Parkland 17, an art exhibition dedicated to the 17 young people killed during the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, on February 14, was on view for just one weekend. It filled a space in Wynwood during the neighborhood’s monthly Art Walk event.
The show, which primarily features work by local artist Evan Pestaina, was backed and dedicated by the basketball player Dwyane Wade, who just returned to the Miami Heat after a stint with the Cleveland Cavaliers. It was organized by Calyann Barnett, his stylist, as well as Lisa Joseph Metelus, his manager: a team of women and the beloved shooting guard who lent Dade County, Florida the nickname “Wade County.”
Wade has offered unwavering compassion and support to the teen activists calling for gun reform. One of the children killed in the attack, 17-year-old Joaquin Oliver, had just been granted U.S. citizenship and was a massive Wade fan; he was buried in his jersey. In response, Wade dedicated the remainder of the season to Oliver, writing his name on his shoes and visiting the high school on the students’ first day back. (He and his wife, Gabrielle Union, recently raised $200,000 to get Chicago high school kids to March for Our Lives, the upcoming demonstration organized by the Never Again activists.)
Webber Charles, a local educator and youth advocate who supplied materials for the show, told Hyperallergic that “when Calyann called me about the exhibition, she said it was a ‘call to action.’ I didn’t yet have any idea what it would look like.”
In a stark space aglow with eerie red light, filled with 17 empty desks (provided by Charles), a black-and-white mural of Joaquin Oliver’s face stared at visitors, his gaze gentle. Last Saturday, his father, Manuel Oliver, hammered into the empty drywall, placing a flower in the holes, one for every victim, below his son’s face. Then he painted “WE DEMAND A CHANGE.” In a widely circulating video, you can hear the shortness of his breath, see the heavy, shaking abruptness with which he makes each stroke. “The whole physicality of it was like one giant scream — this unwavering, understandable anger,” said Charles.
On another wall are 96 crudely-drawn tally marks. On average, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 96 Americans die every day from gun violence. It’s a statistic repeated elsewhere in the exhibition, on wallpaper designed by Pestaina that contained information on how many women are killed from gun violence, and how the US compares to other countries. Visitors who followed the scroll of text were led to a phone booth (courtesy of the Ring Your Rep project by The Standard) that offered a direct line to Congress, along with a script from Citizens United demanding change. Barnett told Hyperallergic that the phone booth was significant to her. “I was inspired by how the survivors of Parkland have been able to galvanize a nation,” she said. “They refuse to be victims and are demanding that their voices be heard. I wanted to create a space where everyone’s voice could be heard.”
The most bone-chilling component of Parkland 17, though, were the rows of empty desks, each adorned with a placard of a student’s name, the tally marks behind them rendering it a severe, lonely scene. “When students saw the name of the person they were connected to,” explained Charles, “they’d sit at or surround the desk. One girl sat in the chair, put her head on the desk, and stayed there, while her friends watched her mourn. It was almost as if she connected to the spirit.”
Students, relatives, and the tragedy’s first responders all stopped by. Contemporary art in honor of a tragedy is challenging to present, especially right after the event itself — it’s always less a reflection than a catharsis, more part of an ongoing conversation than a critical examination. But that’s not always the point: sometimes the work asks for change to prevent the tragedy’s occurrence, or provides a space to continue healing from it. Parkland 17 did both, asking for visitors to become political activists themselves, creating space for the parents and survivors to commemorate the slain. “These kids still really need this space,” said Charles. “A space for the community to mourn, bereave, and grieve together — and also open up dialogue.”
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