The Kneeling Art Photography Project is a part-social justice, part-art project intended to examine the gesture of taking a knee. Eleven photographers, all residents of Maine, participated in the project, which has taken place over the course of more than one year. The artists include Titi de Baccarat, David Wade, Tim Greenway, John Ripton, Rose Barboza, Ann Tracy, Kelli LK Haines, John Ochira, Aymar Mpouki, Amy Bellezza, and Eniolà Adeoye-Lawal. The project consists of photography exhibitions, a collaborative workshop, two round table discussions on the connection between art and social justice, and the creation of a photography book titled Taking a Knee for Change.
Asked about the genesis of the project, Titi de Baccarat, the artist who envisioned it, said that the goal of the project is to humanize people and to promote solidarity with minority populations that face discrimination and injustice in the U.S., as well as provide a call to action for people to get involved with local and global issues, and become civically engaged.
I had never met Jacqueline before Titi put me in touch with her because she had expressed interest in being a part of the project. Unfortunately the day we agreed upon to take her photo, down at the Berlin Wall Fragment that sits in the Old Port, it was almost sub zero temperatures. We didn’t have time to talk before hand because of the cold, so I just gave her a few directions and came up with this wonderful Iconic portrait of an “every-woman” kneeling to end racism and promote social justice for all. I am so grateful for her participation.
Photo of Jacqueline Rukundo by Ann Tracy
“The idea came to me just after the murder of George Floyd,” said de Baccarat. “One day I was at the mall and I saw a guy take a knee to propose marriage to his girlfriend. I was amazed. In my culture it’s very different; you don’t take a knee to propose. Later, after the assasination of George Floyd, I was at a protest for the first time and I noticed that many people were taking a knee to follow the movement. When I got home I started to think. And bubbling up was a question, an interrogation in my mind and in my soul – this gesture that the American culture uses as a powerful expression of love, how could it also be used as a weapon? We all know that George Floyd was killed when the police officer put his knee on his neck. I couldn’t understand how these images – kneeling for love, kneeling for murder and kneeling for protest – could coexist. And at that time I had no idea who Colin Kaepernick was. So when one of my friends told me about him, I started researching him and what I found was amazing. And that’s when I knew I had to do a project about this gesture.”
I kneel for the minorities who still have no voice here in Maine. I kneel down for those who cry out their mother’s name because they can’t breathe. I have a thought of all the people locked up and all the oppressed people, children separated from their families and locked in cages in Texas. I kneel down for those who have left home to seek refuge here. I take a knee for myself.
Photo of Titi de Baccarate by David Wade
De Baccarat arrived in Maine as an asylum seeker in 2015 after fleeing a hostile political climate in his home country of Gabon. His multimedia work, which includes painting, photography, sculpting, writing, clothing design, and jewelry making, among many other forms, examines his African roots and describes his lived experience as a Black man in America. “I was born into this world with two gifts, and when I moved to America, I came with only those two gifts – the gift of creativity and the gift of imagination,” he said. “I’m not an artist, I am art. A lot of people think art is something outside you, that you need to have a relationship with an object: scrape a piece of wood or paint on a canvas. But even if you have no tools, simply the way you are, the way your hair falls, the way you walk, the way you smile, the energy you have – that is all art.”
Rose Barboza is an artist, entrepreneur, and founder of nonprofit organization Black Owned Maine and Black Owned Maine Media. “The project is looking at what the act of taking a knee means to people around Maine,” she said. “It really shows the diversity of people that live here. It’s always amazing to see Maine in that light since Maine is usually assumed to be very homogenous. The people I photographed varied greatly in age, gender, sexuality, race. And they all had a different take on what the gesture meant, from kneeling because of religion to kneeling during sports. One person I photographed was a suicide survivor and he was kneeling in reverence for those who lost their lives. For me, I think it’s about grounding, it’s about looking at my place on earth and being able to connect myself to it, whether that is commemorating my ancestors or in remembrance of all the pain and suffering that’s been caused in this country to people of color.”
This photograph of Anne Esguerra is representative of the struggles of native Americans and immigrants and the power and strength we have. I am proud to have photographed her and to be a part of the Kneeling Art Photography project.
