Oliver X The Art of Protest
Oliver X The Art of Protest (Jeramie Lu Photography)

By Oliver X

Black Lives Matter. That strident, self-evident declaration that burst onto our consciousness after Michael Brown’s killing in Ferguson, has spawned a global justice movement to end racial discrimination, shining a torchlight on the inequities of a nation yearning to embody its creed: indivisible.

From the midnight lynching of Mexican “desperado” Luis Ortiz on the Virginia Street Bridge, by 70 masked members of the 601 Vigilance Committee in 1891, to the current protest actions in the Newlands Park district of Old Southwest Reno, Reno’s racist racial history is coming under closer scrutinyOne of civilization’s most cogent communication tools — art — is being used as an instrument of peaceful protest and change.

Kids in cages

If you’ve walked along the streets of downtown or Midtown Reno, you have undoubtedly seen the vivid art by LatinX artist Edwin Martinez Esco. The US Navy veteran creates vibrant murals and paintings depicting historical figures from his native Mexico, like Pancho Villa, Zapata and Frida Kahlo, that dot the Reno wallscape. His unique style is instantly recognizable and his messages unmistakable. In one particularly incendiary piece titled “My Heart Goes Out To You,” Esco shows a Mexican immigrant child, separated from parents, clutching detention fencing, with huge, mournful eyes. The emotional impact of this piece is instantaneous. I teared up upon seeing it, imagining the terror and helplessness thousands of children are facing at our southern borders.

“’My Heart Goes Out To You’ is for the families getting torn apart; kids separated from their loved ones and getting treated inhumanely by being put in cages, like criminals … As an immigrant, dreamer and veteran, it hits home,” Esco emphasizes.

"My Heart Goes Out to You"
“My Heart Goes Out to You” (Edwin Martinez Esco)
Art speaks

The 24-hour art action Art Speaks, held this summer during Artown and created by a racially diverse group of Reno residents, showcased the powerful social impact of art. The art action used life-sized “humanoid canvases” of RACE, INCLUSION and HEALING created by imagination maven and artistic scientist Sharon DeMattia. They were lit day and night during the peaceful park protest.

Art Speaks grew out of the rancorous Newlands Park renaming controversy. At issue, the call by residents of color and conscience for the removal of the monument celebrating Nevada U.S. Senator Francis G. Newlands, the Mississippi-born attorney turned politician, and avowed white supremacist. Known for his bitter opposition to the 15th Amendment, for favoring whites-only immigration, and for the Newlands Resolution of 1898, which annexed the Republic of Hawai’i, Newlands was a prolific developer who helped pioneer the exclusion of blacks and Jews from Reno’s most desirable early neighborhoods.

But the legacy of entitlement, exclusion, and willful denial of the deleterious effects of discrimination linger, and a core group of Newlands residents are raising their voices against it.

“Reno, like any city, tells the world about itself through the people that it chooses to memorialize,” said Newlands resident Bin Bin Erwin, one of the organizers of the campaign to rename the park, and remove the monument to Newlands. “We are confident that the people of Reno do not wish to venerate a man who was viewed as a mean-spirited white supremacist even in his own era.”

Old Southwest resident and event co-organizer Khalilah Cage, notes that “homeowners who wish to fight the racist and exclusionary language still found in homeowner deed covenants in dozens of neighborhoods in Reno, can fill out a Declaration of Removal of Discriminatory Restriction.” SB117, sponsored by Nevada Senators Julia Ratti and Dallas Harris, and Assemblywoman Lisa Krasner, went into effect October 1, 2019.

“The enduring language of segregation and discrimination sends an outdated and harmful message to our community,” says Washoe County Recorder Kaley Work, writing in a press release last year announcing the bill.

RACE, INCLUSION & HEALING (Sharon DeMattia, Humanoid Canvases)
Black Lives Matter

Placed at Reno City Hall in the aftermath of the depraved and indifferent torture, leading to the death of George Floyd at the hands of four Minneapolis police officers, Reno muralist Joe C. Rock’s temporary Black Lives Matter mural is a visual narrative of the seldom-referenced history of the civil rights struggle in Reno. Speaking on location to Geralda Miller of Art Spot Reno during a summer special titled “Loud As Folk: A Fist Full of Murals, Rock” she states, his five-panel installation with two huge words “Equality” and “Unity” framing a central piece with the words “Black Lives Matter” on it, was placed on the boarded-up remnants of the post-riot damage to City Hall.

After conversations with Special Events Manager Alexis Hill and Reno Mayor Hillary Schieve, Rock told them “If you wanna let me run with it and do it, let’s go ahead … And it got going,” Rock relates. “It took a lot of heartache and struggle, but we’re here now,” says Rock.

The artist is referencing the cold feet certain members of the Reno City Council reportedly later expressed over the mural, and the harassment Rock experienced from the Reno Police Department during his nightly 3 a.m. work sessions on the piece. Rock was stopped and questioned a half-dozen times during his attempts to complete the mural by the RPD, who claimed he needed a permit to do the mural.

Public art acts as a living commentary of our times and can be a conduit for activism, action, and a restoration of faith, as it moves our spirits and enlightens our minds.

Depicted prominently in the mural is Reno racial justice warrior Alice Smith. Smith helped integrate Reno’s VA Hospital, after her veteran husband, Alfred, was denied care due to his race. “Bertha Woodard is shown picketing the downtown Reno Woolworth’s during the 1960 NAACP protest,” notes Miller.

Amongst the many noteworthy national figures past and present included: a kneeling Colin Kaepernick; Rosa Parks’ Montgomery Bus Boycott mugshot, and George Floyd, whose murder, like that of 14 year-old Emmitt Till’s 66 years earlier, reignited a national movement for racial justice and equality that is 400 years overdue.

Public art acts as a living commentary of our times and can be a conduit for activism, action, and a restoration of faith, as it moves our spirits and enlightens our minds. Art Spot Reno is dedicated to the exploration and celebration of public art in northern Nevada, and the many murals that beautify our region’s wallscapes. For those touring the Reno/Sparks area, you will find a great number of intricate and meaningful murals and structures that tell the story of a vibrant and diverse community. These creations are a reminder of the power of art to engage, inform and inspire. For information on touring art murals visit artspotreno.org.