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Student Artist Creates Conversation with "BLM"

Kate Prunkl

“I feel every [incident of] violence by the police towards a black person that gets documented and failed by the American justice system is directly defining my existence as a black woman in the US,” says artist Nene Diallo. “I didn’t know any of the victims but their stories, unfortunately, are stories that can happen to any black person in the hands of cops.” It was this violence that motivated University of Richmond Visual Media and Art Practices major, Nene Diallo, to create the work “BLM,” which hangs in Manchester’s Brewer’s Cafe. “It’s a documentation of violence on black bodies and the anxiety that violence creates for me and other individuals.”

Before she was an artistic activist, Diallo was a photographer. “As my work grew, I began using other sources beside the film camera. I am now including images that I’ve taken and appropriated images from magazines, newspapers, and photographs. Right now, my work is done with a scanner, fabric, and photographs.” As Diallo grew in her craft, her process began to change. “I used to start by making a plan of action and then following through it,  but I’ve moved away from that. I have less control of my current work and most of that is because of the way I use the scanner to create collage. I place material on the scanner and then place a photograph above it to create a new image. I could easily collage on paper and scan, but I enjoy the surprises this form of layering creates.”

This process has earned Diallo plenty of recognition in her career, including the Capital One Merit Award in Art and Art History and the Chandler Award in Art from the University of Richmond. “It was comforting and exciting to see that even though the content of my work can be challenging, it is well received by my audience.”

Soon Virginia galleries like VALET sought out Diallo to display her work. “I worked with the museums from framing to installation and it was great to be part of the process and see the show come together.” Diallo shared work that challenged her audience and addressed current events, including police violence on black bodies. Diallo’s graphic collage, “BLM” was one such piece. At first glance, the piece appears simply to be a large collection of words. On closer examination, the text “Am I Next” grabs the audience. “Whenever I am confronted by a cop, I hate to think that it is possible I will be harassed or even worse. ‘Am I Next?’ Is the best way to convey that anxiety,” said Diallo. “I chose parts of police reports that failed to humanize the victims of police brutality, comments on Facebook and from protests that speak of the anxiety of police brutality for people of color. I began with names, and statements from police reports that seems to exist solely to remove the humanity of the victims. And because they are police reports, its existence makes the illusion that everything stated is factual. I decided to interrupt that format with the questions of who is the next victim and then continue with the format to replicate that this reality keeps happening. Black people are still being killed in the hands of police. And we keep asking why? How do we fix it? Who is next? And then it happens again. These quotes are another reminder that the fact that we have this anxiety and have to ask these questions, are more reasons to be vocal that Black Lives Matter.”

It was at the opening of the “Still Nigga” exhibit in Manchester Gallery that Diallo’s work “BLM” made its impact. “The opening at Manchester Gallery was the second time this piece was exhibited. At the opening, people shared how the piece summarized a lot of emotions and frustrations. The emotional reactions are predictable when it is presented to a black audience because it relates to their lives.” Brewer’s Cafe owner, Ajay Brewer was so moved by “BLM” that he bought the piece to display in his shop. “We talked a lot about the piece and its relationship to the Richmond community,” said Diallo. “I was so overwhelmed and excited for this piece to exist in a space that advocates for building black narratives and a black community. This piece at Brewer’s means that a lot of people will get to engage with the work and ask questions.”

“Brewer’s organizes a lot for the Manchester community and the Richmond community. It is a place where I and the community feel comfortable. With this comfort, I am glad Brewer included a piece that encourages discussions that are hard to have.” In order to foster impactful conversations around “BLM” the viewer must first read the work at its home in Brewers Cafe. By reading “BLM” and soaking in the intention of the work, Diallo hopes it will encourage her audience to engage with it more sensitively. “Recently I’ve seen a lot of individuals in selfies, smiling with the work as a backdrop and this always makes me cringe. They aren’t recognizing what the background of their selfies is advocating. I want viewers to find the time to read ‘BLM,’ as far as they can get, and recognize that no matter how the victims were illustrated in the media, their lives mattered.”

See more of Nene Diallo’s work on her Instagram @neneaisha, at her website nenediallo.com or at the University of Richmond Museum’s senior class thesis exhibition MIXTAPE until May 10th at the Westhampton Deanery at the University of Richmond.