Trust Your Struggle is a fluctuating collective of artists, freedom fighters and social interpreters whose images tell stories as vivid as the medium they inhabit. In April 2013, four members of the group – Cece Carpio, Erin Yoshi, Miguel Perez and Shaun Burner – travelled from Oakland, California to Cornerhouse to produce a new commission for our current exhibition Anguish and Enthusiasm. The piece is a re-creation of their original mural of Oscar Grant lll, a young man who tragically lost his life as a result of excessive police brutality.
In the early morning hours of New Year’s Day 2009, Grant was detained, along with several other passengers, by Bay Area Rapid Transit Police, who were responding to reports of a fight on board a crowded train. Grant, who was unarmed at the time, was lying prostrate on the ground when he was shot dead by police officer Johannes Mehserle. Witnesses recorded footage of the incident and uploaded it to YouTube. The images went viral, sparking an unprecedented response from the Oakland community, the media and commentators worldwide.
Prior to the trial of Mehserle, barricades were erected city-wide in anticipation of riots, should a not-guilty verdict be returned. Amidst rising community tensions, raised in some part by the presence and hype created by the media, a youth radio organisation commissioned Trust Your Struggle to create a simple yet poignant tribute to a life lost.
Oscar’s smiling face surrounded by flowers, sun rays and a halo became an impromptu shrine for the community who left flowers, candles and necklaces in a wordless affirmation of solidarity. “I think it helped in healing people’s feelings” Miguel Perez considers. “The media vans were everywhere so we did a couple of interviews. I was telling them, ‘Really, you guys are the ones promoting all this fear and driving people crazy. We know what happened, this kid lost his life and now you are turning it into a big circus, the fear is your fault!’”
The painted tribute to Grant became a beacon of calm in in Oakland. It has since become a statement that resonates for those who experience social injustice across the world.
“I don’t think we fully recognise the extent to which our work has rippled,” says Cece. “I have friends who come and tell me ‘Oh we saw you guys up somewhere in Eastern Europe’ and I think, we’ve never been there!” Miguel adds, “When we came to Manchester we saw a Trust Your Struggle tag on the street that we know we didn’t do. Those words carry a lot of weight.”
The group admit they were conflicted about the recognition they received after the Grant mural exploded onto the global consciousness. Miguel recounts the criticism of an Oakland resident who told him “You guys are just doing this to get fame because all these cameras are around.” “That stuck in my mind,” Miguel says, “it was not the reason I was doing it.” Erin and Cece agree, “At the time, it felt like it was the right moment and the right thing to do. We’re always being honest with ourselves and the people that we work with on what we produce. There’s never a pretence that we are experts in the field, we make work we love and believe in through telling stories that are important to who we are and what we represent.”
The version of the mural created for Anguish and Enthusiasm is surrounded by a ghostly tapestry of grey faces that are totemic, brooding and universal. They represent the “regular, everyday people who fight and struggle for a more dignified existence and are not covered by the media; the ones who we’ll never know” says Cece.
The collective work on shop fronts, doors, brick work and stone walls in public areas “to activate spaces where community members come together to celebrate and discuss,” Erin explains. “The artwork becomes a talking point to promote dialogue between communities and make them really engage in the topic matter. It is a big hope that we get people thinking or talking.”
Having travelled to work on grassroots projects across America, in Mexico, the Philippines and the UK, the issues that Trust Your Struggle address are localised yet globally relevant. Cece explains “It’s funny that during the time we were painting the original mural everyone recognised who Oscar was. Here, people have guessed Jimi Hendrix and John Travolta! That’s not a bad thing because it starts up a conversation and we’ll explain why we’re painting it. It’s a commemoration to those other Oscar Grants and it reminds us that social injustice is common globally, not just in Oakland. We want to figure out the connecting stories and parallels that give impact for the community we’ll leave a mural to, which in this case is the residents of Manchester.”
Anguish And Enthusiasm continues in the galleries until Sun 18 August.