Ahmaud Arbery muralist turns to Brunswick history

Oct 24, 2021
Originally published on October 24, 2021 10:23 am

BRUNSWICK, Ga. — The trial of three white men accused of murdering Ahmaud Arbery has put Brunswick back in the national spotlight. Arbery was the 25-year old Black man shot to death last year while jogging through a neighborhood.

Artist Marvin Weeks memorialized Arbery in a mural that has become a focal point for racial justice advocates in this town on the Georgia coast.

"I think that's very important," Weeks says. "A gathering place, you know, because my work really centers around neighborhoods."

Last Sunday ahead of jury selection about 200 demonstrators chanted "Justice for Ahmaud!" beneath the two-story portrait of Arbery. Weeks painted it on the side of a building that's being re-developed as an African-American cultural center.

Weeks says this is what he'd hoped to see happening around the artwork.

"Because there's always a meeting place — a place to do the call and to talk about the issues that's going on," he says. "I think the mural does that."

The mural is adapted from Arbery's high school graduation picture. He's smiling and dressed in a tux. Weeks painted it on a wall of tabby which is a strong, stucco-like siding made from sand, seashells and lime. The method was brought here by enslaved Africans.

"I thought it was a perfect element to illustrate him in it," Weeks says, noting how the textures give the painting a distinctive feel.

"When you look at it closely, I think you see pathways of different things in there."

An art piece for all of Brunswick

Weeks, who is 67, grew up in Brunswick, in a house not far from here. He left as a young man to pursue his art career in Florida, where he serves on the Miami Arts and Entertainment Council.

But Weeks remains rooted to his home community. And now in the aftermath of Arbery's killing, he's spending more time here. He's planning another art installation on the corner near the Arbery mural.

"This is going to be an art piece for the entire Brunswick," he says. "It shows the history of Brunswick and the African-American history is not disconnected from the general history."

Weeks has set up a makeshift studio inside the cultural center site where he has large plywood cutouts that he's coating with white primer. These will be the base for his design to transform a rusty sign post - left over from a restaurant demolished years ago - into something new.

Marvin Weeks glues oak leaves for his newest body of work.
Liz Baker / NPR

"That'll be like the big bulb of a tree," he says, explaining how vines and branches will incorporate portraits of key figures along with scenery from Brunswick's environment.

"I've gotten some oak tree leaves, and placed them in there," he says. "And oyster shells."

Weeks recalls with fondness growing up among Brunswick's salt marshes and Spanish-moss draped oak trees. He says as a kid he would dig in his yard for shards of pottery and other fragments of history. His mother's green thumb was a major influence.

"My mother was a flower person right here in Brunswick," he says. "She would fix her yards up. We never thought we were poor because it was so rich with so many things that we did. You just go and plant a flower and you'll change that neighborhood."

Finding stories hidden and 'hushed over' for decades

Now Weeks is trying to change Brunswick by broadening the conversation to include stories that have been hidden, or hushed, over decades.

He unfurls a portrait of a Reconstruction era figure he wants to include in the installation.

"I've been researching Tunis Campbell and the legacy he left along the coast that people have kind of hidden and not talked about," says Weeks.

Campbell was a key African-American leader — a state senator and military governor for communities of formerly enslaved people on Georgia's Sea Islands. Former slave holders eventually ran them off the land.

Weeks says not acknowledging all that has happened here allows history to repeat itself. And that's how he sees Ahmaud Arbery's killing, a tragedy that was little known when it happened in February 2020.

A pickup truck was the enemy

It wasn't until months later, when graphic cell phone video was leaked, that Arbery became another name to call in the movement for racial justice.

The video shows three white men chasing Arbery with pickup trucks as he is running through a neighborhood on the outskirts of town. When he's cornered, Arbery fights back and is killed by three shotgun blasts.

Mural of Ahmaud Arbery.
Nicole Buchanan for NPR

Weeks says he couldn't help but think about his childhood, when he and friends would cut through alleyways in white neighborhoods.

"A pickup truck was the enemy," he recalls.

He described that as Black children would be walking to the store or the park, white people would pass them riding in the back of pickup trucks.

"And holler at you and throw something. Everyone my age could tell you that was the fear when you saw a pickup truck coming."

Weeks says he thinks a racial divide persists because people haven't been honest about their shared history and interconnectedness.

"Everybody's saying 'be quiet, calm down, the outsiders are coming in,' as if somebody is coming in to tell this story, as if there's something to hide," Weeks says.

"I think we're continuing that old 'everything is alright, show everyone from the outside everything is okay.' It hasn't been okay."

Weeks says it won't be okay until people can acknowledge that Brunswick belongs to all of its citizens no matter their race.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

ASMA KHALID, HOST:

Brunswick, Ga., is back in the national spotlight as a trial begins there for three white men accused of murdering Ahmaud Arbery. He's the 25-year-old Black man shot to death last year while jogging. A mural memorializing Arbery has become a focal point for racial justice advocates. Now its creator is working to expand the conversation. NPR's Debbie Elliott has more.

(AIRHORN BLARING)

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: The start of the trial brought people to the streets of Brunswick.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing) Whose side are you on?

