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How an Art Exhibition in Breonna Taylor’s Hometown Honors Her Life and Impact

The Louisville show is organized around three overarching themes proposed by Taylor’s mother: promise, witness and remembrance

Amy Sherald's posthumous portrait of Breonna Taylor serves as the Louisville show's focal point. (Amy Sherald / Hauser & Wirth)
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Since Breonna Taylor’s death in a botched police raid last March, her image and story have been shared far and wide, appearing on protest signs, Instagram stories, murals and the September 2020 cover of Vanity Fair.

A posthumous portrait by Amy Sherald, the Vanity Fair painting depicts the 26-year-old—a Black emergency room technician based in Kentucky—standing tall in a flowing turquoise gown while wearing the engagement ring that her boyfriend never got to give her.

This month, Sherald’s portrait is making its public debut as the focal point of “Promise, Witness, Remembrance,” a tribute to Taylor’s life and impact at the Speed Art Museum in her home city of Louisville. Open through June 6, the exhibition is free to the public thanks to outside funding, reports Holland Cotter for the New York Times.

Police officers shot and killed Taylor in her apartment in the early morning hours of March 13, 2020. Her violent final moments, the police killing of George Floyd two months later and the deaths of many other Black Americans in police custody served as catalysts for last summer’s nationwide reckoning with systemic racism and police brutality.

Taylor’s mother, Tamika Palmer, proposed the Speed exhibition’s eponymous guiding themes and contributed a biographical timeline of her daughter’s life that accompanies Sherald’s monumental portrait. Per Stephanie Wolf of NPR, Taylor’s sister, Ju’Niyah Palmer, and her aunt, Bianca Austin, also contributed to the show’s development.

Nick Cave crafted Unarmed out of cast bronze, metal and vintage beaded flowers. (Courtesy of the artist)
T.A. Yero, Who has the power?, June 15, 2020, 8:04 pm, Breonna Taylor Memorial at Jefferson Square Park, Louisville, KY (Courtesy of the artist)

Palmer has spent the year following her daughter’s killing advocating for police reform, writes Errin Haines for the nonprofit 19th News.

As Palmer tells NPR, the new exhibition is important because “you want people to not forget, to not move on, because the real goal hasn’t been served yet.”

She notes that the show gave her the opportunity “to be able to come to this place and just be filled with [Breonna’s] spirit,” adding, “I was in awe just at the thought that people who don’t even know her take time out of their day to draw something of her ... even just as simple as her name. And to see it all come together is just a blessing.”

Guest curator Allison Glenn selected about 30 works by a wide array of Black contemporary artists, including Lorna Simpson, Sam Gilliam, Kerry James Marshall, María Magdalena Campos-Pons, Nick Cave and Hank Willis Thomas. Toya Northington, community engagement strategist at the Speed, organized a board of scholars, mental health professionals, community members and local artists that collaborated with Glenn to create a show that would speak to a divided city—and nation.

Though major exhibitions typically take years to develop, the Speed worked quickly to curate and install a show featuring some of the nation’s foremost Black artists in just four months, reports the Times.

Exhibition highlights include Aftermath (2020), a neon sign by Ligon; Anderson’s witty, altered Ebony magazine covers, such as Sly Wink (2012–2018); and Nari Ward’s We the People, a wall installation of the iconic American phrase, as spelled out with shoelaces.

In “Promise,” the show’s opening section, “artists explore ideologies of the United States of America through the symbols that uphold them, reflecting on the nation’s founding, history, and the promises and realities … contained within them,” according to the Speed’s website.

The second installment, “Witness,” focuses on contemporary protests and “the gap between what a nation promises and what it provides,” while the final section, “Remembrance,” commemorates victims of gun violence and police brutality.

Several Louisville photographers contributed images of the record-breaking Black Lives Matter demonstrations that took place in the Kentucky city and across the country last summer. The show also includes snapshots by Tyler Gerth, a 27-year-old photographer who was shot and killed while covering a protest in Louisville’s Jefferson Square Park in June.

All told, the exhibition focuses not only on Breonna’s life—including such details as her nickname “Easy Breezy,” her aspirations and her close bond with her family—but also on the activist movement that her tragic death inspired, per NPR.

“It was Friday, March 13, 2020, at about 12:38 a.m. when our entire world would be shattered forever,” the opening wall text reads, as quoted by Conner Farrell of local ABC station WHAS 11.

Amy Sherald, Breonna Taylor, 2020 (Amy Sherald / Hauser & Wirth)
Glenn Ligon, Aftermath, 2020 (Photo by Ron Amstutz / Glenn Ligon / Courtesy of the artist, Hauser & Wirth, New York, Regen Projects, Los Angeles, Thomas Dane Gallery, London and Chantal Crousel, Paris)
To create Sly Wink (2012–2018), Noel W. Anderson selectively erased parts of a page from Ebony magazine until just a few bits remained. (Courtesy of the artist, from his private collection)

Viewers are encouraged to contribute their own artwork, family photos and other images for potential inclusion in an upcoming online exhibition. Titled “It Could Have Been Me,” the show is slated to open in early May. Per the Speed’s website, participants should submit images that speak to “their relationship with any of … three themes—Black joy, Black love, and Black family.”

Sherald’s portrait of Taylor hangs in a prominent location at the end of gallery, visible from nearly every room, per the Times. The Speed Art Museum and the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture are currently in the process of jointly acquiring the painting.

“Promise, Witness, Remembrance” occupies the Speed’s original 1927 building, which typically houses art by white Dutch and Flemish artists who lived centuries ago. As Glenn tells NPR, curators took the whitewashed history of the Speed’s own collection into consideration when creating the show.

She adds, “To have a contemporary exhibition by majority Black artists in this space acts as a decolonization of these galleries.”

Promise, Witness, Remembrance” is on view at the Speed Art Museum in Louisville through June 6. Admission is free.

Editor's Note, April 15, 2021: This article has been updated to more accurately reflect the role of the exhibition's steering committee and clarify that photographer Tyler Gerth was shot in Louisville, not Philadelphia.

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