The mostly empty lot at 754 Congress St., formerly a Gulf gas station, was slated for hotel construction just before the coronavirus pandemic. Now it serves as a temporary public art installation addressing racial injustice toward Blacks.
The installation, “Counting from Thirteen,” was organized through the Indigo Arts Alliance, a Portland nonprofit that supports artistic communities among people of color. It was created by co-founder Daniel Minter, and local artists Ryan Adams and Titi de Baccarat.
“We wanted to reiterate the connection that all of the police brutality against Black people has a start in history in this country. It has a start when the state began to sanction it,” Minter explained while finishing up the installation on July 16. “It was after emancipation, after the 13th Amendment.”
Thirteen gray boxes line the length of the building facade, signifying bodies that have fallen to racism since the passage of the 13th Amendment.
“These people don’t have names, there are so many,” Minter said. “We can’t name them all but we know that they exist. We know that they existed, and we know what happened to them.”
The property was purchased in May 2020 for safekeeping and future hotel development by the Francis Hotel, located across the street, according to co-owner Tony DeLois.
“We boarded up the storefront and by the time the paint dried, George Floyd was murdered,” DeLois said in a phone interview last week. “The first piece of work (on the boarded wall) ended up being some chalk art, and as soon as rain came, it would be destroyed.”
At the time, the chalk echoed chants and phrases familiar from recent protests – “No justice, no peace,” “ACAB,” “8 minutes to die,” and “I can’t breathe.”
“I am a hotel owner and developer and know that I have a big Scarlet Letter on my head,” DeLois said. “But I am a local business owner, no different than any small business here, and I’m trying to create and be a better community member.”
Within two weeks, while hotel development is on hold, the former gas station became a perfect canvas for the Indigo Arts Alliance to conceptualize and install a piece in conversation with the Black Lives Matter movement.
The project is a collaboration between Indigo Arts, the Francis, and nearby Tandem Coffee, which began fundraising and donating proceeds to the alliance for the project.
“We were looking for an installation that would catch people’s eye, but only give them any understanding if they look further into it,” Minter said. “And you don’t have to look far. Open your phone. Look at the news. It’s all connected.”
Just below the 13 gray boxes, a mural painted by Adams reveals a line of poetry, hidden within geometric shapes of grayscale.
When asked what it says, Minter encourages viewers to stare at the wall and discover its meaning on their own, or to read the nearby artist statement.
The abstract message reads, “The rope they bear is long,” a line from Paul Laurence Dunbar’s “The Haunted Oak.” The poem, which is written from the perspective of an oak tree, depicts a lynching of an innocent man.
“The police take it upon themselves to question every Black person that they see and basically just associated Blackness with criminality in order to control, terrorize, institutionalize,” Minter said. “That’s when the prison systems began to fill up. It’s not just a coincidence.”
On the other side of the lot, between 754 Congress and the Tandem Coffee property, the former gas station sign has been replaced by a black figure constructed by de Baccarat entirely of found objects.
The sculpture, titled “The Art of Dying on Your Knee and Rising from the Dead on Your Feet,” depicts a figure on one knee with a fist raised in the air. The figure is wearing a Black Lives Matter shirt, and accompanied by handcuffs, images of protesters, and wires cutting across its body.
“It’s very clear,” de Baccarat said while assessing the former sign frame for the sculpture’s final installation. “It will tell itself.”
As an artist who emigrated in 2015 from Gabon, de Baccarat emphasized that his identity as an outsider has fueled his curiosity in processing this moment. “Why is it one knee?,” he said. “Where did that come from? I am so confused.”
For Minter, working with de Baccarat and Adams felt natural and exciting. De Baccarat often works quickly with found objects, and has previously worked with Minter. While Adams and Minter had been meaning to work together in the past, this is their first collaboration, and Minter hoped to have a muralist be part of the project.
“This is a subject matter that is in all of my work, and is in so much work, so it’s not a big leap to write, or think, or create artwork about this,” he said. “It was not difficult for us to come up with something so quickly.”
Saturday welcomed the official reception for “Counting from Thirteen,” featuring artist talks, a reading of “The Haunted Oak,” and a musical performance by Wazo Daveed.
While the pieces on the building are a temporary installation, de Baccarat’s sign will find a new home when the installation is taken down.
The installation, now complete, offers a contemplative space for people to reflect on what this American history now means for them.
“What does it mean that Black people are killed and nothing happens?” Minter asked. “What does it mean to you once you know that the state sanctions this type of activity from the police? They don’t get punished for it, it’s in the line of duty.”
Whether standing in the lot of 754 Congress or scrolling through the cacophony of deaths and updates in the news, Minter encourages the audience to ask themselves, “What does the 13th Amendment mean to you when you look at this?”
Freelance writer Jenny Ibsen lives in Portland.
In the artists’ words
Here is the artists’ statement from Daniel Minter, Ryan Adams, and Titi Baccarat about their temporary installation, “Counting from Thirteen,” at 754 Congress St. in Portland:
“In the visual language of the Equal Justice Initiative’s National Memorial for Peace and Justice, we speak of the counted and uncounted black men, women, boys and girls who have fallen to America’s many modes of racism since the passage of the 13th Amendment that abolished chattel slavery and ushered in state-sanctioned terrorism against black citizens. The brutality and continuum of this violence is referenced through an excerpt from Paul Lawrence Dunbar’s ‘The Haunted Oak’ poem, that states ‘The rope they bear is long.'”