Alisha Wormsley’s text for The Last Billboard, before being removed last week (image courtesy Jon Rubin)

A billboard has sparked public controversy in Pittsburgh. Designed by local artist Alisha B. Wormsley, it was erected on March 3 above a building in the East Liberty neighborhood — a part of Pittsburgh that has seen rapid change in the form of redevelopment and gentrification in recent years. The white letters read: “THERE ARE BLACK PEOPLE IN THE FUTURE.”

Wormsley’s text had been featured for the past month as the most recent edition of The Last Billboard project, an ongoing work of public art founded and curated by interdisciplinary artist Jon Rubin.

“Last week, The Last Billboard’s landlord, We Do Property, forced Alisha’s text to be taken down over objections to the content (through a never-before evoked clause in the lease that gives the landlord the right to approve text),” wrote Rubin on April 3 in a public statement on The Last Billboard’s website.

The Last Billboard installation, atop a building managed by We Do Property in Pittsburgh’s East Liberty neighborhood (image courtesy Jon Rubin)

In another public statement released by the artist days later, Wormsley addressed her inspiration for the work, as well as her feelings about its censorship.

“It started out as a black nerd sci-fi joke. A response to the absence of non-white faces in science fiction films and TV. Very much a response to many Afrofuturist writings, like Florence Oyeke’s: […] ‘ Afrofuturism dares to suggest that not only will black people exist in the future, but that we will be makers and shapers of it, too.’”

Another work by Alisha Wormsley within a larger body of work dealing with the same text featured in the billboard (image courtesy the artist)

Wormsley has worked extensively with this text in a variety of mediums: video, installation, street art, performance, and now the billboard. In her statement, she says she is “deeply saddened by its removal. And yet I am comforted by how my Pittsburgh has stood up!” She also encourages people to propagate the billboard’s phrase should they like to use it.

Another work by Alisha Wormsley within a larger body of work dealing with the same text featured in the billboard (image courtesy the artist)

It seems that Pittsburgh has indeed stood up. Though Eve Picker of We Do Property heard from “a number of people in the local community who said that they found the message offensive and divisive,” subsequent outcry over its removal has prompted the company to authorize its reinstatement (there is currently no word from The Last Billboard about whether or not they will re-erect the work, or when). In a statement from Picker dated April 6, We Do Property acknowledges receiving “a number of emails from people who said they are not offended by the sign and saddened by its removal. They far outnumber the people who originally approached us about being offended … we believe the public has spoken. We are giving the tenant [Rubin] full approval to reinstate the original sign.”

“I believe in the power, poetry, and relevance of Alisha’s text and see absolutely no reason it should have been taken down,” said Rubin. “I find it tragically ironic, given East Liberty’s history and recent gentrification, that a text by an African American artist affirming a place in the future for black people is seen as unacceptable in the present.”

Another work by Alisha Wormsley within a larger body of work dealing with the same text featured in the billboard (image courtesy the artist)

This sentiment was echoed by the Pittsburgh Office of Public Art, a Pittsburgh-based organization, in a public statement provided to Hyperallergic by Director Sallyanne Kluz:

“Alisha’s text, a recurring message in her rich body of work, is a positive affirmation that there is a place for Black people in our community, past, present, and, yes, in the future. This message is particularly poignant in the context of ongoing cultural and societal erasure and denial that communities of color experience on a daily basis. Placed in East Liberty, amid the rapid transformational changes that the neighborhood has undergone in the past ten years, her work takes on new meaning and challenges us as citizens to think deeply about what is happening in our gentrifying communities.”

The Last Billboard is still deliberating about the future of the billboard, with a plan of action to follow a period of reflection and community discussion. 

Sarah Rose Sharp is a Detroit-based writer, activist, and multimedia artist. She has shown work in New York, Seattle, Columbus and Toledo, OH, and Detroit — including at the Detroit Institute of Arts....

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