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An Interview with Artist Tijay Mohammed

    Tijay Mohammed poses in his design, a part of the Black Lives Matter mural installed in Lower Manhattan. Photo by Cultural Affairs. 
    An Interview with Artist Tijay Mohammed

    Tijay Mohammed started as Materials for the Arts’ Artist-in-Residence in March 2020, just two weeks before the start of quarantine. Since then, he has continued his residency with MFTA while also participating in virtual public programming and art making that engages the ongoing protest movement, including being tapped by Cultural Affairs’s Percent for Art team to help design the Black Lives Matter mural on Centre Street in Lower Manhattan. What follows is a condensed and edited conversation with Mohammed, conducted on a video call from his Bronx apartment (and makeshift art studio).How have you continued working in the last few months, and how do you see these circumstances reflected in your work? 
    As I was telling a few of my students in Ghana, it is important to take advantage of every situation. The studio is not very active in Ghana right now. So I was telling them this is a time you can spend more time on the notes, on the sketches you’ve made in your old books, which is what I do to connect with my old ideas. Some books I’ve written in for two years, most of them are from when I moved to the US in 2013. This time is giving me more room to revisit all of that. So sometimes it slows you down, but conceptually, it has rather accelerated my process. But this idea of working from home is something I’ve already done in Ghana. I work in the bedroom, the living room area, I set up different studios in my house all the time. But this is the largest studio I’ve made in my own home.
    You designed the word “black” in the Black Lives Matter street mural in Lower Manhattan, one of several being created around the city. What inspired you to get involved in this project?
    I thought this would be a good idea to add my prayer to what is happening, happened, and, in part what I’ve always seen. Looking at what is happening now has its own influence in my heart. It’s making me think about it more. When I did Laundromat Project [artist residency], that time was like a learning process of this system. [Cultural Affairs Commissioner Gonzalo Casals] led a workshop that had to do with policy and then we were taking another class on structural racism in art. Around the same time, I had just moved to the Bronx from Staten Island, where Eric Garner got killed—around the same place I used to work all of the time. So I kept thinking about what my contribution could be and what it means to be Black, especially in this part of the world.Three people wearing white tshirts are bent over a street mural. Two of them wear read baseball caps backwards. In the background, the sun hits the facade of a courthouse with huge, stately marble columns. People in the background are working on other letters in the street mural, too. Artists affiliated with the TATS Cru collective paint Sophia Dawson‘s design for the word “lives.”  Photo by Cultural Affairs. What do you want people to take away from your part of the mural design?
    It is very colorful. I’m using color and also some symbols that are already familiar. I’m incorporating these symbols which have also a 400-year history in Africa. I was very fortunate to design the word “black.” When people see it, I want them to take a second thought of what this means. The same way when you see a Black man or somebody who is a minority, you shouldn’t jump to a conclusion. Also, the letter “A” in my artwork talks about so many things in relationship to Black joy. Love also goes with the colors I’ve been using. It’s not only about Blackness, but also addressing the issues of the LGBTQ community. It’s also about everybody who is, who has been marginal, everybody who is not living how they’re supposed to live. It was built to commemorate and be in conversation with the African Burial Ground that’s just a block away. There is an element of paying homage to the ancestors that have passed. You have led recent public programs with Materials for the Arts and Weeksville Heritage Center. What kind of advice do you have for artists and educators working now?
    We should talk about issues—current issues—in our classes. Everybody sees what is happening, but may not know how to give voice to it. Some people see it as you have to only come out to protest. But there are a lot of artists also working in different mediums addressing the same issues. So if we make our practice in the studio similar to what we incorporate into the class or workshop, it would help the students to understand various dimensions of how to relate with current issues.
    This is from personal experience in the Bronx, when I was doing my workshop as part of the residency…the contributions of these kids looked different from what we were discussing, only because the form of art they were doing in school eliminated the conversation and the historical aspects of it. [They’re also] understanding that you can do a lot of art that doesn’t look like Tijay, because I’m inviting other artists to show their form of art and how they’re responding to the same issues. So by the end I had a lot of kids that came up and said they wanted to do art but they were scared to draw. But now they can write. They understand how important it is to communicate in their own ways. So by seeing this artist’s work in another medium, it encouraged them to do it.An aerial view of the Black Lives Matter mural while it was in progress. A bushy bunch of trees is clustered on the top right of the frame. Geometric forms in the center of the frame mark where a fountain in Foley Square is surrounded by lines radiating out from it. The words reading "Black Lives Matter" follow the slight bend in the road just below the fountain, and buildings frame the lower and upper left portions of the shot.Photo by Nightnurse. The 600-foot Black Lives Matter mural on Centre Street was conceived by a partnership with Black Lives Matter of Greater NY and Manhattan Borough President Gale A. Brewer with the support of a group of downtown architects. NYC Department of Cultural Affairs’ Percent for Art program assisted with artist selection. It was been designed by artists Sophia Dawson, Tijay Mohammed, Patrice Payne and architect Jhordan Channer and is being realized by muralist collective TATS CRU and Thrive Collective, a youth arts nonprofit. The stretch of road with the mural will be closed to traffic through mid-July, and the street will be co-named Black Lives Matter Boulevard in a ceremony later this week.

    Read more about the project in Untapped New York, and see photos of the completed mural here