In a designated Opportunity Zone in Brooklyn at the intersection of industry and artist housing, the families of Dujuan Armstrong, Sandra Bland, Philando Castile, Stephon Clark, Fred Cox, Eric Garner, Oscar Grant, Xzavier Hill, Donovon Lynch, Sean Monterrosa, Tony “Terrell” Robinson Jr., and Mario Woods recently gathered to celebrate the birthdays of their loved ones slain by police. Over colorful birthday cakes and platters of food, they passed photo albums and shared stories. What distinguished this get-together was that the entire neighborhood — bodega, newsstand, flower shop, Brownstone stoop, park bench with graffiti, community mural in vibrant sunrise colors matching the cakes, even the patch of blue sky — is an art exhibition designed inside a 10,000-square-foot warehouse.
1-800 Happy Birthday, the inaugural show in the new space that arts nonprofit WORTHLESSSTUDIOS inhabits on the border of Bushwick and East Williamsburg, was created by California-based artist and filmmaker Mohammad Gorjestani with his production studio, Even/Odd, and curated by Klaudia Ofwona Draber, with artistic direction by Neil Hamamoto. The idea was birthed in 2013, when Iranian-born Gorjestani started filming the annual posthumous birthday parties Rev. Wanda Johnson throws for son Oscar Grant, shot by Bay Area transit police in 2009. Frustrated by the media’s sensationalism of Black and Brown suffering, Gorjestani noted that families didn’t have space to grieve. As Sequette Clark, whose son Stephon was shot in 2018 by Sacramento police, told Hyperallergic, “The press resurrected my son only to re-assassinate him, criminalize him, vilify him.”
In 2020, working closely with impacted families to center community aesthetics and “inside-out storytelling” that allows them to tell their own stories, Gorjestani developed 1-800 Happy Birthday as an audio website that invited the public to record and listen to voicemails that humanize and celebrate lives lost to police violence and systemic racism.
In the center of the current exhibition, on view through January 16, 2023, twelve upcycled NYC payphones — one per “celebrant” — are arranged in a semi-circle facing a huge mural by local airbrush artist Kenya “Art1 Airbrush” Lawton. The wall depicts all 12 celebrants, plus Michael Brown, the Ferguson, Missouri teen whose 2014 killing helped galvanize the first national Black Lives Matter movement, beneath the words Happy Heavenly Birthday. Gorjestani told Hyperallergic that the payphones, which ring periodically with voicemail messages from family members, friends, and strangers, serve “as monuments, beacons of love.” Each booth, designed by New York artist and designer Paige Hanserd in collaboration with the families, is decorated with flowers, Mylar birthday balloons, bodega candles, and snapshots of celebrants.
WORTHLESSSTUDIOS curator Klaudia Ofwona Draber walked Hyperallergic through the interactive space, pointing out that all the dates in the exhibition are birthdays — “There are no deathdates.” A screening room plays Gorjestani’s film series about birthday celebrations for Grant, Castile, and Woods. In the flower shop, visitors can buy blossoms to place at the mural or in phone booths; in the bodega and newsstand, they can purchase drinks, candy, balloons, and birthday cards featuring portraits of the celebrants, which can then be “mailed” in the mail slot on the stoop. At the end of the show, proceeds from all sales will be split among the survivors.
Behind the stoop exterior, a homey living and dining room provide space for families and visitors to relax and process. It’s outfitted with educational resources and personal items like favorite outfits, sports trophies, the dolphin necklace Robinson was wearing when shot, and Hill’s high school graduation cap, decorated with a chain-link border and the words “not a statistic.” Home movies play on a console TV, and 12 photo albums sit on the dining and coffee tables. Marcia Santoni, WORTHLESSSTUDIOS’s new executive director, appreciates how the families entrusted them with artifacts from their children’s bedrooms. “It embodies in such a profound way what it means to be community-based,” she told Hyperallergic, while Gorjestani noted the importance of including living space in the exhibition design: “We’ve imagined streets where it’s safe for Black and Brown people to just be and the living room as a radical act — people need a place to rest.”
