While Black History month plays host to a wide array of events and contributions from historical and cultural academia and activists, it is the work of the artist which can have the most profound impact in both celebrating and lifting up Black lives while inspiring the kind of understanding and healing needed to bridge the chasms that have formed in an increasingly divided America.
One such individual is photo-based mixed media artist and activist Ervin A. Johnson.
The 2016 Dammeyer Fellow and Artist in Residence of The Diane Dammeyer Fellowship in Photographic Arts and Social Issues hosted by Columbia College and Heartland Alliance has recently received national acclaim for his work #InHonor.
This series of astounding and exquisitely detailed portraits of Black faces illuminate the brick walls, underpass columns and once barren spaces in communities such as Englewood on Chicago's South Side and are designed not only to honor Blackness but as a captivating tribute to lives lost through systemic racism and police brutality.
The 29-year-old Johnson, who was born and raised in the Old Town neighborhood of Chicago, told Windy City Times that art initially trickled in and out of his life.
"In college, I focused on writing because that's what I excelled at in High School and I thought that was where my future was," he said. "But, in my senior year, I picked up a camera and it just felt right. I was good at the rest of my artistic endeavors but I didn't feel like I was contributing to them."
Yet it is Johnson's phenomenal talent as an artist and his equally enduring passion as an activist that has also made an indelible contribution to the Black Lives Matter movement.
"Collectively, Black people have always been aware of what's happening," he said. "I've always been aware of what it means to exist in America as a Black, gay man. I think the Black Lives Matter movement was an awakening for the rest of the country."
Johnson added that his art has not only "tried to renegotiate" his identity but "on a greater scale, how the Black body is perceived."
The eyes staring back from the faces of #InHonor inspire those questions in as much as they challenge those who retain their gaze to look deeper.
The work has owes its genesis both to Johnson's fascination with portraiture and, like the Black Lives Matter movement, the 2013 murderous and judicial injustice visited upon Black teenager Trayvon Martin.
"I was finishing up my thesis work in Atlanta," Johnson said. "I would come back to Chicago every summer and I would remember my mother coming into my bedroom during the final days of the Trayvon Martin trial and she just stood at the doorway and started crying. I knew why she was crying. It was because she was afraid for my future. The results of that trial moved me out of my complacency."
Johnson began with a January 2015 social media blast inviting friends to sit for the portraits and to engage in conversation.
"It grew from there," Johnson said. "I only require that participants are African American. Other than that, there are no limits as to who can take part. I photograph the person, print out a large-scale image of them and then I go in renegotiate the ink on the page by removing and adding paint ( photo-based mixed media ). I add a third layer of imagery on top of that."
"I interact with the canvas in a very physical way," Johnson added. "Similar to a Jackson Pollock painting. The entire point with all of my work is that the Black body is very resilient and, despite what happens to it, the Black body still finds a way to press forward."
Despite interacting with a continually growing number of people, Johnson admitted that his Black, gay identity still leaves him with a sense of isolation.
"I can't say that I've come up with a solution for it but I can say that I have come across my own power in figuring out who I am in my work," he said. "I'm more ready for the world."
That readiness involves exhibitions in cities including Atlanta, Chicago and Portland, Oregon.
These exhibitions are not merely showcases but demonstrations of the innate healing power of the artist.
"Art can serve as the vessel for conversations that we don't necessarily want to have about where we are," Johnson said. "Because of our history, the history of the Black body and the aggression towards it, we are less likely to have those conversations but they are absolutely necessary in processing our trauma. I help sort out those feelings and shed a light on those people who don't have the capability to do so themselves. I am optimistic for the future but, with the current administration, I can't say I'm not afraid of where we're headed."