The People’s Memorial Project
Street artist leads a guerilla takeover of local memorials
When the Christopher Columbus statue in the North End was removed in June, it sparked an idea in street artist Cedric Douglas. He thought, “What comes next?” In collaboration with Jeff Grantz at ILLUMINUS Boston, Vanessa Till Hooper at Studio HHH, Teresita Cochran and Aram Boghosian, Douglas launched a guerilla-style projection exhibition at the site just before Oct. 12, Indigenous People’s Day. The team projected images of underrepresented Boston community members onto the empty plinth, creating a new, temporary memorial for the modern day.
“This was inspired directly after the removal of statues in Boston and around the United States,” says Douglas. “I thought … How do we celebrate the average person? How do we create a memorial that’s kind of alive?” Douglas reached out to longtime residents of Boston in his network and they voted on local figures to highlight, primarily looking at Black, Latinx and Indigenous figures. The installation ultimately projected the images of eight figures onto the blank statue: Mel King, Elma Lewis, Keith “Guru” Elam, Sonia Chang-Diaz, Frieda Garcia, Chief Massasoit, Crispus Attucks and Jessie “Little Doe” Baird.
Douglas says “The People’s Memorial Project” is the natural evolution of his “Street Memorials” series. In “Street Memorials,” Douglas placed public art markers at the sites of police shootings and provided protesters with strips of caution tape printed with the last words of police violence victims, like “Don’t Shoot,” and “I Can’t Breathe.” He says, “It’s kind of a productive fiction, creating something that doesn’t really exist but having a productive conversation that this could exist. Temporary art is kind of aimed for that.”
He also hopes the new project will spark conversations about who should be celebrated by memorials. It was important to Douglas to feature people who are still living as well as historical figures. Going forward, he’d like to see individual community members who are doing good for their neighborhoods highlighted as well. He is also enthusiastic about the inclusion of hip-hop artist Guru, who hails from Roxbury.
“You would never see a memorial of some of these famous hip-hop artists that have changed the world,” says Douglas. “You would see philosophers or scientists or presidents, but we should start looking to hip-hop figures or people that have done stuff for the community that’s been transformative.”
The People’s Memorial Project begs the question, who decides what’s worth a memorial? And why isn’t it the community members who live in and around that public space?
Douglas would like to launch the projection exhibition at another memorial site, perhaps the site of the “Emancipation Group” memorial in Back Bay when it’s removed. For now, he hopes to get Bostonians thinking about who they would like to see memorialized. He says, “The more people know about this, the more of a chance it has.”