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HOLYOKE, Mass. – As Imo Imeh begins working on a new painting inside his studio, he’s surrounded by towering drawings of Black men. Each wall is filled with 10-foot-tall renderings, the subjects’ faces and hands serving as focal points. Imeh, who is Black, is an art professor at Westfield State University, and has largely focused his work on capturing the experiences of Black people in America, including in his newest series he’s calling “Benediction.”
“‘Benediction’ features what I can only describe as these angel monuments,” he told NEPM. These larger than-life figures are “angelic beings that have been cast down to Earth, and bound in the skin and the guise of Black men to serve as witnesses of what Black men and Black boys are dealing with in the world today.”
In late April, Imeh was putting the final touches on “Lead Me to Rest,” a painting for the “Benediction” series. The painting depicts a Black man lying face down on the ground. His hands seem to be trying to push up. His eyes are shut.
“The phrase ‘lead me to rest’ was all I could think of with this image,” Imeh said during an interview at his studio in June. “This cry to God for this angel, representing a Black man. This cry to his Father, please take me to a place of rest. I am bound to this Black body, and it’s too much. The pressure is too great. The pain is too strong.”
Less than a month later, George Floyd was killed by Minneapolis police. Officials charged four officers in Floyd’s death. Imeh’s painting had seemed to play out in real life.
In the days following Floyd’s death, Imeh’s friends and family reached out. “I’m hearing my mom call and saying, ‘How did you know this would happen?’” he said.
Imeh couldn’t help but also see the similarities in “Lead Me to Rest.” “Even I got it. I saw [the news of George Floyd’s death] and was like, ‘This is crazy.’ Maybe I was weeping for a different reason than they were, but the Black male condition is something that causes me to weep.”
Imeh said the painting has since resonated with people, citing an “outpouring of responses” on social media. Imeh hopes work like his can help capture the moment the country is in and further drive conversations about race and racism in America.
“I think it’s extremely important for those of us who have platforms to use them for the greatest potential good,” he said. “And that is from the highest offices in the land to my little platform. I wish everybody did. The world would be a very different place.”
This report originally appeared on NEPM’s “Connecting Point.”
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