After hearing about the deaths of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery, San Francisco artist Radha Mehta decided to paint their portraits to understand who they were while they were alive. “I did it as a way to honor each of them with a moment of silence,” she said. And with that, her memorial project, Say Their Names, was born.
While absorbing the words written in obituaries and spoken at memorials about them, she wanted to know more. During her initial research, she came across a podcast and article by NPR Code Switch titled, A Decade of Watching Black People Die. “Although the list of deaths since Eric Garner was not comprehensive, I was aghast to see how many names were mentioned – at least 1,500. I started learning about them one by one and began painting portraits from the stories I felt drawn to,” she said. Mehta has done nearly 50 portraits, taking hours not only to paint but to deeply hear each backstory.
Mehta grew up in Orlando, Florida but has lived in many places including Los Angeles, New York and Zurich. She moved to the Bay Area in 2018 and recently relocated from Noe Valley to Marin County. As a multimedia artist, she works in paint, music and film in order to make each work of art feel complete, to tell stories as broadly as possible.
Over the past two decades, her focus has been as a singer/songwriter and composer. After her son was born in 2016, she turned to painting. “It’s such a quiet, solitary and meditative practice. I’ve been fortunate to have the freedom to experiment without needing to fit into any one thing,” she said. She also began diving into documenting other people’s stories on film, especially those who are underrepresented or underserved, to understand what gives them hope.
How did her current project develop? Mehta’s brother, Rave shared a few images with colleagues active in the Black Lives Matter movement and they encouraged her to share them with a larger audience. Through a contact at the San Francisco Council of District Merchants Association, Mehta secured display space along Clement Street. “The owner of Kinship Salon, Ashley Zografos, was one of the first merchants to respond to my outreach. I’m so incredibly grateful for her support as she continues to spread the word about the series,” she said. Portraits can also be seen at So Fresh, So Clean Laundromat, The Wishing Well Workshop and Blue Danube Coffee House.
A debut exhibit of the series was held at CityArts Gallery in Orlando in October and there has been interest in Raleigh and Durham, North Carolina. An outdoor exhibit in Portland, Oregon, to be held in partnership with a movement by the same name is being scheduled and an LED display of the series at the San Francisco Bayview Opera House is also in the works. “San Francisco is known to be diverse and inclusive regarding labor, politics and art. The immediate support for my project gives me hope that more cities across the country can receive it as well,” she said.
The portraits, painted in watercolor, begin with a pencil sketch with an emphasis on highlights and shadows. Mehta then transfers the sketch to watercolor paper, creating an abstract, bold portrait in vibrant color and expression, intending to depict each person in a positive and honorable way. And to activate engagement and change. To keep awareness alive. “The Black Lives Matter movement was incredibly powerful in its mission of raising awareness soon after George Floyd’s death with protests around the world, dubbing the movement as one of the largest civil rights movements in history. However, as with most social justice causes, once a movement is no longer portrayed actively in the media, it no longer trends though it continues to be a critical issue,” she added.
Mehta wants to encourage a more empathetic understanding of injustice and recognition of our fellow humans. “My hope is for people to feel activated to make change, whether it is completely shifting the mindset, being kinder to one another, being more inclusive in our home and work environments or fighting to change laws that protect the underserved and end brutality by those meant to serve and protect us,” she said.
Mehta believes that more diversity leads to greater innovation and understanding. “As a mother, I can’t fathom the loss of a child let alone in an unjust way. My heart goes out to the family members who continue to seek justice. As a woman of color who has felt disempowerment, I am drawn to telling these stories and shining light on journeys that instill hope for the rest of us,” she said. Visit the project website saytheirnames.memorial.
(This article first appeared in the November 16 edition of 48 Hills. Click here to view the complete published article.)