Black Outdoor Art is a community art project and social initiative, that uses outdoor advertising as a platform for Black British creativity in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement. The initiative is hosted by London outdoor media agency Brotherhood Media.
We commission, produce and display artworks created by Black British artists, designers and illustrators, around themes of racism, equality, empowerment, and our lived experience here in the UK.
I see Black Outdoor Art as the marketing of antiracism. A poster cannot produce structural change in itself, but it can add to a climate. It can contribute to a version of society as we wish it to be.
Racism as an ideology has been able to endure for centuries, as it has been reinforced throughout society at every level. Through our institutions, through education, through culture. It is a set of ideas that has been aggressively marketed, to remove our very humanity in order to control us, and justify the abuses against us. So undoing that racism must be both structural and ideological also.
The roots of the project go back a decade. As a Black British graphic designer, producing commercial communication design for brands, organisations and agencies for many years, I was often frustrated by marginalisation and the lack of diversity within the creative industry. I had already worked on several socially focused projects for clients in the education, health and charity sectors, and I was interested in the potential of communication design to tackle social issues.
One source of inspiration came via the design publication Design Week. It featured a column called '4 Corners', a regular feature highlighting the historical and contemporary creative contribution of designers from the African diaspora. Written by my friend and fellow creative, the late Jon Daniel, his stellar work introduced me to the work of many Black British creatives, and the kind of professional community I had long sought.
Reading Jon's column, and seeing the kind of impact he created, demonstrated the importance of context in our work as Black creatives. The choices we make about how we work, and whom we work with. That how we make things, and who they are made for, might be more important than what we actually make. I started exploring these themes with self-initiated projects, as a kind of social commentary.
Following the unlawful killing of Eric Garner in 2014, at the hands of a police officer in New York City, I created a typographic poster in tribute, featuring the words 'I can't breathe' eleven times – reportedly Eric's last words. The poster was circulated across social media, and led to more projects in the social impact design space. It allowed me to connect with others on the basis of what I thought, as opposed to merely what I made.
Fast-forward to the unlawful killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis last year, and the ensuing outrage felt throughout the Afro-Caribbean diaspora across the world. Given the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, many brands and organisations felt compelled to stand with the Black community on this issue, both home and abroad. This also created an opportunity for dialogue and introspection: to examine the cognitive bias and structural racism that underpins our very existence in this country.
This led to Brotherhood asking to reprint my Eric Garner poster on one of their billboards, as an act of support and solidarity. Initially I was sceptical about the idea, and entered into lengthy discussions with the media owners (who are white men). I was concerned with the all-too-common virtual-signalling so many were indulging in.
But as I continue to learn, such conversations and dialogue – as challenging as they are – can lead to a deeper, shared understanding. And so our discussions went – frank and honest, sometimes difficult – but ultimately positive.
As a result, instead of just reprinting the Eric Garner poster from 2014 as the agency requested, I designed a new version that connected both Eric and George Floyd, as harrowingly enough, 'I can't breathe' were also George's final words.
Following the impact of that first poster, which essentially went viral, it was clear that using billboards in this way – using an advertising medium as public art – was connecting with people in a profound way.
It also functioned like planting a flag in the ground – attracting allies and collaborators, who connected with the work. After that initial poster, the agency wanted to continue the project, and do more billboards on a semi-regular basis.
But I felt that it would be much more impactful if the project represented dialogue – from the very community it wanted to engage with. So I invited other Black designers, illustrators and creatives to create their own billboards: to express the depth and diversity, of our experience and perspective.
Most of the designers I initially invited were those I had read about in Jon's '4 Corners' column years before. I approached them with the brief, of a campaign born of the idea that Black culture is not monolithic, and that we embody many different cultures, views and perspectives.
As such, I wanted a rich range of styles and approaches on display. No two posters should be alike. And each poster should present its own truth. That might be expressed around a political idea or a simple aesthetic, typographical or illustrative – but it should always connect with our shared experience – it should always remain by the people, and for the people.
Following the first posters, I began to receive submissions from other creatives of colour. Those who saw themselves in the work, and wanted to add their voices to ours. Often I'd work with these artists in shaping and crafting their message. Other times the work comes to me fully formed, and already brilliant in its delivery.
Though the initiative was conceived in response to a harrowing event, it has connected everyone involved through positivity and empathy, facilitating a deeper understanding of the issues we're addressing.
The goal of the initiative was to inspire discussion, activism and change. Though a simple poster campaign cannot produce the structural change necessary to dismantle racism and produce equality, we believe that utilising marketing in this way can make for the fertile ground that may produce such change. In this way, I see marketing as an act of connection.
And we aim to use such marketing, to impact the built environment around us, and reframe how we engage with design and public art in a social context. To shape our own narratives, and build such connections that will allow for empathy, understanding and progression.
But even in doing this campaign, I'm aware that the real impact of creative activism is in systems, processes, and community organising. But art and design can play a part in this process. It can add to an environment where there is a desire to tackle these issues.
We have to channel the awareness and the impact such visual arts have into systemic solutions. Grassroots organising. Challenging the arrangements of our world, at every level of society.
Greg Bunbury, curator and designer of the Black Outdoor Art project