Lexington, KY — Searching “BLM art” on RedBubble returns nearly 4,000 results. The same search on Etsy returns over 18,000. Walmart and Amazon sell hundreds of “Black Lives Matter” shirts. As racial justice movements swept the nation this summer, so, too, did T-shirts, posters and products of all kinds declaring support for the Black Lives Matter movement.
However, “many shirts reading Black Lives Matter are actually being sold by large companies that are profiting off the sales of these shirts and don't actually have a desire to create change,” Gabrielle Almeter, 18, said.
Young people across the country have taken a different approach: selling art and donating the proceeds to nonprofits.
This summer “was kind of the era of fake activism and performative activism, and I just wanted to make sure that I was doing something really concrete,” Lark Zabel, 17, said.
Zabel created Mask On PDX, which has donated $2,300 from mask sales to Campaign Zero and Don’t Shoot PDX. She said that she’s seen peers selling nail art, tote bags, and earrings to generate money for nonprofits.
Some of these students pursue art full-time. Nia Musiba, 20, studies graphic design at Portland State University. Although her focus is on murals, she’s donated art to Mask On PDX, as well as organizations like Mutual Aid Alliance Portland and Red House on Mississippi, which work to protect BIPOC individuals and support racial justice.
In many ways, Musiba sees her work as inherently political.
“I focus on just featuring Black and brown bodies, and also featuring them in a beautiful and kind of fun and childish way, because I think that I missed out on seeing myself portrayed that way when I was a kid,” she said. “I think my general goal is not necessarily to even say something, it's just to be seen … When I'm able to literally put Black bodies on walls for the general public to see, it paves the way [to] help other people.”
Donating her art, however, feels unique to her.
“It was really refreshing to make work where I wasn't worrying, like, ‘Am I doing this for the wrong reasons?’” she said.
While Musiba studies art professionally, many of the teens using art for racial justice have less experience.
Almeter, a student at New York University, sold shirts and masks emblazoned with the slogan “Silence is Violence” this summer. Over the course of five days, she made over $2,500 in profit, which she donated to the Black People’s Justice Fund, the American Civil Liberties Union, Fair Fight and the Black Trans Travel Fund.
“It was a lot of physical labor, creating the shirts, which was not something I’d expected,” she said.
Although these young artists vary in experience, they are united by their belief in the power of art to critique injustice.
“There are a lot of very old pieces of art that still make very valid and very relevant critiques about the way that the systems around us work and function,” Staykova said. “Visually, the medium of political art has shifted a lot, but a lot of the issues that it’s tackling are still there in very largely the same form.”
The students also share a sense that selling art is uniquely accessible for young people who may not have the disposable income or free time necessary to engage with movements in other ways.
“During the pandemic, it's hard to know how much you can physically contribute to certain causes, or if you don't have a lot of money, how much you can donate to certain causes,” Musiba said. “But to be able to donate design work--it costs me nothing. And it can really help.”