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Afrofuturistic Billboard In Pittsburgh Sparks Controversy
It seems like anything with the word “black” in it automatically becomes a lightning rod. Black Friday, Black Panther, Black Lives Matter, the mention of anything relating to Africa or African-Americans inexplicably sends some people into apoplectic shock.
Take this for example, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, there has been great controversy over an Afrofuturistic billboard.
TEXT TAKEN DOWN – from Jon Rubin curator of last billboard project. ——For the past month The Last Billboard has been exhibiting Alisha Wormsley’s text “There are Black People in the Future.“ Alisha is a celebrated Pittsburgh-based artist and cultural producer (winner of the 2016 City of Pittsburgh Mayor’s Award for Public Art) whose work explores collective memory and the synchronicity of time, specifically through the stories of women of color. Alisha’s text for the billboard comes from her ongoing art practice, particularly her interest in Afrofuturism. Last week, The Last Billboard’s landlord, We Do Property, forced Alisha’s text to be taken down over objections to the content (through a never-before evoked clause in the lease that gives the landlord the right to approve text). I believe in the power, poetry, and relevance of Alisha’s text and see absolutely no reason it should have been taken down. I find it tragically ironic, given East Liberty’s history and recent gentrification, that a text by an African American artist affirming a place in the future for black people is seen as unacceptable in the present. The artist will be part of a public panel discussion about the text and its removal hosted by the Kelly Strayhorn Theater in the next few weeks. More information to come. – Jon Rubin, Founder and Curator of The Last Billboard Apr 3rd, 2018. #thelastbillboard #alishabwormsley #thereareblackpeopleinthefuture
Artist Alisha Wormsley is the creator of the signage and was commissioned by CMU professor Jon Rubin who is in charge of the rotating messages as part of an art project. However, the property manager, Eve Picker, had the billboard removed 3 days before it was scheduled to be removed due to what she calls a “flood” of emails calling the sign racist. A claim both Wormsley and Rubin rebut.
“I find it tragically ironic, given East Liberty’s history and recent gentrification, that a text by an African American artist affirming a place in the future for black people is seen as unacceptable in the present.”
Days later, Picker decided to put the sign back up…
“Over the last 24 hours, we’ve received a number of emails from people who said they are not offended by the sign and are saddened by its removal,” read the statement from Ms. Picker. “They far outnumber the people who originally approached us about being offended. We truly appreciate the comments from people who reached out to us in a respectful, thoughtful manner and believe the public has spoken. We are giving the tenant full approval to reinstate the original sign. In the future, we will follow the approval process outlined in the lease the tenant signed, so that we are all informed and on board for all future signs.”
Sounds to us like some angsty mayo packets complained and Picker got shook, then when she saw that the sign had public support and acquiesced.
One of the groups who complained about the message tried to downplay their initial concerns
“It is also frustrating that this firestorm started when we sent an email to both Mr. Rubin and Ms. Picker asking about the meaning of the message in question and suggesting that the message was ambiguous and could be considered tone deaf given the gentrification debate underway in the neighborhood …. We never demanded that the message be taken down, but simply asked how long it would remain.”