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In Western New York, “May 14” is shorthand for that horrific day in 2022 when an 18-year-old white supremacist killed ten Black people and injured three in a supermarket on Buffalo’s east side.

In the days following the attack at the Tops Friendly Markets store, located in the heart of the city’s Black community, a makeshift memorial of photographs and flowers grew along the perimeter of the parking lot where the community gathered to mourn. During a visit to the site, Jillian Hanesworth, at the time the city’s poet laureate, wondered: “How do we create art around this?”

Before and After Again, a new exhibition at the Buffalo AKG Art Museum (8 March-30 September), features poetry, paintings and prose made in response to that day by Hanesworth, Julia Bottoms and Tiffany Gaines.

Interviewing survivors

The trio began to work on the project by speaking with the survivors and the victims’ families. They conducted all their interviews together and agreed not to discuss 14 May unless their subjects brought it up. The visits all ended up being emotionally taxing, with most people still needing to talk about what had happened. “It was great to have each other to lean on,” says Gaines.

All their conversations began by asking family members to share their memories of when they had laughed hardest with their loved one. By asking about favourite recipes and hobbies, they encouraged memories of happier moments. From those visits, Bottoms decided she would depict community grief. “I’m interested in what was left behind,” she says. For Bottoms, known for her imposing and sublime portrait paintings, exposing the underlying issues caused by systemic racism also became imperative. She says: “We have to talk about redlining [discriminatory housing practices that include denying mortgages to people of colour]. We have to talk about food insecurity.”

Aaron Ott, the Buffalo AKG’s public art curator and curator of Before and After Again, encouraged Bottoms to pursue her interpretive instincts. The result is a series of symbolically charged still lifes and 13 large-scale portraits.

A recent expansion helps the museum to fulfil its mission to be more inclusive by increasing community engagement and accessibility. Before and After Again, on view in a gallery connected to its newly enclosed courtyard, is free.

Bottoms’s paintings are displayed on two pentagonal totems that are centred diagonally, giving viewers plenty of space to move about. These are atmospheric works that are solemn yet tender. The artist depicts people bestowing loving gestures, being comforted, embraced or cradling objects that carry the spirit of their lost loved ones. Some of the family members of the 14 May victims participated as models.

Ten slightly smaller still lifes hang on the deep blue walls of the gallery interspersed with segments of Gaines’s prose and Hanesworth’s poetry, and three more large portraits. Bottoms packed her still-life paintings with stories. In Blow Out The Candles And Wish For Better (2023), for instance, a birthday cake topped with four colourful number candles refers to the 6,567 single-bias hate crimes reported in 2022, according to the US Department of Justice.

Of all the portraits, only one has the subject looking up. Memento (2023), depicting a young Black man with tattoo sleeves holding a small gold lion statue, is positioned near the exit. Bottoms thinks it may be the last piece many visitors encounter, and the subject’s gaze is meant as a challenge. “It’s like he’s saying, ‘I’ve told my story. Now what are you going to do about it?’”

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