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At the MFA, artist posters call out COVID’s uneven toll

The museum's façade features public awareness posters by contemporary artist Carrie Mae Weems.
The museum's façade features public awareness posters by contemporary artist Carrie Mae Weems.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

A message that was posted Sunday outside the Museum of Fine Arts is blurry yet blunt.

It features a black-and-white photo, taken from contemporary artist Carrie Mae Weems’s 2016 “All the Boys” series, that shows a Black man in a hoodie. His face is out of focus and his eyes shadowy, but he’s clearly looking at the camera. At us. Overlaying the image is bold-face text: “Because of inequity, Black, brown and Native people have been the most impacted by COVID-19! THIS MUST BE CHANGED!!!”

The poster is part of Weems’s “RESIST COVID/ TAKE 6″ project, a new campaign designed to call public awareness to COVID’s disproportionate toll.

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“Inside the MFA, we have bumper stickers, buttons,” said MFA senior photography curator Kristen Gresh via phone last week. “When people take a bumper sticker and put it on their car, they’re distributing the message. We want this to go past the MFA.”

“RESIST” posters, fliers, and digital banners can already be seen at banks, hospitals, and libraries all over Boston. Meanwhile, the campaign is also popping up in conjunction with arts organizations in New York, Detroit, Dallas, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Philadelphia.

“We’re one part of a bigger — global — movement,” added Edward Saywell, chair of the MFA’s Prints and Drawings department.

One of Weems's posters is displayed on the MFA's Huntington Avenue lawn. The campaign is also popping up in conjunction with arts organizations in New York, Detroit, Dallas, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Philadelphia.
One of Weems's posters is displayed on the MFA's Huntington Avenue lawn. The campaign is also popping up in conjunction with arts organizations in New York, Detroit, Dallas, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Philadelphia.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Syracuse-based Weems started working on the project soon after the lockdowns began last year, approaching the MFA with the final product in December. But deciding how, exactly, the museum would take part in Weems’s multi-city campaign took a little time. Gresh, Saywell, and other curators pored over the “RESIST” lookbook, featuring a series of photos and phrases participating institutions could choose to display.

“We ended up choosing a photo from ‘All The Boys,’ because its message is to get the viewer to think about all the deaths at the hands of the police,” Gresh said. “So the poster is really a double message: The systemic violence and racism needs to be changed, and the disproportionate impact of COVID on Black and brown and Indigenous communities needs to be changed.”

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Another poster from the series, this one displayed on the façade of the Linde Family Wing, encourages people to get vaccinated when they get the chance. Over a perfect sky, the text reads: “The Vaccine is our Best Shot Against COVID-19!” Also on the museum’s lawn (and tacked to sign poles around the city) are posters thanking frontline workers and promising a future where we can hold hands again. One offers a message in Spanish: “un poco de distancia hace mucho” (”A little distance means a lot”).

Another sign by Weems, displayed outside at the MFA.
Another sign by Weems, displayed outside at the MFA.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

“This is an integrated whole,” Saywell said of the campaign. “There is a very careful marrying of the image to text that Carrie Mae Weems [cultivates] in each of these pieces.”

The project also provided an opportunity to work with Weems, Gresh added. It pushed the MFA to further its commitment to posters, billboards, murals, and other forms of art that can be viewed from the street. (The museum has commissioned public murals during the pandemic and even welcomed two local muralists as artists-in-residence last summer.)

“This work encourages this incredible collaboration, connection, and reverberation through our city and all of its organizations,” Saywell said. “I think that’s the most powerful thing about public art.”


Natachi Onwuamaegbu can be reached at natachi.onwuamaegbu@globe.com.