ELLIOTT: Last Sunday, the day before jury selection began, some 200 marchers ended their procession on a corner where Marvin Weeks has painted a two-story portrait of Ahmaud Arbery. It's on the side of a building that's being redeveloped as an African American cultural center.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: Justice for Ahmaud.

ELLIOTT: The crowd stayed for an outdoor barbecue sponsored by an equal justice group. Weeks says this is what he'd hoped to see happening around the artwork.

MARVIN WEEKS: I think that's very important - a gathering place, you know? Because my work really centered around neighborhoods because there's always a meeting place, a place to do the call and to talk about the issues that's going on. So, yes, I think the mural does that.

ELLIOTT: The mural is adapted from Arbery's high school graduation picture. He's smiling in a tux. Weeks painted it on a wall of tabby, the method brought by enslaved Africans that uses sand, seashells and lime to form a strong, stucco-like siding.

WEEKS: And it gave it a different whole concept with the different textures to it. And when you look at it closely, I think you see pathways of different things and still - so I thought it was a perfect element to illustrate him in.

ELLIOTT: Weeks, who is 67, grew up in Brunswick in a house not far from here. He left as a young man to pursue his art career in Miami but has remained rooted in his home community. And now in the aftermath of Arbery's killing, he's spending more time here. He's planning another art installation on this corner.

WEEKS: Yeah, check by and see what I'm doing, see the progress because it's going to be an art peace for the entire Brunswick to bring the community together.

ELLIOTT: So we did check back in two days later, after the barbecue was over and demonstrators had moved their lawn chairs to the front of the courthouse for the opening of jury selection.

WEEKS: Beautiful, fall-like days - it's perfect for producing art.

ELLIOTT: Weeks is coating large plywood cutouts with white primer.

WEEKS: It's kind of rough, but it's going to - by the time I paint over it and bring it to completion, it'll be something.

ELLIOTT: These will be the base for his plan to transform a rusty signpost left over from a restaurant demolished years ago into something new.

WEEKS: So that's going be, like, going up, and you'll see, like, a big bubble of a tree - is how I'm trying to do that installation. And to me, that's the budding of some plant, and that's my vision. Yeah.

ELLIOTT: Weeks incorporates elements of the natural world into his work.

WEEKS: I've got some old tree leaves in there, then I picked these recently from Brunswick. And I'm placing them...

ELLIOTT: And the oyster shells.

WEEKS: And oyster shells, right.

ELLIOTT: Weeks recalls with fondness growing up among Brunswick's salt marshes and Spanish-moss-draped oak trees and digging in his yard for shards of pottery and other fragments of history. He says he was influenced by his mother's green thumb.

WEEKS: My mother - I got the urge from her to change a neighborhood. You just go, and you plant a flower, and you'll change that neighborhood.

ELLIOTT: Now Weeks is trying to change Brunswick by broadening the conversation to include stories that have been hidden or hushed over decades.

WEEKS: It's a print from the Tunis Campbell that I've done. That's Tunis Campbell.

ELLIOTT: He unfurls a portrait of Tunis Campbell, a Reconstruction-era figure he wants to include in the installation.

WEEKS: And the legacy he left along the coast that people have kind of hidden and not talked about.

ELLIOTT: Campbell was a key African American leader, a military governor for communities of formerly enslaved people on Georgia's Sea Islands. Former slave holders eventually ran them off the land. Weeks says not acknowledging all that has happened here allows history to repeat itself. And that's how he sees Ahmaud Arbery's killing - a tragedy that was little known when it happened in February 2020. It wasn't until months later when graphic cell phone video was leaked that Arbery became another name to call in the movement for racial justice. The video shows three white men chasing Arbery with pickup trucks as he's running through a neighborhood on the outskirts of town. When he's cornered, Arbery fights back and is killed by three shotgun blasts. Weeks says he couldn't help but think about his childhood when he and friends would cut through alleyways in white neighborhoods.

WEEKS: A pickup truck was the enemy. Yeah, you would be - you would walk to a store, and people would pass you in the back of the trucks, and they'll holler at you and throw something and say words, yeah. That was a common thing, yeah. So every person my age and down could tell you that was the fear - you see a pickup truck coming.

ELLIOTT: So when you all saw this video, every man your age in Brunswick, Ga...

WEEKS: Knew. You attribute that - my brothers talk about it now, we attribute that - that that was - you know, you know what that was.

ELLIOTT: Weeks takes his painted panels outside. They're blindingly white on the lawn in front of the Arbery mural.

WEEKS: Yeah, I'm just going to put them in the sun to dry.

ELLIOTT: Next, he will hot glue leaves to the panels, then start painting on the detailed portraits and scenery from Brunswick's environment. Weeks says he thinks a racial divide persists because people haven't been honest about their shared history and interconnectedness.

WEEKS: Everybody's saying, be quiet. Calm down. The outsiders are coming in, as if there's something to hide. And so I think we are continuing that old - everything is all right. Show everybody from the outside coming in it's OK. It haven't been OK.

ELLIOTT: Weeks says it won't be OK until people can acknowledge that Brunswick belongs to all of its citizens, no matter their race. Debbie Elliott, NPR News, Brunswick, Ga.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONOPHONICS' "TRIP TO THE STIX") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.