Art installations on Third Street Promenade celebrate Black History Month

By Bridgette M. Redman

Artist Mira Gandy created a collage of 18 modern black women who are changing the world.

Downtown Santa Monica (DTSM) had to get creative this year to build on what they had started last year. They were committed to amplifying Black voices and the Black experience for Black History Month. COVID-19 restrictions meant they couldn’t continue the celebration they held on the Promenade in 2020.

So instead, they tapped into the Art of Recovery grants and selected three artists whose work was installed in storefronts on Third Street Promenade. The art work will be display until March 15. These public art displays were created by A Brilliant Dummy, Shplinton and Mira Gandy.

DTSM Program and Partnerships manager Ariana Gomez said that all the work submitted was on point with the mission of sharing stories of those who have traditionally been marginalized.

“We were looking for a COVID-safe way to be able to celebrate and honor Black History Month,” Gomez said. “Right before the holidays in 2020, we put out a call for artists. We thought it would be a good opportunity to celebrate in a way that could withstand COVID-19 regulations, whatever they ended up being in February.”

While any of the submissions could have been used, they looked for artwork that would best match the vacant spaces that they had—ones that would make full use of the space and would stand out on an already busy promenade.

“We chose three for the installation that we felt were very fitting,” Gomez said. “Their colors are bright and they are excellent artists.”

Gandy appreciated that Santa Monica was making a concerted effort to bring Black artists and their work downtown.

“People can walk by, they can engage, they can learn something,” Gandy said. “It can be interactive versus when you are in a gallery space, especially during COVID-19. This was a good way of allowing the work to be accessible.”

Artist composes mood-capturing photos

At 1343 3rd Street Promenade, there is the exhibit, “Shades of Us.” Tiayrra Bradley, whose artistic name is A Brilliant Dummy, creates photographs filled with vibrant colors.

“Hers is an installation with light and photography that is kind of an exploration of all of the different moods and experiences that are accomplished in her experience as a Black artist,” Gomez said.

Bradley is an art designer who has done work for such brands as McDonald’s, Netflix, Google and Macy’s. It’s worth checking out her work at different times of day as the lights take on different effects. Fellow artist Gandy said she was planning a second trip to see Bradley’s work because the first time she saw it was during the day.

“I liked what she was talking about,” Gandy said. “Then I saw her work on Instagram. It lights up (at night) and has all this color. It’s really compelling.”

Painted portraits dominate storefronts

At 1201 3rd Street Promenade, the storefronts feature the work of Shplinton, another Los Angeles artist who paints compelling portraits in vibrant colors using a contemporary style. A lover of pop culture, he typically works in acrylic, watercolor and ink. His exhibit is titled “Warm Waves.”

Like the other two artists, his work focuses on Black faces that are colorful and large. He incorporated a color scheme of magenta tinged with blues.

“He has these overlarge portraits that are colorful and really huge,” Gandy said. “Being able to see Black women’s faces and having this kind of representation in this space is always important. Artistically, you don’t always see this. You don’t always see Black figurative work or Black portraits.”

Gomez explained that Shplinton created these new works specifically for the installation. He did his usual brightly-colored portraits using acrylic and watercolor, but then he blew them up in vinyl.

“They are gorgeous and super bright, and you can see them from down the block,” Gomez said.

On his Instagram page (@shplinton), he showed the process of installing the large works and displayed stages of his painting.

“One of the fun and surprising things about this project was watching how the light interacts with the portraits,” Shplinton wrote. “It really adds to the concept of ‘Warm Waves.’”

Collage of phenomenal women tells a story of now

Taking inspiration from Maya Angelou’s memorable poem, Gandy has titled her work “Phenomenal Women” and created a collage of 18 modern Black women who are changing the world. The exhibit has a QR code so that anyone with a smart phone can take a picture and be led back to her website, where they can learn about each of the Black women depicted in the work.

Gandy created each portrait separately and started by making collages from cut-up pieces of her photographs, photographing the collages and digitally painting them. She then put them together like a quilt.

One of the more challenging aspects was narrowing her list down to 18 women. It was such a difficult thing to do and Gandy plans to continue the series. She chose women and trans women that she could learn more about. She wanted her audience to have a mix of women they recognized and some they hadn’t heard of.

Gandy also made sure that she crossed different sectors in society from visual artists and athletes to entertainers, politicians, hairdressers and designers. They include Serena and Venus Williams, Amanda Gorman, Misty Copeland, Maxine Waters, Dr. Marcella Nunez-Smith and Jari Jones. She also included her mother, Irene Gandy, a Broadway producer.

“I wanted it to be people who were current, who are making history as we speak and who are intergenerational,” Gandy said. “I wanted to connect it with what was happening in this moment. Kamala (Harris) is this moment. Stacey (Abrams) is this moment.”

DTSM complements artists with trailblazer banners

In addition to the three art installations, DTSM partnered with Robbie Jones of Black Santa Monica Tours and Concierge, and the Quinn Research Center to feature Black Santa Monica trailblazers on decorative banners along Third Street Promenade.

These trailblazers include people such as Donald Augusta Brunson, the first Black child born in Santa Monica; artist Thelma Terry; Dr. Alfred Quinn, the first Black schoolteacher hired by Santa Monica in 1951; Judge Marcus O. Tucker, Jr.; activist Blanche Carter; and business magnate Lloyd Allen.

“We wanted a virtual tour,” Gomez explained. “Robbie grew up in Santa Monica and still lives here and is very involved in the community. She has a deep knowledge of Santa Monica Black history. We identified 10 individuals and had our graphic design team create banners.”

While DTSM is not able to do a lot of the supporting programming it might have done during a non-pandemic year, it is actively at work to promote the safe things that are possible, including the celebrations that the city government is sponsoring.

“The biggest thing for us is to share (these projects) with the community and to help amplify those voices already in Santa Monica,” Gomez said. “Santa Monica’s Black history is very well documented. That’s not something I was familiar with before I started this project, so being able to share that with fellow Santa Monicans is really our goal. Come check out the installations!”

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