received micro-grants of $1,500 each to explore the concept further in ways that engaged the East End community. Thursday, all 11 will present their projects in a free event at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh – Homewood Branch.
The project is supported by the city’s Office of Public Art and funded by the Heinz Endowments.
While Wormsley originated the phrase “There Are Black People in the Future” about eight years ago, in a conversation about representation of racial minorities in science fiction, the words on the billboard were widely understood as a commentary on gentrification. By design, all the artists in the program live or work in East Liberty or neighboring Garfield, where gentrification has displaced many long-time African-American residents.
The residencies range from music projects and storytelling to self-care initiatives. Thomas Agnew’s “Navigating As a Black Creative in Pittsburgh,” for instance, is a series of videotaped interviews with four local entrepreneurs (Wormsley among them) who described their career struggles.
Agnew, who is operations manager at Garfield-based gallery workspace BOOM Concepts, summarizes the challenges facing black creatives as “trying to get funding opportunities, trying to get job opportunities, being looked over by certain individuals. It’s just way different, and how we interact with these people versus your average white person that [is] afforded better opportunities.”
He said that his target audience isn’t really African Americans, who are already acutely aware of these issues.
“It doesn’t make sense to have that same discussion with each other, and we’re not the ones that own the corporations or the businesses. Or the people that have the million dollar pockets, you know?” he said.
Instead, Agnew said, “I’m asking people to tell their white coworkers or their white peers. Because that’s where the action really comes from.”
“We hope that people come in, start to understand, start to actually feel and hear what we are going through and start to take action immediately.”
Two days after the Oct. 24 group presentation, at 1 p.m. Sat., Oct. 26, Agnew will host a screening of the “Navigating as a Black Creative” interviews and a discussion at BOOM Concepts, at 5139 Penn Ave.
Other projects include “The Afro Future Has Arrived,” a concept album by musician Ether; a vocal workshop with singer Anqwenique Kinsel; “Totems, Shrines and Sacraments,” a series of art happenings by D.S. Kinsel; Amos Levy and Kay Bey’s “There Are Black Teens in the Future,” a science-fiction-storytelling workshop; The Black Dream Escape, “an immersive, sensory napping experience that caters to the rest needs of black people” by therapist Onkia Reigns and artist Windafire; and “Art+Engineering: Towards the Humanistic Technologist,” Woodrow Winchester III’s initiative to develop a speculative-art exhibition “that explores the future of East Liberty’s Black community through the lens of the area’s growing tech industry presence.”
Thursday's event includes a preview of a documentary video about the artwork-in-residence project, and a discussion hosted by Wormsley and Rubin.
Attendance is free but attendees are asked to register here.