In February, artist and curator Dell M. Hamilton saw police following her car. She was in New Hampshire the evening before presenting her performance piece “Blues/Blank/Black” at the Hood Museum of Art at Dartmouth College. She hit the gas.
“It was the middle of the night. I saw the police in my rearview mirror and I freaked out,” Hamilton said.
Then she pulled over. The officer told her she was in a 25 mph zone. “I thought: I was speeding to get away from you,” Hamilton said. “But I didn’t say that.”
“Blues/Blank/Black” weaves texts by Toni Morrison, folklore from Central America, and the names and stories of Black women who have died due to police actions, such as Sandra Bland and Rekia Boyd.
Hamilton and other Boston artists have been making work for years about police violence and social justice. They are weary. When the killing of George Floyd sparked mass protests and subsequent pushback from law enforcement and the president, they were not surprised. Still, they are stunned.
“It’s an incredibly surreal moment,” Hamilton said. She has been talking to friends, processing grief, retreating to her studio to draw, and finding comfort in “RuPaul’s Drag Race.”
In 2018, in response to the deaths in police custody of Bland, Freddie Gray, and others, Hamilton curated an acclaimed exhibition, “Nine Moments for Now,” at Harvard’s Ethelbert Cooper Gallery of African & African American Art.
“We hope that this exhibition enables us all to slow down long enough to remember that democracy, time and memory are as poetic, unruly and fragile as body and breath,” she wrote.
She had doubts about democracy’s future then. Today, as an artist, she’s shaken.
“I think of the urgency of art, but also the limits of art,” she said. “We make our art for a host of reasons, we see it as a calling, but when the president invokes the Insurrection Act of 1807…”
Conceptual artist Marlon Forrester said he’s been accosted by police.
“Of course,” he said. “I grew up in Boston.”
The artist has been posting daily responses to the protests on Instagram, including digital collages and photographs from his performance series, “Passing,” in which he is prone in public — in front of the State House, in Copley Square — tossing a basketball in the air.
“I use my body, a black male body, in relationship to images of power,” Forrester said. His position on the ground, he noted, recalls the space allotted to enslaved people on slave ships.
In one, “Passing — Ol’ Boy,” he lies beside a Boston police cruiser.
But the image is not all stark. The basketball pays homage to the artist’s late father, as if he’s having a toss with the old man up in heaven.
“The ball becomes a metaphysical object, and a metaphor for change,” Forrester said.
Making his art, Forrester said, is the best way he knows to battle systemic racism. “There’s something so rooted in the fabric of America that calls this kind of hate out in people,” he said. “It’s a real struggle.”
Painter Anthony Young remembers being in his mother’s car when she was pulled over by police. “They asked questions that didn’t pertain to anything,” Young said, “like, ‘Where did you get that car?’ ”
Young’s exhibition at A R E A in January included a collage series, “They Have Names,” featuring sliced-together portraits of Black people killed by racial violence.
“People don’t remember people killed in terms of racism and police brutality,” he said. “It’s important to remember their names.”
He has already made one honoring Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Sean Reed, and Floyd, all killed in recent months. He is donating it to a fund-raiser (www.bailoutgallery.com, live this Friday) for bail money for protesters.
The artist doesn’t know whether to be hopeful or despondent. “I believe if you keep faith, change can happen, but I think it only happens with great resistance,” he said.
Hamilton, Forrester, and Young all expressed grief about the steely systems of power that still oppress Black people. All three also held out one hope.
“Less than 200 days from now. Please vote,” Forrester said. “And tell somebody else to vote.”