The art on the billboard overlooking Boxtown is mesmerizing and menacing: a little black girl holds a melting SpongeBob SquarePants Popsicle in an outstretched hand as a smoky and burning refinery and landfill looms around. she.
Georgia-based artist and entrepreneur Najee Dorsey took out the ad space just over a month ago to draw attention to what he sees as an environmental injustice happening in the region. It was inspired by a Vice News documentary about black landowners in southwest Memphis and their fight against the Byhalia Connection pipeline.
âThis work shows how we live at the sight of a lot of these corporate brownfields and refineries and things that impact our health, typically in poor communities and communities of color,â Dorsey said in a video explaining work. âEvery day we live in an environment where business and corporate greed build these buildings and facilities without giving too much thought or caring about how it affects the communities that surround these facilities. “
Learn more about the Byhalia Connection Pipeline and stay up to date with the latest news by following all of our coverage here.
The 2019 photomontage, “Ice Cream Melting,” is part of a series that Dorsey has dubbed the “Campaign of the Poor,” as a tribute to Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.’s latest move. The series is unrelated to the reboot movement, Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival.
The billboard – the first in a series of similar projects nationwide – is located on I-55 and West Mallory Avenue near Valero. âAs close as I could get it,â Dorsey said.
Dorsey wanted to give a visual representation of environmental injustice to âthe epicenter,â he said.
âValero is right there, right across the highway from the neighborhoods. This is the very neighborhood they were trying to take land with with a prominent domain. It’s kind of like the scene of the crime, (near) the perpetrator, so I wanted it to be as close to there as possible.
The proposed route of the Byhalia Connection pipeline crosses several areas of Black Memphis, including Westwood, Whitehaven and Boxtown. The project was announced by Byhalia Pipeline – a joint venture of Plains All American Pipeline and Valero Energy Corporation, based in Texas – in 2019 and would connect the Valero Memphis refinery to a Valero facility in Marshall County, Mississippi.
Opponents argue that the project is an example of environmental racism as it traverses black neighborhoods already overloaded with pollution and with little economic power to combat it. The company also sued landowners who refused to sell them easements.
In February, torches from the Valero Memphis refinery lit the sky, releasing excess gas and spraying unburned oil into Nonconnah Creek. The company has self-reported a release of small amounts of sulfur dioxide and hydrogen sulfide – both toxic – to the National Response Center, which notified the Tennessee Department of Environment & Conservation. The company attributed the cause of the incident to the cold temperatures.
Downtown residents took videos of the flares and posted them online.
Gas flaring is a common practice where refineries burn excess gas for operational, safety or economic reasons. But the practice is seen as a major environmental problem and a contributor to the greenhouse effect and global warming, according to a 2015 study from Stanford University.
Dorsey grew up about an hour’s drive from Memphis to Blytheville, Arkansas and founded the arts company Black Art in America. He said he was familiar with the refinery because years ago he worked at an equipment rental company near the billboard and on President’s Island.
âSo when I saw what was going on, it immediately hit me,â Dorsey said.
Dorsey paid in late May to have the art on display for a month, he said. But the art will stay until a new buyer comes in with a different ad.
For Dorsey, the billboard is a signal to the community and elected officials. Next week, Memphis City Council and a committee of the Shelby County Commissioners Council will review orders that could shut down the pipeline.
âWe have people who care about what is going on, despite any neglect that (the community) may experience from businesses or municipal governments,â Dorsey said.
Dorsey hopes national attention keeps the pressure on local governments to side with the community in the fight, “knowing that someone is looking over their shoulder, besides the people fighting there. -low in the community, âhe said.
Amplifying and visualizing important issues is only art’s role in movements for justice, said Mikhaila Markham, an artist from Memphis who has illustrated issues with the Byhalia pipeline for months.
âIt tells a story that I think a lot of people understand to be true but have never seen it before,â Markham said. (Dorsey’s plays) represent things that are happening right now. I think it’s really shocking for everyone, especially for those who haven’t personally experienced racism or environmental racism. “
Markham’s illustrations caught the attention of Justin Timberlake, who shared his work in April with his 60 million Instagram followers.
Additionally, Dorsey wants to pay tribute and encourage communities in southwest Memphis to fight the pipeline.
âWe have to recognize the community. A lot of times it’s a small group of people who make these kinds of sacrifices of time, energy and effort to make things happen, âDorsey said. “I want them to know that we stand in solidarity with them.”
The solidarity was felt by Kathy Robinson, co-founder of Memphis Community Against the Pipeline. In the picture, she saw herself.
âIt reminded me of playing at my great-grandmother’s house on Green Road. It was also the context we had when we grew up in southwest Memphis, âsaid Robinson. “At one point, I was that little girl, playing with all these toxins and poisons in the background, an innocent child.”
Robinson hopes that someone or an organization will buy the ad space to preserve the art and its message.
âI think it says a lot if someone can put their own personal money in,â Robinson said. âWe have organizations that receive funds to send out these kinds of messages, so why not pick up the torch and carry it? “
Carrington J. Tatum is a member of the body of Report for America, a national service program that places reporters in local newsrooms. Email him at [email protected]
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