If Oscar Grant III could celebrate his birthday, his mother, the Rev. Wanda Johnson, said, he’d welcome the entire neighborhood from his Hayward, Calif., block and serve platters of gumbo, his Nana’s tacos and barbecue chicken. But Johnson now honors his birthday without him, as do other mothers whose children were killed by the police.
“On their birthdays, their chair is empty,” Johnson said in an interview, “where it didn’t have to be.”
Grant was killed in 2009, shot in the back while lying down by a transit officer on New Year’s Day in Oakland, Calif. He was 22.
His mother throws birthday bashes, and has participated in a voice-mail-message art project with a similar aim: to celebrate the lives of people killed by the police or while in police custody. An extension of that project is opening on Friday in a building near the border of Bushwick and East Williamsburg, Brooklyn. The original edition of the work, “1-800 Happy Birthday,” started online in 2020, to allow people to listen to and share celebratory messages for Latino and Black people killed by the police. It was a move, Mohammad Gorjestani, a filmmaker behind the project, said, to flip “the reference point emotionally from death to life.”
In the central space of the exhibition, 12 pay phones, one for each person being honored, are arranged in a circle. Each one, adorned with family photos and flowers, forms a shrine of sorts, where visitors can listen in to the voice mail messages that have been left.
Also in the exhibition, designed to reflect an urban community, a wall mural, created by the artist Kenya Lawton, a.k.a. Art1 Airbrush, stretches across from a translucent brownstone and a bodega. Visitors can buy birthday cards, balloons, prayer candles and flowers at the bodega, to pay tribute to the lives being honored. (All proceeds will be directed to the 1-800 Happy Birthday Family Fund, which will distribute donations equally to causes of a family’s choosing.) Behind the brownstone’s exterior is a family living room. There, visitors can use phones to leave voice mail messages for any of the 12 people, or peruse resource materials on social justice and trauma healing. (Those who can’t make it to the exhibition in person can leave messages via the website 1800HappyBirthday.com.)
For this art exhibition, Gorjestani, the filmmaker who conceived of the project with the studio Even/Odd, which he founded, has teamed up with the nonprofit Worthless Studios and the family members of victims. He said the intent is to create “a mirror for people to reflect in a new way.”
The 12 people the exhibition focuses on are Grant, Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, Philando Castile, Dujuan Armstrong, Stephon Clark, Fred Cox, Xzavier Hill, Donovon Lynch, Sean Monterrosa, Tony Robinson and Mario Woods.
They are referred to as “celebrants,” and the exhibition uses communal spaces like the living room to emphasize family memories and personal aspirations. It also incorporates airbrush and typeface styles that are popular in communities of color.
“Don’t think about this as someone you saw in a headline that died, think about this as someone that was living,” Gorjestani said.
A Worthless Studios curator, Klaudia Ofwona Draber, who also leads a residency, Koda, that explores social justice art, worked closely with the family members and friends of all 12 celebrants, and called the experience emotional but rewarding. Among the mementos Draber collected for the exhibition included the high school graduation cap of Hill, an 18-year-old who was killed by Virginia State Police troopers in 2021. The hat reads, “not a statistic,” and has a chain-link design bordering the rim. The showcase is a new way of communicating about police brutality, she said, and she hopes the families will be proud of the end result.
“What we’re doing or aiming to do at this exhibition is to, yes, raise awareness but also to inspire action or to work with people wherever they are in their healing journeys,” Draber said. The exhibition runs through Jan. 16 at the Worthless Studios space.
The studios’ executive director, Marcia Santoni, said she’s anticipating a visceral reaction as visitors listen to the voice mails. “This, for some people, will be an education and awakening,” she said.
A series of panel discussions will be held on Saturday in conjunction with the exhibition, moderated by Johnson, with other mothers and family members of celebrants who will share memories, resources and healing approaches.
Throughout the project, Johnson said, listening to the voice mail messages from family members reflecting on old memories and strangers singing happy birthday has been a reminder that her son’s life mattered.
“Shouting Oscar’s name 13 years later still reminds us and lets us know that people’s lives are valued,” she said. “They need to be valued.”
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