Around 9:30 this past Friday night, Asheville’s Pack Square sounded eerily familiar. There were no protestors or counter-protesters surrounding the Vance Monument, no police on bikes or in riot gear. A busker serenaded people—almost all of them white—waiting in a tightly packed line outside French Broad Chocolate.
If it weren’t for the relatively few wearing masks, you’d swear this was so 2019.
But if you rounded the corner onto Broadway and looked up at the facade of the Asheville Art Museum, you saw beautifully rendered drawings of Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, Nina Pop and, yes, George Floyd, dissolving into text quotes from the novelist James Baldwin and the activist Cece McDonald, along with the call to “Defend Black Lives.”
The images were beamed from a projector atop the cab of an old Ford pickup parked across Broadway from the museum.
“I love that with the projections, you can’t paint over it, you can’t ignore it,” said Liz Williams, a photographer who moved to Asheville 11 years ago and created this work with her collaborator, the sculptor Al Murray. Both work for the Campaign for Southern Equality.
On this night, while Williams wore a mask in the bed of the Ford, Murray oversaw another projector beaming “Black Lives Matter” and other text along the length of the Vance Monument.
“I wanted to create something that was beautiful for people to view, just so they know subconsciously that there is a way to have hope during these dark times,” Williams said. “There is light at the end of the tunnel if we work hard enough.”
Kimi Gomez is visiting Asheville from Minneapolis, where George Floyd was killed May 25, and she has seen the impact of the protests, rioting and looting up close. She came to Pack Square when a friend told her about the projections.
“This is needed, it’s necessary and it’s pretty awesome to see people admiring it,” Gomez said. “These words have to reach people who are sometimes a little more comfortable observing and not really taking an active role. Those are the people this installation and installations like this are for.”
Anna Fagan and Andrew Wristen were vacationing here from Austin, Tex., and they paused along their walk on Broadway to spend a few minutes soaking up the projections.
“It’s really powerful. We wouldn’t have stopped if it wasn’t,” Fagan said.
“I think it’s really important and brings awareness to people who may not have seen it, especially in a Southern state,” Wristen said.
The projections are even more temporary than the street and plywood murals downtown that have garnered more attention—and some objection. Amid a fundraising effort to paint a longer-lasting text of “Black Lives Matter” along the street oval of Pack Square, the artists behind the projections can bring far more agility and responsiveness to a given moment with their work.
Williams and Murray aren’t publicizing dates when they’ll be back in Pack Square, or elsewhere, with their projections, but Williams said people in Asheville haven’t heard, or seen, the last of them.
“Initially, when I started making art, I wasn’t necessarily making social commentary or protest art,” Williams said. “But working with Campaign for Southern Equality and having example upon example of inequity, I’m forced to make art. I can’t think of any other way to voice the despair and also the hope that I have for this country and this time.”