LOUISVILLE, KY — Last weekend, as others gathered around backyard grills to celebrate the Juneteenth and Father’s Day holidays, artist Roberto Visani gave safety instructions to a small group of workshop participants clustered around a cupola furnace at Falls Art Foundry. The furnace would be heated to some 2,100 degrees Fahrenheit, enough to melt the iron that Visani then helped participants pour into molds they made as part of a 10-week program designed to promote collective healing and creative expression for people who have been affected by gun violence.
And in Louisville, it’s hard to find someone who hasn’t, said Toya Northington, community engagement strategist at the Speed Art Museum, which organized the program. “But when we think about the sheer number of Black community members that have been affected, it’s so much greater,” she noted. In fact, 2021 was the deadliest year on record for gun violence in the city. And across the United States, a horrific spate of mass shootings in recent months has deepened national trauma about the scourge of gun violence — and anger and bewilderment over government inaction in the face of it.
Northington, who led the steering committee for Promise, Witness, Remembrance, the museum’s 2021 exhibition that reflected on the police shooting of Breonna Taylor, said the workshops were a direct result of discussions that took place within that committee of BIPOC community members: “We wanted to let people come together and talk about gun violence honestly and openly, and to have it be a way to affirm their experiences.” While the broader public was invited to attend the iron pour, its main participants were eight Black Louisville residents.
To help develop the program, called The Promise, Northington reached out to Visani, a Brooklyn-based multimedia artist whose sculptural works often engage themes of guns and the Black experience. His Versos series involves iron castings of different types of firearms that he stacks and balances against each other; the earlier Improvised Weapons consist of guns he made from found objects, such as a discarded gas pump, bicycle handlebar, and lacy black pair of women’s underwear.
“I grew up in South Dakota hunting with my father,” said Visani, who is of mixed race. “We took guns apart and cleaned them. When I was seven, we built a black powder rifle. But I started to see guns in a totally different way when I learned that they were traded for African people during the slave trade. I thought about my mother’s side of the family, that my ancestors may have actually come here because of this weapon.”
The artist shared that crucial piece of information in one of ten meetings the group had during the course of the program, which began in March. In another, Visani provided information about the history of guns in Black communities and the cultural context of firearms in the United States. He then introduced participants to artists exploring gun violence and trauma in their work — Arthur Jafa, Kahlil Joseph, Pedro Reyes, and Doris Salcedo among them — as well as vernacular examples such as shrines and murals.
As the participants worked through their experiences with gun violence, they also thought of ways they might express them through visual art, receiving guidance from Visani on how to execute their ideas for photo, video, and sculptural pieces that will be exhibited at the Speed starting August 19.
In a grimly ironic turn, the group’s original notion to initiate a gun buyback program and melt the weapons to create new works of art proved difficult in the wake of the shooting at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, that left 19 people dead. (The New York Times reports that a sharp rise in gun sales almost always follows a mass shooting.) Undaunted, the participants moved ahead with their development of works using sand molds to be cast in iron obtained from more commonplace sources.
Rhonda Mathis, who attended Saturday’s workshop, had an 18-year-old niece who was shot and killed on her way home from work in 2019. The following summer, Mathis was one of thousands of protesters demonstrating against the police killing of Breonna Taylor when she heard news reports that a young woman had been found shot dead in an alley in a historically Black neighborhood of Louisville.
“When I got home and logged onto Facebook,” Mathis said, “I found out it was another of my nieces. So I kind of lost it, you know.”
On the day of the iron pour, Mathis wore a t-shirt and earrings with the colors of the Pan-African flag, a bright smile on her face. At 71 years old, she vividly remembers Jim Crow laws, the boycotts and protests, the marches and the tear gas. Inside the foundry, Ed Hamilton’s public sculpture of Julius Chambers, the pioneering Black civil rights lawyer, was undergoing minor conservation work. Outside, Mathis sat and waited for molten iron to be poured into her mold. Its design? A single word in capital letters: JUSTICE.