How a South L.A. gallery is turning Black Lives Matter protest signs into art

Brenda Thompson, Peggy Sivert, and Tatum Hawkins, stand beneath protest signs at SoLA Contemporary
Brenda Thompson, Peggy Sivert and Tatum Hawkins of SoLA Contemporary stand amid an installation of protest signs. (Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

Black Lives Matter protests continue around the country, making familiar the myriad signs that people hold up: "Justice for George Floyd." "No Justice, No Peace." "8:46," the last a reference to the amount of time a police officer held a knee to Floyd's neck in Minneapolis.

Peggy Sivert and Tatum Hawkins, who run SoLA Contemporary, see art in these simple, yet direct, missives. So they have gathered dozens of protest signs and installed them in their storefront gallery space in a way that feels as if you have stumbled into a demonstration that's been frozen in space and in time.

Suspended from the ceiling are bright pieces of poster board and scraps of cardboard emblazoned with slogans such as "Defund the Police," "All Black Lives Matter" and "Reparations Now." Throughout the gallery, sounds of protest echo through speakers. It is the audio component of a video work titled "Watch Me Rise Up," created by Giovanni Solis, Eren Cannata and Phil America, that melodically mashes up footage from Los Angeles protests.


On the floor lay more signs, awaiting installation, along with several large black-and-white prints by photographer Adrian White that artfully chronicle the protests that have taken place around L.A. These will go in the window of the gallery — which faces busy Slauson Avenue — available for viewing at any time of day or night.

Photographer Adrian White holds a photograph of a protest at SoLA Contemporary.
Adrian White displays one of his protest images at SoLA Contemporary. The photographer has been documenting Black Lives Matter protests around the city. (Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

The exhibition, titled "Protest in Place," opening Thursday, is a way for the community art space to acknowledge the political moment. And its installation is designed so that visitors can choose to immerse themselves in the work, or simply view it from the street — a nod to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Since the gallery is also a retail space, it can remain open despite Gov. Gavin Newsom's order Wednesday that forced many venues, including museums, to shut down again. SoLA has strict safety protocols, including a mask requirement and limits on the number of people who can enter at any one time.

"We started doing window exhibitions during the lockdown," says Sivert, SoLA's founder and executive director. "We've shown various local artists. We've shown the art of children."

"Each square in the window is like a gallery," adds director Hawkins. "We wanted to activate the space so you could always see something from outside."

Located on the southern fringes of View Park-Windsor Hills, SoLA Contemporary is a not-for-profit art space that for three years has served the needs of this historically Black Los Angeles neighborhood. In addition to regular exhibitions, the gallery hosts free art-making workshops, including some geared specifically to homeless people in transition. (These are held in partnership with the advocacy group Gettlove.)

SoLA also provides a small studio space to an artist in residence — currently, sculptor and painter Sharon Louise Barnes. And it hosts regular open mikes for local youth on the first Friday of every month.

"It's poetry, it's music," says SoLA board member Brenda Thompson, a neighborhood resident whose son, Zion Payne, hosts the events. "They can say whatever they want to say. They can express what they are feeling."

Since the pandemic began, the open mikes have gone online, accessible via the gallery's Instagram page, @solacontemporary. (The next one will be held Friday evening.)

Protests signs and posters from Black Lives Matter marches are suspended from the ceiling at SoLA Contemporary.
SoLA Contemporary did an open call for signs from Black Lives Matter protests for its new exhibition, which also features original art. (Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

"Protest in Place" is likewise a community effort.

The dozens of signs featured in the exhibition were accumulated via open calls on social media. These are mixed with original posters by area artists, along with a series of pillowy sculptures by Carmen Mardonez that feature phrases such as "Your Blind Spot" and "Your Privilege" sewn into the fabric.

The show also serves as a way of taking stock of the moment — visually and otherwise.

White, a professor of photography at California Baptist University in Riverside, has been chronicling many of the marches around Los Angeles since they began in May.

"We live in this time when as a Black man, you have to worry about getting killed by the pandemic or getting killed by police," he says. "So I made a decision that the protests are more important."

He then set about documenting the protests, a process he has found energizing. "I was surprised that first day by the unity between everybody," he says. "The different races, even when things were violent."

White, who is originally from North Carolina and is now based in Inglewood, has taken hundreds of pictures — "enough to make a book," he says. He is also at work on a solo show that will debut at SoLA in late August, focused on family and ancestry.

But for now he is focused on the protests — most recently, photographing a socially distant action in West Hollywood.

"Untitled," 2020, by Adrian White, shows protesters at a Black Lives Matter rally.
"Untitled," 2020, by Adrian White, shows organizer Mokeka Broughton leading a group in a chant at a Black Lives Matter rally. (Adrian White)

Hawkins says that White's protest photos will be shown in the windows, because they encapsulate the energy of the moment.

She points at an image of a woman leading a group in chant as protesters bear signs overhead — echoing the installation in the gallery.

"This," she explains, "says it all."