Gorjestani’s dream to turn the films and website into a physical exhibition was realized when WORTHLESSSTUDIOS acquired its new space. In keeping with their mission to “go beyond simply installing artwork in public spaces” and to produce public art “rooted in artistic activation, community engagement and education,” they’ve planned film screenings, jazz concerts, stoop sessions, wellness clinics, panels and a closing birthday party on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Much of the programming budget went to flying the families to New York for the Family Weekend. “We wanted it to be uplifting and a place for community to connect,” Neil Hamamoto, founder and artistic director, told Hyperallergic. “They’re such incredible people, and to hear the things they’ve shared has been the most rewarding thing of all.”
Seated in the living room, Rev. Johnson, whom the others refer to as the “mom” of Mothers of the Movement, the community of women whose Black children have been killed by police officers or by gun violence, described the impact of walking into the space for the first time. “It was so emotional,” she told Hyperallergic. Next to her hung a wall telephone with a clipboard of phone numbers to call to leave voicemails for the ongoing archive. (Calls can also be left via the website 1800HappyBirthday.com.)
“When people who didn’t know your child sing him “Happy Birthday,” it’s such a sense of victory, of pride,” she explained. “I can now look at Oscar’s picture with joy in my heart at what was started.”
A side table has been transformed into a mandala of marigolds and crystals by MINKA, who did a somatic session with the families in preparation for the public panels and will be providing healing sessions as part of the ongoing programming. The sounds of family members praying and singing together before the panels floated in the air. One mother listened to voicemails in her son’s phone booth, sobbing quietly. “We have to take this to other states,” Johnson said. “Everyone needs to see that they had families who cared. Success. Trophies. They were human. They deserved their due process.”
Johnson moderated both opening weekend panels, asking survivors to share remembrances. Barbara Doss said her son Dujuan Armstrong, asphyxiated in a Dublin, California jail in 2018, would beg her to cook so he could take food to the unsheltered. Valerie Castile, mother of Philando Castile, shot in 2016 by Minneapolis police in front of his girlfriend and her young daughter, shared that Philando knew the names and allergies of all the kids in the Montessori school cafeteria where he worked and would buy lunch for anyone who needed it. Shante Needham, sister to Sandra Bland, who was found hanged in a Waller County Texas jail 65 hours after a traffic violation, stressed that six other women also died in jail in July 2015.
“Instead of ‘goodbye,’” Eric Garner’s mother Gwen Carr reminisced, “Eric always said ‘share the love.’”
Families also spoke about being thrust into the spotlight and having to turn into detectives, lawyers, and activists. “I don’t want to be here,” one panelist admitted, “but I’m in it for the long haul.” Many have established foundations in their loved ones’ honor. Wayne Lynch, whose son Donovon Lynch was shot in Virginia Beach in March 2021, continues his son’s economic and social justice work. Gwendolyn Woods noted that NFL player Colin Kaepernick was spurred to activism after San Francisco police officers shot her son Mario 20 times in 2015. Others gave updates on their efforts to sponsor legislation, demand transparency and accountability in investigations, and help other grieving families manage the emotional and financial burdens of dealing with the press, police, and courts.
“The victims of police violence have no resources,” a panelist explained. “There’s no assistance for mental health, housing, legal fees.”
Particularly notable is that one-third of the celebrants were slain since the 2020 George Floyd protests. LaToya Benton, wearing sneakers identical to the ones son Xzavier Hill loved, said she was “still processing” losing her only child in January 2021, and expressed the pain every time she says Goochland County, Virginia police shot her son and “folks ask, ‘What did he do?’” Tenicka Shannon shared that three days after her son Fred Cox was fatally shot outside a North Carolina church in November 2020, his grieving father died of a heart attack. The sisters of Sean Monterossa reported that their brother was shot in June 2020 from an unmarked police car on his way home from a Black Lives Matter protest in Vallejo, California. As one panelist noted, “police departments know that in a few weeks, the crowds will dwindle.”
“I want you to leave this place committed to do something,” Rev. Johnson urged the audience, which included George Floyd’s brother, Philonise. Draber recounted how Floyd happened to be in New York and heard about the exhibition.
“He came in and asked if George had a booth,’’ she told Hyperallergic. “We explained that we don’t do a booth unless the family is involved.” He came back for the panels, nodding along to Johnson’s words: “We need some to stand in front of us and others to walk beside us.”