Billboards went up on Indigenous Peoples Day along roadsides across the fifty United States as well as Puerto Rico, Guam, Samoa, and the U.S. Virgin Islands, each with a message. A St. Croix-born artist represented the USVI.
Seventeen states and the District of Columbia observe Indigenous Peoples’ Day or Native American Day rather than Columbus Day on Oct. 12. The timing of the billboard campaign was no accident, coming just prior to the U.S. presidential election and on a holiday celebrating America’s earliest inhabitants.
Driving down Centerline Road in Christiansted, drivers and pedestrians now see a painting printed on an 18 by 24 ft. banner on the side wall of Plaza Extra East. The artwork, an extension of a piece by St. Croix native Mark ‘Feijão’ Milligan II titled “Inocensia Negra,” depicts three dark-skinned children frolicking in the sea and poses the question, “Does Black innocence matter?”
The billboard project is the creation of an artists collective called For Freedoms, and is part of their Awakening campaign, which tips its hat to a historic band of young abolitionists influential in the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860 – the Wide Awakes.
“We co-opt the advertising mechanisms of our political systems; billboards, lawn signs, and town halls. Rather than sharing candidate-based messaging, we share artists-created messages encouraging deep thinking, self-reflection, and discourse,” said taylor brock, For Freedoms’ creative producer.
Organizers asked participating artists to design a billboard, or a banner in the case of the Virgin Islands, that poses a question they consider pertinent now.
They sought out St. Croix artist and independent curator Monica Marin to orchestrate the event in the Virgin Islands, and she then assisted 13 USVI artists with submission proposals to For Freedom. The artists had to rush as they were only given two days lead time.
Marin said she loved all of the local submissions and had hoped for three banners, one for each island. For Freedoms had money for only one; it chose Milligan’s proposal.
Familiar with For Freedoms’ work, Milligan had been tracking the organization’s development and was impressed by its approach.
“Its audience reach is huge, and that’s important when you are trying to affect change,” he said.
Marin and Milligan have known each other since their school days when they both took a workshop with artist Paul Youngblood in his studio.
“Mark Feijão’s political and spiritual work continues a rich tradition of artists from the Virgin Islands who are committed to social justice and who use their artwork as a tool to educate, inspire, and tell the stories of those who have been historically silenced,” Marin said.
She arranged with Epok Signs and Banners to print Milligan’s painting on vinyl and, with help from Nathan Bishop of Crucian Gold and Mary Dema of Christiansted Community Alliance, she scouted for locations to hang the banner. Securing space on the Plaza Extra wall from Mike Yusef along with the use of his Genie work lift, she hired a crew to install the banner between 4 and 8 a.m. on the morning of Oct. 12.
“Mike was fabulous; he even gave my guys a crash course in how to work the Genie,” she said.
The Guardian ran a picture of the banner in its billboard story later that day.
“For Freedoms wanted artwork that would provoke questions and get people thinking,” Marin said. “They don’t want to take one political side or the other; they’re bipartisan.”
The stateside billboards focused largely on core issues that are polarizing the nation but also waking people up, she said. Many made statements against police violence.
“It’s a call to action, using art to get people out to vote. Art has the power to inspire,” Marin said. “I don’t think For Freedoms comprehends that we cannot vote. We are happy to be included, but the project will read differently here in the Virgin Islands than in the U.S. since we don’t have the privilege to vote. This long history of voting disenfranchisement of colonial territories is deeply rooted in racism. Racism and colonialism go hand in hand.”
She said that the territory has its own issues such as the surge in gun violence and the number of innocent young people who have lost their lives in the crossfire. “This may be what resonates more deeply when a Virgin Islander interprets the artwork,” Marin said.
She would like to see more investment in USVI youth – education, training, mentoring, sports, the arts, and after school initiatives that give young people a sense of purpose and can direct them away from violence.
A photograph of black children playing in the water inspired Milligan, who now lives in Hawaii.
“It was very simple but had such a strong representation of joy and innocence and of being free. It’s almost like the concept is baked down to its simplest form, that free-ness,” Milligan said.
He took his two sons, ages 10 and eight, to the ocean near their home on the west side of Oahu and had them pose while he took photos. Back in his studio, following the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery, he painted “Inocensia Negra.”
“For me it was a way to paint with the idea of creating a future that we would all want to live in,” he said.
That his sons could walk into the studio during this time of COVID-19 and ethnic strife and see images of themselves being free and having fun pleased him.
“I think this painting speaks to the global experience. It speaks to the population of St. Croix, it speaks to everyone within the diaspora,” he said.
Milligan has felt a responsibility to effect change since he was a boy. He remembers the moment it occurred to him to use his gift for visual communication responsibly: walking down the street in Whim to the shanty to catch the bus.
As a kid, he saw that there wasn’t an adequate portrayal of the African diaspora within the Caribbean.
“I would see Rastas up at the corner – my family, actually – and everyday folk. But mainstream media didn’t present us as I understood us to be,” he said. “It wasn’t a portrayal with the respect, reverence, love and compassion, softness, trust, and intelligence that I knew embodied my family and our community. It was annoying.”
Milligan’s parents noticed his aptitude for art early on and encouraged him. His father took him into Frederiksted town and sat him down next to renowned Crucian artist Dove while he painted. Later, when Milligan was about twelve and worked as a runner in his father’s law office in Christiansted, his father took him to Maria Henle’s gallery on Company St. and thereafter he popped up to the studio whenever he could. He saw that St. Croix artists could make art their profession.
After he graduated high school, Milligan studied at the School of Visual Arts in New York City and then traveled the globe before settling in Oahu.
Ever an artist, he also works as a digital media specialist for Kamehameha Schools, which aims to “improve the capability and well-being of Hawaiians through education.”
Milligan returns for art shows and to see family on St. Croix when he can. In 2018, when Marin curated his “Black Saints” exhibition at the Caribbean Museum Center for the Arts, he and his wife Nicole brought their sons to the island for the first time. He said they wanted them to be old enough to remember it.
Marin plans to bring Milligan back for a mural project in Frederiksted that will involve children, but she said that’s still on the drawing board.