Out in the California desert, nestled between billboards advertising hairline restoration and varicose vein removal, six hauntingly beautiful images of steel bridges and sunsets loom incongruously over the dusty highway.
They are photographs taken by Tyre Nichols, a 29-year-old amateur photographer who in January became the latest high-profile Black victim of US police brutality during a traffic stop in Memphis, Tennessee. The billboards have been installed in Palm Springs for Desert X, an art exhibition known for placing giant outdoor installations — often with political messages — against the stunning, arid mountain backdrop.
“Nearly all of us know about Tyre through his tragic and brutal death in the hands of law enforcement in Memphis,” said artistic director Neville Wakefield, at a press conference launching the festival. “What we may not know is the insights that he gave into his life through his art.”
California-raised Nichols was a keen photographer who trained his camera on the bridges, murals, neon lights and fiery sunsets of his adopted home city of Memphis, exploring the connections between people and their surroundings.
“My vision is to bring my viewers deep into what I am seeing through my eye and out through my lens,” Nichols wrote on his website. The choice of a roadside installation site for his works was deliberate, organizers said. On January 7, Nichols — who had been taking photos of a sunset, his family said later — was stopped by police on suspicion of reckless driving, and beaten viciously. He died in hospital three days later.
‘Ending the violence’
Wakefield said the “images of serenity and connection flying above the roadside” were particularly relevant because this type of location “is often where this violence unfortunately takes place.” Members of Nichols’ family, who approved the installation only a few days ago, hope the artwork will spotlight a California draft bill that would limit the power of police to stop drivers for minor infractions without specific cause.
In a statement from their representative, they called the bill “a much-needed step towards ending the violence Black people face when confronted by police at traffic stops.” The late addition of Nichols’ work to Desert X was motivated by “featuring Tyre as an artist, and showing his work, and having people engage with that emotionally,” festival founder Susan Davis told AFP. “So many times these senseless deaths become just a name… it’s making the invisible visible.”
Founded six years ago, Desert X invites artists from around the world to visit the Palm Springs region and create a new work to be installed in the Coachella Valley. Across the first three biennial editions, which typically run for around two months, some 1.2 million people have visited.
The artworks are free to visit, and are scattered across the valley in what Davis describes as a “treasure hunt” that visitors can tackle over one day or several. Also on display this year is “Sleeping Figure,” a haphazard-looking pile of discarded shipping containers that have been welded together to stick up out of the desert floor at improbable angles.
First conceived of by artist Matt Johnson when a giant container ship got stuck in the Suez Canal in 2021, they have taken on “an entirely additional meaning” with the recent spate of US train derailments, said Davis. “I started thinking about these containers as vessels of consumption” after the pandemic caused huge blockages in the global supply chain, said Johnson.
Another featured artwork is “Chainlink,” a nebulous maze-like structure constructed from yellow wire fencing. And then there is “Immersion,” a giant gameboard on which visitors can walk and learn about local Indigenous traditions via QR codes linking to audio recordings. As well as social justice, several of this year’s projects address water scarcity, environmental degradation and the climate crisis. Desert X runs from March 4 to May 7. – AFP