Photo of Anne Esguerra by Kelli LK Haines
Barboza said she launched Black Owned Maine – initially an online directory of Maine businesses owned by Black people – following the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests, so that people who weren’t able to protest on the street, and who didn’t feel like their voice was being heard, could protest from home using their money to support businesses owned by Black people. Black Owned Maine has since grown to become a comprehensive resource, a community of entrepreneurs, and now offers a number of different programs focused on the empowerment of Black communities in Maine. “Before this project, I’d never considered myself an artist at all,” Barboza said. “But doing this project allowed me to really open my mind to what that really means. A lot of what we did with Black Owned Maine was very creative since we built something that didn’t exist before. So it’s almost like a living, breathing art.”
One of the photographers for the project, Tim Greenway, said, “The meaning of the gesture for me is very layered. I think it carries over the momentum from the protests in 2020 in Portland and around the country. It’s important to keep that momentum going. But this project is also about community-building and collaborating with other artists and photographers with lots of different skill levels. When Titi [de Baccarat] and I talked about selecting people to be photographed, it was very important to have diversity – having people of color, of course, but also many other groups represented.”
Freedom on the Horizon
The horizon in front of Nena is the town of Freedom, Maine in Waldo County, United States of America.
Photo of Nena Burgess by Ẹniọlà Adeoye-Lawal
To Greenway, the role of an artist is to help people see things in a different way. “Each spectator brings their own view, they see art through a different lens. You can’t necessarily control what they see or think. But it’s important to help people see things they weren’t aware of before. And I think art is a great way to get people connected with their emotions and [to] take action. Some people create as an escape or just for themselves, other artists want to create change so they’re very much activists. For me, as I grow as an artist, as I become more confident in my art, I find there are more things I want to say.”
The first roundtable talk, which took place August 13, was “The role of art in the resolution of social conflicts.” The talk was taped by Portland Media Center and broadcast on WCVB-TV5. Ronald Reid served as the moderator, and four panelists engaged in a discussion about the definition of art and how it can be used to support the fight for social justice. The panelists were Tori Lyn, Natasha Mayers, Sarah Gormady, and Desiree Lester.
Mary Allen Lindemann kneels alongside the wood sculptures Mother’s Garden near the Kennedy Field in East Bayside in Portland. TEMPOart commissioned Portland-based artist Daniel Minter to create the sculptures which addresses the cultural traditions and food of the African Diaspora and recent immigrants to Portland.
Photo of Mary Allen Lindemann by Tim Greenway
“It’s important for me to make people understand that everybody has a role to play in terms of dismantling racism and advancing conversations around inclusion and equity,” said Lyn, a community organizer in Portland who also works in government. “In my opinion, art and activism are inherently tied. When you’re creating anything, it’s an expression of who you are and what you care about, and I think that ties back to activism. The two go hand-in-hand, whether or not we acknowledge it. I also think that activism and protesting is one of the most beautiful forms of art. The reason we have the rights that we do is because people have been protesting since before we were all alive. I think it’s the deepest and, in some ways, the most powerful form of art and expression.”
Project organizer de Baccarat agreed, “The role of art is to connect people on the level of emotions, to help them find humanity. We’re all different – we have different educations, backgrounds, places in society. But I’m interested in what we all have in common, and that’s our suffering. Art helps us wake up these emotions so that we can recognize and empathize with the suffering of others. And for this project, I felt like the best way I could connect more people through emotion was by way of photography.”
“I take a knee,
I humbly, silently, spiritually plead
when I have no words.
Joy, pain, loss, gain, beauty, sorrow, others, myself.
The universe knows what I can barely show.
My hands clasp, they pull my questions and ask me to listen.”
Photo of Susan de Grandpre by Amy Bellezza
The second roundtable discussion, “Social justice through the lens of my camera,” was held September 7 at Innovative Media Research and Commercialization Center (IMRC), University of Maine, Orono, and featured project photographers Titi de Baccarat, David Wade, Tim Greenway, John Ripton, Rose Barboza, Ann Tracy, and Kelli LK Haines as speakers. The final photography exhibition closes at IMRC on September 29.