With the Black Lives Matter movement taking center focus in Chicago and outside our city walls, the community is teeming with active engagement and empowerment. We see this with protests, public art, music, and even Columbus statues coming down: racial justice activism is uniquely alive after months of pandemic hibernation. A new multigenerational coloring book called #BlackArtMatters seeks to contribute to the cause by highlighting Black artists, representing the breadth of Blackness and the importance of racial and gender equality.
The coloring book is the brainchild of Mya Cavner and Ethan Switall, two 17-year-old Whitney Young students who put their artistic skills to the digital page and worked with nine Black local artists to create #BlackArtMatters, which was released July 12. The 44-page book features drawings of influential Black artists, inspirational quotes, and grim statistics about the Black community that are meant to educate. One stat hits on the reality for some Black trans women in North and South America: their life expectancy is on average 35 years, according to a study by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. In the book, juxtaposed with that stat is the popular phrase, “Black trans life is sacred.” “We need to do something about the statistic so it can change in the future,” Cavner says.
The coloring book also celebrates Black joy with illustrations of people holding hands, smiling, and hugging–including visuals of influential Black icons on the front and back covers, such as Noname, Solange, Misty Copeland, Basquiat, male model Alton Mason, and Black trans disabled model Aaron Philip, who has made history in the fashion world.
Cavner and Switall, both visual artists who interned at the Art Institute of Chicago and led their school’s Acting for Gender Equality Club, collaborated on some pages and picked the other, trailblazing contributing artists with inclusive representation in mind, as well as artists’ activism work within the Black community.
Cavner is one of nine other Black contemporary artists who submitted work for the book: Anthony Conover, Corinne Salter, Idia Aikhionbare, Juliana Lebron, Kristle Marshall, Leeya Rose Jackson, Lo Harris, and Sabrina Dorsainvil each contributed to the project and brought different artistic styles and messages that added to the book’s diversity. The curators say the artists–whose work they were familiar with, though they’d never met–made the project possible. “They were willing to participate with two young people they’d never met–they took a chance with us in allowing us to use their work and to have people purchase their work,” Switall says.
The art project is meant to be accessible and showcase less-prominent perspectives that are seeing bigger platforms because of the Black Lives Matter movement. And after working at the Art Institute, both teenagers saw the power of historical representation that art can carry as an education tool, but also were acutely aware that not everyone can experience it, especially in low-income Black communities, and during a pandemic no less.
“The coloring book [is] a new way to have a full experience and can introduce children to ideas of Black Lives Matter and what it means to be a Black trans person while you are talking about it with your kid,” Cavner says. “We wanted to put our skills together to see what we could do to find ways to make it as meaningful and accessible as possible.”
The coloring book sells for $25 for paperback or $35 for a hardcover version, and 50 percent of proceeds are going to the Brave Space Alliance, the city’s first Black-led, trans-led LGBTQ resource center, located in Hyde Park. The remaining 50 percent will go to the featured artists who contributed original artwork. Cavner says that after attending a recent protest organized by Brave Space Alliance, she wanted to help the organization grow, which she felt wasn’t getting as much funding attention from the public compared to other Black social justice groups. But the center has seen rapid growth since the pandemic, when it began its crisis pantry and started an $800,000 fundraising campaign to settle into its new home. Since then, thanks to community support, the center hired two new program coordinators. “We felt that highlighting Black trans people and Black queer people was important because there are a lot of organizations getting a lot of money but Brave Space has some of their first paid positions now and we wanted to help contribute to that,” she says.
Witnessing youth take charge of the movement has been nothing short of inspiring for me, and the #BlackArtMatters collaboration has the same effect. For the curators, their project helped them find their place in the movement and also see the power youth have–the power to create impactful change through socially conscious art. v