A Charleston, South Carolina, arts museum has pulled a controversial line commemorating black victims of police brutality this week, after receiving multiple critiques and accusations of co-opting trauma from black activists.
The Gibbes Museum of Art released the collection online last week. Titled “Wear Their Names”, it featured jewelry “made out of shattered glass” from windows smashed during the Black Lives Matter protestsin Charleston in May this year. Pieces of jewelry were named after victims of police brutality, with differing prices for each piece, such as a $240 necklace named The Breonna (for Breonna Taylor); a $45 set of earrings called The Trayvon (for Trayvon Martin); and a $480 necklace called The Elijah for Elijah McClain.
The couple behind the line, Paul Chelmis and Jing Wen, told a local Charleston publication that they wanted to “make something beautiful out of the rubble” of the protests. They intended for profits from the jewelry line to go to charity, but activists said it was wrong to try to commodify black trauma.
Black activists were quick to lambast the collection, comparing it to a slave auction and criticizing those involved for not donating proceeds to the families of victims of police brutality. Sophie Ming, an 18-year-old activist, argued that naming each accessory after victims of police brutality and pricing them differently felt “as if the name attached to the product determines the monetary value of each life.”.
Tamika Gadsden, founder of the Charleston Activist Network, the group which led the backlash against the campaign, said the “mindless, ill-conceived” collection horrified her. “It was the bolo tie that was named after Eric Garner that struck me. It was so grotesque,” she said. Garner died after being put in a prohibited chokehold by an NYPD police officer in 2014.
The Gibbes Museum pulled the line on 5 September, as originally reported in the Post and Courier. The couple behind the designs have shut down their brand’s website. The museum said in a statement: “In light of recent discussions, The Gibbes Museum Store is halting the upcoming sale of Shan Shui’s ‘Wear Their Names’ jewelry line. The feedback we received from our community was enlightening and appreciated. It has also deepened our perspective in regards to future store merchandise. We apologize to anyone who was hurt by this and will continue to listen and learn from our community.”
The Gibbes Museum, Chelmis and Wen did not respond to the Guardian’s requests for comment.
This is not the first time a brand has faced ire for gleaning inspiration from the Black Lives Matter movement. In 2017, Pepsi ignited anger and controversy after releasing a commercial that featured Kendall Jenner de-escalating a Black Lives Matter-esque protest through handing a cop a can of soda.
And while the Wear Their Names collection is no longer available to purchase, a conversation about the co-opting of the Black Lives Matter movement continues to rage on.
“Charleston has a tendency to whitewash its painful past and repackage it,” Gadsden said. “You see that with plantations here. The real work of unpacking white supremacy and anti-black racism is not pretty. You can’t package and sell that.”