The art on the billboard overlooking Boxtown is riveting and ominous: A little Black girl holds a melting SpongeBob SquarePants Popsicle in an outstretched hand while a refinery billowing smoke and fire and a landfill loom around her.
Najee Dorsey, a Georgia-based artist and entrepreneur, took out the advertising space a little over a month ago to draw attention to what he sees as environmental injustice happening in the area. He was inspired by a Vice News documentary about Black landowners in Southwest Memphis and their fight against the Byhalia Connection pipeline.
“This work speaks to how we live in plain sight of a lot of these corporate wastelands and refineries and things that impact our health, typically in poor communities and communities of color,” Dorsey said in a video explaining the work. “Everyday we’re living in an environment where corporations and corporate greed builds these buildings and facilities with very little thought or concern with how it affects the communities that surround these facilities.”
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The 2019 photomontage, “Ice Cream Melting,” is a part of a series Dorsey named the “Poor People’s Campaign,” in homage to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s last movement. The series is not connected to the movement’s restart, Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival.
The billboard — the first in a planned nationwide series of similar projects — is at I-55 and West Mallory Avenue, close to Valero. “As close as I could get it,” Dorsey said.
Dorsey wanted to give visual representation to environmental injustice at the “epicenter,” he said.
“Valero is right there, right across the interstate from neighborhoods. That’s the very neighborhood that they were trying to take the land from with eminent domain. It’s kind of like the scene of the crime, (near) the perpetrator of the crime, so I wanted it to be as close to there as possible.”
The proposed route of the Byhalia Connection Pipeline is through several Black Memphis neighborhoods, including Westwood, Whitehaven and Boxtown. The project was announced by Byhalia Pipeline — a joint venture of Texas-based Plains All American Pipeline and Valero Energy Corporation — in 2019 and would connect the Valero Memphis Refinery with a Valero facility in Marshall County, Mississippi.
Opponents argue the project is an example of environmental racism because it’s routed through Black neighborhoods already overburdened with pollution and with little economic power to fight it. The company also sued landowners who would not sell them easements.
In February, flares from the Valero Memphis Refinery lit up the sky as it released excess gases and misted unburned oil into Nonconnah Creek. The company self-reported a release of small amounts of sulfur dioxide and hydrogen sulfide — both toxic — to the National Response Center, which notified the Tennessee Department of Environment & Conservation. The company attributed the cause of the incident to the cold temperatures.
Downtown residents took videos of the flares and posted them online.
Gas flaring is a common practice where refineries burn excess gas for operational, safety or economic reasons. But the practice is considered a major environmental problem and a contributor to the greenhouse effect and global warming, according to a 2015 Stanford University study.
A signal for the community, elected officials
Dorsey grew up about an hour’s drive from Memphis in Blytheville, Arkansas and founded the arts company Black Art in America. He said he’s familiar with the refinery because years ago, he worked at an equipment rental company near the billboard and on President’s Island.
“So when I saw what was going on, it immediately struck a chord with me,” Dorsey said.
Dorsey paid in late May to have the art displayed for a month, he said. But the art will remain until a new buyer arrives with a different advertisement.
For Dorsey, the billboard is a signal to the community and elected officials. Next week, the Memphis City Council and a committee of the Shelby County Board of Commissioners will consider ordinances that could stop the pipeline.
“We got people that are interested in what’s going on, despite any neglect that (the community) may be getting from corporations or from city governments,” Dorsey said.
Dorsey hopes national attention will keep pressure on local governments to side with the community in the fight, “knowing that somebody is looking over their shoulder, besides the people that are fighting right there in the community,” he said.
Amplifying and visualizing important issues is just one role of art in justice movements, said Mikhaila Markham, a Memphis artist who has illustrated issues related to the Byhalia Pipeline for months.
“It tells a story that I think a lot of people understand is true but they haven’t seen it before,” Markham said. (Dorsey’s pieces) represent things that are going on right now. I think it’s really shocking for anyone, especially those who haven’t experienced racism or environmental racism personally.”
Markham’s illustrations caught the eye of Justin Timberlake, who shared her work in April to his 60 million followers on Instagram.
Furthermore, Dorsey wants to pay respect and encourage Southwest Memphis communities fighting the pipeline.
“We’ve got to acknowledge the community. Oftentimes, it’s a small group of people who are making those types of sacrifices of time, energy and effort to make things happen,” Dorsey said. “I want them to know that we stand in solidarity with them.”
The solidarity was felt by Kathy Robinson, a co-founder of Memphis Community Against the Pipeline. In the image, she saw herself.
“It reminded me of playing in my great grandmother’s house on Green Road. That was also the background that we had as children growing up in Southwest Memphis,” Robinson said. “At one point, I was that little girl, playing with all those toxins and poisons in the background, an innocent child.”
Robinson hopes someone or an organization will buy the ad space to preserve the art and its message.
“I think it says a lot if someone can put up their own personal money,” Robinson said. “We have organizations that receive funding to send these types of messages, so why not pick up the torch and carry it?”
Carrington J. Tatum is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms. Email him at email@example.com
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