How Three Artists Changed the Narrative Around Charlottesville
Denzel Boyd produces a series of screen printed visuals that memorialize the black lives lost to police brutality — the ink never drying before he resets. Another headline, another life needlessly lost, another name printed. At the same time, Joseph Webb rehearses choreography along to Janelle Monae’s “Hell You Talmbout” — he’ll perform along with dozens of other dancers, all moving to express an emotional appeal for society to never forget the names of those lost to racial inequality. And finally, Tyler Rabinowitz edits and re-edits footage — capturing dancers, music, and floor-to-ceiling tarps holding the names laboriously printed by Denzel — in a way that reflects the emotion of the performance, showing the urgency of the need for social justice.
When Denzel, a designer, Tyler, a filmmaker, and Joseph, a dancer and choreographer all won a YoungArts Transformations film grant, they were challenged to use it to collaborate remotely on a film.
The art born from this collaboration took on a life of its own — challenging the way we see not only art, but activism and forms of social activism. The story of these three artists, all of whom had never met prior to this collaboration, is an important one — it reminds us that art and activism don’t have to exist separately. Your project can have as much impact as you want it to, create measurable progress, and break borders to collaborations.
“Our voices are so much louder when we speak together.”
“When Joseph, Denzel, and I all came together, we knew we wanted to collaborate. We found each other through Young Arts, an organization we all worked with, and quickly all realized that all we could think about was addressing the extreme need for social justice in these terrifying but hopeful times,” Tyler explains.
“Remaining passive about social issues is a privilege in itself.”
The series — which has grown to include a film, screenprints, a dance, and an exhibition — had a humble start. Tyler saw a video of dancers from Seattle’s Northwest Tap Connection performing choreography by Shakiah Danielson along to Janelle Monae’s “Hell You Talmbout”. He immediately sent it to Denzel and Joseph, whom he’d only ever met via email, as inspiration.
“We came across this viral video of kids tap dancing to Janelle Monae’s song. I sent that over to Joseph and Denzel to think about amplifying the message of those kids.” Tyler continues, “I felt so much from their video. Their passion, anger, frustration, but also their community, resilience, determination that this is not the world we’re going to live in.
It was really important to us to amplify the voices of those who were already speaking out. By joining forces with other artists, I felt stronger. Our voices are so much louder when we speak together.
I think remaining passive about social issues is a privilege in itself. It’s about being human, caring for other humans, and making sure we’re all equally set up for success.”
Once they had a rough concept for the film, Denzel researched examples of protest art to inspire the prints that cover the entire set of their film.
“With this project, it felt like it had a life of its own.” Denzel explains, “Every time we came up with an idea, that idea snowballed into ten different new ideas.
We knew we wanted to make a film. But when you’re truly passionate about something, you have so many scattered ideas. So many ‘what if’ moments. So we thought, ‘let’s explore every option’. I did so much research. I decided on an ‘X’ as the symbol on most of the prints because that was a recurring character in so much art from the past.
We were so vigilant in doing the proper research, and knowing the history of protest art. How can we create about these issues without respecting the efforts of the artists who came before us?
A big part of creating is just being aware.”
Denzel would go on to win an Adobe Design Achievement Award for this artwork.
Denzel explains the project, “As we enter this rather dark period in modern politics, it may seem trivial to discuss the arts as a vehicle for change. However, yet more than ever it is vital to defend the right to free expression, and use art to help make change happen. Forgotten News, Forgotten Names addresses police violence, racial injustice, and the Black Lives Matter movement through spoken word, and a tap dance performance from the perspective of emerging dancers.
With the project, I hoped building a sense of empathy towards our black community would stimulate not just a moment but rather a movement towards radical transformation of ideals and consciousness.”
The film opens with audio from reports of the black lives lost to police brutality, while Denzel’s designs are projected onto the faces of students. Joseph worked with Northwest Tap Connection and its dancers — the same troupe from the original inspiration video — on additional choreography, and Tyler, a Sundance Ignite Fellow, contributed as the filmmaker.
But they all knew they weren’t done creating.
Tyler explains, “From the first time we screened it, the feedback was overwhelmingly positive. But a particular comment that inspired us was, ‘This feels like it needs to be on loop in a space.’ We always had showing it in a space in mind.
We all felt like we weren’t done.
Then in August, the Unite the Right rally happened in Charlottesville. And if it wasn’t clear before how important the Black Lives Matter movement was, it needed to be now.
After the protests and counter-protests, I think people thought Charlottesville was this hyper-conservative, scary place. But part of the reason we wanted to do this in Charlottesville was that we wanted to show that this could have happened anywhere. We wanted to go to a community that had been turned into a hashtag and start conversations that would be fruitful. We wanted to show the real Charlottesville. Not the city from the headlines.”
The artists conceived a pop-up exhibition featuring live installations and performances at a local venue directly across from the controversial Charlottesville park.
Denzel shares his take: “I think presenting art about an issue that people are privy too is so important. We needed to find a new way to speak about police brutality. People were getting desensitized to headline after headline. So we took action on what we could control: art.
Having a tangible experience — seeing people look at the work in person, seeing people interact, having conversations in reality is so important. It was such an emotional experience for me to see people interacting with the art we worked so hard to create. To see important conversations spark from our work.”
For Tyler, “This issue isn’t an easy one, it’s not a warm and fuzzy topic. But conversation, and understanding, and active listening is a warm thing.
What does happen when you take your video off of Vimeo and into the community it was created for?
Storytelling takes so many forms, it’s our responsibility to push the boundaries of what a storytelling experience can be. Your impact is so much greater when you stay vigilant about reaching new people.
I hope I never stop considering how to transform intention into impact. I want to do justice to the issues I care about. This has inspired all of us to rethink our creative processes to prioritize ‘What do I care about? And, how can I make a difference? Over what can I make and how can I make it?’.”