Above Photo: Eric J. Shelton, Mississippi Today/Report For America. Krystal “Gem” Jackson stops painting to wave at children as they pass during Mural Fest in Jackson, Miss., Wednesday, April 17, 2019.
Empty spray paint cans lie on the pavement, paint rollers and brushes with vibrant colors resting at his feet, Kwame Braxton, a 29-year-old artist and Jackson native, takes a moment to look at his nearly completed mural. Wearing paint splattered clothes, Braxton analyzes his approach in appropriately conveying the meaning of his piece.
“What is inside of you, you can create, and what you create is also inside of you,” Braxton said of his piece covering part of the Center for Community Production building near downtown Jackson.
Braxton is one of six artists the nonprofit Cooperation Jackson commissioned to create murals during the organization’s first Mural Fest held recently. The event has a mission to inspire the city of Jackson with art in hopes of creating community change and encouraging more art appreciation.
Artists from Jackson, Nashville and Chicago were chosen from a large number of applicants to paint murals depicting images of Afrofuturism and Native people on Cooperation Jackson-owned buildings. The idea of Mural Fest is to illustrate positive images and help beautify the city.
“People are seeing something different in an area that isn’t necessarily the best part of town,” Cooperation Jackson member Shamb’e Jones said.
Mural Fest’s mission aims to use the images and concepts present in the artist’s work as an alternative solution to issues in the city, which is experiencing record numbers of homicides and has long battled blight in some neighborhoods.
“One of the reasons why we are doing this art is to instill the next generation a message of ‘You don’t necessarily have to be a product of your environment,’” Braxton said. “Just because you see all kinds of negative things around you, and you come from this neighborhood, doesn’t mean that you have to be that. That is why we are doing Afrofuturism. The futurism part is the children coming in and seeing what they can do.”
In addition to images representing Afrofuturism and Native people, some of the murals address environmental justice, gender equity and other themes.
In Krystal “Gem” Jackson’s piece, she asks the question: What does the absence of gender barrier look like in the future? Her answer: “To me, that’s being able to be gender non-conformant, non-binary and still be OK, still be black, and still be in all the intersectional spaces that you have to exist in while being around like-minded people that can keep you safe.”
These pieces can be seen between West Monument and Capitol Streets in Jackson. The bright colors highlight life, awareness and thought to an area that is home to family residences, businesses, a homeless shelter, vacant lots and potholes.
The murals are designed to juxtapose to the environment in which they appear and inspire Barr Elementary students and other residents.
Cooperation Jackson, whose mission is to “advance the development of economic democracy in Jackson by building a solidarity economy anchored by a network of cooperatives and other types of worker owned and democratically self-managed enterprises,” plans to hold Mural Fest every year.
“We will be doing this more in the future,” Shamb’e Jones said. “We want to encourage the art and the artists.”