Hearing George Floyd, a Black Minnesota man who, in 2020, was killed while in police custody, call out for his "Mama" during his last moments struck a nerve for Emmai Alaquiva. The Emmy Award-winning film director, photographer, and composer says that feeling “would not dissolve” until he “moved in a direction of creating something that meant something.”
The “something” is OPTICVOICES: Mama's Boys, an interactive, multimedia exhibit that addresses the trauma of mothers who have lost their sons to systemic violence, and aims to highlight their legacies and cement them in history. Now on view at the August Wilson African American Cultural Center through Jan. 29, 2023, the exhibition includes 10 portraits of mothers who have lost their sons to such violence, including Gwen Carr, Mama of Eric Garner, and Valerie Castile, Mama of Philando Castile. There is also a special tribute to the late Mamie Till-Mobley, Mama of Emmett Till.
The show was made possible through AWAACC’s B.U.I.L.D. Residency program designed for Pittsburgh-based emerging artists of color, and to create a "platform for diverse artists and organizations that have historically received unequal access to funding and resources for the development of new work."
Alaquiva says he started working on the show in the summer of 2020, which “proved to be a season of emotional and political turmoil around the world.”
For a parent, losing a child is the biggest heartbreak one could imagine. To lose a child to senseless, racially motivated violence is possibly worse. There have been countless tragedies of this nature for decades. What happens to the families once the news cycle is over? What is life like for the mothers left behind?
“OPTICVOICES: Mama’s Boys is a platform through which the stories of mothers, families, and communities who have suffered at the hands of systemic violence can be told,” says AWAACC president and CEO Janis Burley Wilson in a press release.
Among the mothers is Michelle Kenney, Mama of Antwon Rose II, whose death hits devastatingly close to Pittsburgh. The 17-year-old was fatally shot in East Pittsburgh on June 19, 2018, and led to protests throughout the city. The local connection continues with Mama Latonya Green and her son Leon Ford, a Pittsburgh resident who was paralyzed after being shot multiple times by a police officer.
When you open the door to the exhibit, you see double yellow lines on the floor running to the back wall. These lines put you right in the place where both the horrors as well as the outcries took place — the streets. Along the walls are captivating photographs of the protests from the past two years that surround the deaths of the young men. Seeing people with bullhorns, holding signs that call for change, and taking a knee will put you right back into that moment in time. One rather striking photo is of a young Black boy, maybe 5 years old, holding a sign that reads “I Am A Human Being.”
“It’s important to note that the purpose of this exhibit is to understand the relationship between these mothers and their sons,” Alaquiva says. “I want this exhibit to focus on healing and love, and not romanticize the sons' killings.”
The personal belongings of the young men are displayed with care. A favorite basketball jersey, a video game controller, a high school diploma — all to remind you of the lives they lived and the dreams they held. As an added bonus to the experience, visitors can discover augmented reality by holding their phone cameras up to select pieces to reveal additional imagery.
The exhibition and an accompanying short film ask "What does healing look like?" The film allows these women to describe their journey of healing in their own words.
Alaquiva says his “truthful intention” with OPTICVOICES: Mama's Boys is to “hug the very core of a mother's heart through the cathartic vessel of art.”
Quotes from the Mamas, displayed on a wall, are particularly thought-provoking. One Mama points out that part of her healing process was “to uplift the community so that they can understand what unity is.” In the portraits of the Mamas, despite the heavy grief they each carry, Alaquiva captured a light that shines from each of them. It’s apparent in the portrait of Lezley McSpadden, as she proudly holds an artist’s rendering of her son Mike Brown.
Also featured is Wanda Cooper-Jones, Mama of Ahmaud Arbery; Sybrina Fulton, Mama of Trayvon Martin; Allison Jean, Mama of Botham Jean; Rev. Wanda Johnson, Mama of Oscar Grant; and Samaria Rice, Mama of Tamir Rice.
In their respective journeys for healing, these mothers have picked up tools along the way. One could imagine that strength is one of those tools.
OPTICVOICES: Mama's Boys. Continues through Jan. 29, 2023. August Wilson African American Cultural Center. 980 Liberty Ave., Downtown. Free. awaacc.org