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Full creative freedom was fundamental for this Juneteenth art exhibit in Denver

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Absolute Equality is a national public art initiative where their director commissions artists from big cities to do Juneteenth-focused murals. Colorado Public Radio's Elaine Tassy caught up with some of the artists.

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ELAINE TASSY, BYLINE: Denver-based artist Detour is dressed in paint-colored shorts and a hat on a 93-degree day. He's standing in front of his huge mural in an alleyway behind a wine bar called Noble Riot.

DETOUR: It's kind of like a - I would say, like, a little bit of a timeline.

TASSY: He said it starts in Africa and ends in Denver.

DETOUR: On the left side, what I have is, like, a Benin statue because Benin was known for metalworking, and then Clara Brown, who was a freed slave - moved to Colorado looking for family but then eventually became, like, her own entrepreneur. And then, in between them, I have, like, a landscape that shows the Colorado sort of scenery. And then...

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DETOUR: ...I have Darrell Anderson, a contemporary artist today.

TASSY: The mural looks about 12 feet tall, maybe half a block long, with lots of bright colors. Since 2021, the dozen or so murals in the project reflect on Juneteenth, the day in 1865 in Galveston, Texas, when 250,000 enslaved Black Texans who didn't know slavery had already ended finally saw freedom.

Artist Fabian Williams was also recently figuring out how to complete what he calls a monster - a 300-foot-long, 15-foot-tall mural at Morehouse, a college for Black men in Atlanta. His work features ancient Egypt, Spike Lee and futurism.

FABIAN WILLIAMS: This mural celebrates a good part of our story - you know? - not just the slavery part and the freedom part, but, like, all the things that we've done before and after and what we're going to do in the future.

TASSY: Houston-based artist Reginald C. Adams, founder of the Absolute Equality project, handpicked about a dozen artists in different cities. He gave them a $10,000 stipend and let them do their creative thing in their hometowns.

REGINALD C ADAMS: And it's just been beautiful to see the mural turn into a national movement. Every single mural is unique to the city, to the community and to the artistic style of the artist that we commission.

TASSY: In Philadelphia, for example, the artist Keisha Whatley said the unveiling of her mural last year became a 300-person celebration with a DJ.

KEISHA WHATLEY: It's not an easy subject to talk about, so it was really important for us that we create it in a context that was true to the history, but also celebrated this moment of release and this goal that we're all working towards - for absolute equality.

TASSY: But there have been a few snafus. In South Dallas, the mural is positioned so it's not easily visible for people driving by. And in Galveston, Native American and Mexican community members protested the inclusion of one detail, so the mural was slightly altered. In Los Angeles, the mural is at a downtown cafe recently installed by an artist from Lagos, Nigeria, who goes by Bimbo. His mural is about 14 feet wide and 12 feet tall. It's called Strength in Diversity.

BIMBO: There's no Black America - right? - without Africa. And me coming here is like connecting with - a reunion with my brothers who were lost in a war.

TASSY: Adams is hoping to commission more murals in southern cities in 2025.

For NPR News, I'm Elaine Tassy in Denver.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Elaine Tassy
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