BREATHE is a new art exhibit curated by Pittsburgh artist Grits Capone and featuring exclusively black artists. It’s on display at Iamb Gallery at City Books through Aug. 24.

By Zach Armstrong

When Eric Garner was pinned down on a New York City sidewalk by police officers for allegedly selling cigarettes, he repeated the words “I can’t breathe” before being pronounced dead. Five years later, black Pittsburgh artists are taking inspiration from that manifestation of police brutality for the art exhibit “BREATHE,” titled after Garner’s last words.

The intent of the exhibit is to offer attendees a glimpse into a reality unplagued by racial disparities and which doesn’t profit from the struggles of communities of
color. City Books will host the exhibition through Aug. 24.

Artists Grits Capone, Caleb Ferguson, AIM$, and C.B. Perry at the BREATHE exhibit opening on June 29 at City Books. The exhibit runs through Aug. 24. Photo courtesy of Grits Capone

Displayed in the exhibit is “FREE THE GUY$,” a piece by Pittsburgh artist Khalil Malik who goes by the acronym AIM$, meaning “Art’s In My Soul.” The sketch depicts Allegheny County Jail on the left while a black man smiling toward the sun is shown on the right. The words “49% of AJ is black” are written on the front of the prison, a reference to the grim statistic that while Allegheny County has a black population of 13%, Allegheny County Jail is 49% black.

“If you have a loved one in the prison system, they’re relying on you to be their spirit,” said AIM$. “Sometimes it’s our obligation as the people on the outside to
continue to tell the stories of loved ones on the inside and remain positive and let people know so that the conversation continues.”

Other artists featured in the exhibit are Caleb Ferguson, C.B. Perry, Allie Rose, Patience Lee and Bekezela Mguni. “Falling Leaves” by Ferguson is a liberation piece showing a bloody hand breaking itself free from a rope, representing the power within black communities to escape struggle.

The painting “Kops” by Perry symbolizes when racism is found in police forces. It illustrates a police officer within the outline of a white hood worn by members of the Ku Klux Klan. Pittsburgh artist and curator Grits Capone, aka Corey Carrington, is the BREATHE exhibit curator. Capone’s career has become an array of artistic pursuits. In addition to art exhibit curation, it includes spoken-word poetry performances and digital collage creation. In 2018, Capone received two grants: one from Advancing Black Arts in Pittsburgh and the other from the Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council, to produce his spoken word album “Watermelanin.”

“Kops” by C.B. Perry is one of several pieces of artwork included in the BREATHE exhibit at Iamb Gallery located within City Books. It’s a symbol of when racism is found in police forces. Photo by Zach Armstrong

Carrington’s pseudonym was inspired by the rap group Wu Tang Clan, whose members have first and last stage names. The first name Grits comes from the food, since it can be prepared in many different ways, and the last name was inspired by the notorious gangster Al Capone. Grits also serves as an acronym for Carrington, which means “Getting rich in today’s society.”

One of the most notable aspects of BREATHE is that it features exclusively black artists. According to Capone, the theme of the exhibit is for “black artists to visualize a world that is free from oppression.”

According to a report by the U.S. Sentencing Commission, black male offenders served sentences that were an average of 12.5% longer than sentences served by white males who committed similar crimes. In the city of Pittsburgh, one-third of black residents live in poverty compared to 15% of white residents and black youths are arrested for violent crime nine times more often—compared to a national rate of four times more often—than white youths.

“I believe the fact that Pittsburgh has taglined itself as America’s most livable city juxtaposes the bleak reality of what black life is like in the city.” said Capone.