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Brooklyn artist wants sports fans to bear their names

Irony has always troubled Raafi Rivero. “People love black athletes,” he said. “But they don’t like black people.”

In July 2013 it resonated again for Rivero, a longtime sports fan, when George Zimmerman was acquitted of the murder of black teenager Trayvon Martin, the same weekend Rivero saw the movie “Fruitvale Station” , about the 2009 murder of Oscar Grant, who was also black.

“I cried a few times this weekend and felt really helpless,” Rivero of Santa Fe said last month in a video conference interview. “I was wondering, what can I do?”

Rivero, a filmmaker with a background in design, poured his emotion into a work of art that ultimately became part of a series that moved from digital space to real-world recognition across the country. Rivero used Adobe Illustrator to design an image of a black and yellow basketball jersey with “Unarmed” on the front and “Martin 17” on the back. Trayvon Martin was 17 and unarmed when he was shot, and while reading about his death, Rivero continued to see a photo of Martin in a black and yellow soccer jersey.

Darkly, Rivero, 43, continued to commemorate other unarmed black victims in the years following Zimmerman’s verdict. His digital jersey illustrations increased to include Eric Garner, who was killed in July 2014 in Staten Island by a New York police officer using an illegal strangulation. Three weeks later, a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri killed Michael Brown. By that time, Rivero had developed an intentional design system for the project: each jersey bears the colors of the victim’s local sports team with a jersey number that matches the age of the person at the time of death. The stars, if present, represent the number of times the person has been shot.

“It seemed like people were trying to explain these murders with the ‘bad apples’ argument, but it just keeps happening. There is a direct line to these murders, ”Rivero said. “And it seemed stimulating to me to say something that way.”

Rivero’s manner kept the names of the victims alive differently from other manifestations by placing them in the iconography of America’s favorite pastimes. “My dad always said sport is democratic,” Rivero said. “The only arena where a black man and a white man could compete on a level playing field.”

Sports also carry the nostalgic symbolism of youthful innocence. “One of the best moments has always been when you got your jersey, your number. I would just like to wear it all the time, ”he said. “The swimsuits were sacred objects to me.”

“Unarmed” remained an erratic social media project over the next several years, as Rivero juggled business and media design work while battling the emotional pain of starting new installments.

Then George Floyd was killed by Minneapolis Police in May 2020. Rivero tearfully explained that for over a week he couldn’t bring himself to watch the video of the murder and, at first, had no interest in making another jersey. But as the Black Lives Matter protests gathered momentum across New York City and across the country, he found the resolve to design another. “My life changed when I designed the George Floyd jersey,” said Rivero.

A friend of Rivero, who owns a printing house, called him in the morning after sharing the Floyd design on Instagram. He suggested that they create large vinyl prints of Rivero’s jersey designs to post. “Less than a week later they were across from the Barclays Center,” Rivero said.

The downtown Brooklyn arena had become a hub for the daily Black Lives Matter protests, and the art of Rivero hung as a backdrop, with grim irony, on the closed windows of neighboring Modell’s sports businesses. , the Kith sneaker store and Crunch Fitness.

Steven Heller, co-chair of the MFA design department at the School of Visual Arts, was so struck by the use of commercial branding to convey a sharp social message that he interviewed Rivero for DesignObserver, a website that covers design and culture. “Raafi Rivero cites popular culture in a way that is both obvious and nuanced,” Heller said in an email interview with The New York Times. “The viewer is not immediately aware of the message, which allows its resonance to creep in rather than hit you in the head – although he does too.”

While sport has not always made its way into the fine art establishment, the use of sport as a vehicle for forms of protest has compelled the art world to take notice. The 2019 Whitney Biennale featured several pieces that incorporated elements of the world of sports, including Kota Ezawa’s “National Anthem,” an animated video that shows NFL players kneeling during the “Star-Spangled Banner” to protest the police violence against unarmed blacks.

“We love a piece of art about protest that isn’t explosive,” said Jane Panetta, co-curator of the Museum’s Characteristics Survey. “Silent, tactile, interpretative. Colin Kaepernick’s kneeling protest truly captured the country, and the more time passed, the more resonant it was. Today it looks even more powerful. “

With “Unarmed” as a professional lens, and supported by a grant from the V-Day Foundation, Rivero bought a used car, filled it with photographic equipment, and left New York City last fall determined to capture this. that was happening in America. Rivero traveled to Louisville, Ky., Kenosha, Wisconsin, Milwaukee, Minneapolis and Denver, hanging his plays and speaking with local residents about the tragic murders and violence in their communities. He recorded the trip and used the footage to create the short film “Unarmed”. It made its debut on YouTube’s “Black Renaissance,” a Black History Month special hosted by the Obamas that has been viewed over 3.5 million times. He exhibited the swimsuits at the Leon Gallery in Denver last winter.

Although Rivero abandoned his Brooklyn apartment before embarking on the cross-country trip and hasn’t returned since, he expects to be back later this month. He’s got another set of vinyl prints he’s ready to hang up, and after asking enough questions about wearable jerseys, he’s in the final production of a Trayvon Martin Edition. If Martin’s family members approve, he would like to start selling the jersey and then creating more, using the proceeds to support the families of the victims and donate to anti-racist organizations.

“When you go to a baseball game in Denver, instead of wearing a Jamal Murray, wouldn’t there be someone who wants to wear an Elijah McClain jersey? I would love to see that, ”Rivero said.

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