It’s been eight years since Eric Garner died on Staten Island after a police officer locked him in a lethal chokehold, and his haunting last words, “I can’t breathe,” became a rallying cry for the Black Lives Matter movement.
Garner’s words echoed eerily through the public consciousness once again in 2020 after George Floyd lost his life crying out the same plea under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer.
For visual artist Yashua Klos, the racial reckoning born out of Floyd’s death prompted him to step out of his comfort zone as a printmaker, collagist and sculptor and create a more overtly political reaction to the shared tragic legacy between Floyd’s killing and Garner’s.
The resulting piece, titled Gardener, an art installation and activation commemorating Garner’s life, comes to SF’s Museum of the African Diaspora (MoAD) for the first time on Saturday. A conversation with actor-art collector Michael Ealy follows the activation.
Speaking by phone from New York, Klos observed how this artistic endeavor arrives on the heels of the deadly police shooting of Jayland Walker in Akron, Ohio in late June.
“Unfortunately, in the political terrain we live in, this piece is always relevant,” Klos said. “We know that when we say the name ‘Eric Garner’ there in San Francisco, we're also saying the name Jayland Walker. We're also saying Breonna Taylor, Philando Castile, Sandra Bland, all these names.”
With Gardener, Klos hopes to not only “commemorate all of the fallen, precious sisters and brothers that were slain by the police,” but also be “a tool for healing” and “resisting erasure.”
With the lines of Ross Gay’s poem “A Small Needful Fact” spread across 16 cardboard signs, Klos and local poets will lead audience members in a collective reading of the poem, which imagines Garner’s works as a Parks & Rec employee putting plants into the ground “with his very large hands,” and those plants making oxygen for the world to breathe.
For Klos, the poem not only “sunk into my bones right away,” it also provided a vehicle to bring his art installation, at first purely visual, to life through poetry. After showcases at Fort Greene Park and the Brooklyn Museum, Gardener was first activated with Gay’s poem for a commemoration on Eric Garner’s birthday in 2020 at the Barclays Center. Saturday’s reprise at MoAD is the first collective reading of Gardener outside of New York.
“The words that I was shouting out in protest were very direct demands,” said Klos, recalling his activism at the time. “And when I read the poem, it felt very quiet and very self-reflective…And I think I wondered if those two feelings could inhabit the same space and if there was a way to protest and also commemorate.”
In the end, Klos says, “I hope that people come away from the activation hearing their voice louder than they've heard it before.”
Activation: ‘Gardener’ by Yashua Klos starts at 3 p.m. at the Museum of the African Diaspora (MoAD). Free with museum admission. Visit moadsf.org to learn more.
Christina Campodonico can be reached at [email protected]