91.7 Ann Arbor/Detroit 104.1 Grand Rapids 91.3 Port Huron 89.7 Lansing 91.1 Flint
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Ahmaud Arbery muralist turns to Brunswick history

Marvin Weeks in front of his mural of Ahmaud Arbrery.
Debbie Elliott
Marvin Weeks in front of his mural of Ahmaud Arbrery.

BRUNSWICK, Ga. — The trial of three white men accused of murdering Ahmaud Arbery has put Brunswick back in the national spotlight. Arbery was the 25-year old Black man shot to death last year while jogging through a neighborhood.

Artist Marvin Weeks memorialized Arbery in a mural that has become a focal point for racial justice advocates in this town on the Georgia coast.

"I think that's very important," Weeks says. "A gathering place, you know, because my work really centers around neighborhoods."

Last Sunday ahead of jury selection about 200 demonstrators chanted "Justice for Ahmaud!" beneath the two-story portrait of Arbery. Weeks painted it on the side of a building that's being re-developed as an African-American cultural center.

Weeks says this is what he'd hoped to see happening around the artwork.

"Because there's always a meeting place — a place to do the call and to talk about the issues that's going on," he says. "I think the mural does that."

The mural is adapted from Arbery's high school graduation picture. He's smiling and dressed in a tux. Weeks painted it on a wall of tabby which is a strong, stucco-like siding made from sand, seashells and lime. The method was brought here by enslaved Africans.

"I thought it was a perfect element to illustrate him in it," Weeks says, noting how the textures give the painting a distinctive feel.

"When you look at it closely, I think you see pathways of different things in there."

An art piece for all of Brunswick

Weeks, who is 67, grew up in Brunswick, in a house not far from here. He left as a young man to pursue his art career in Florida, where he serves on the Miami Arts and Entertainment Council.

But Weeks remains rooted to his home community. And now in the aftermath of Arbery's killing, he's spending more time here. He's planning another art installation on the corner near the Arbery mural.

"This is going to be an art piece for the entire Brunswick," he says. "It shows the history of Brunswick and the African-American history is not disconnected from the general history."

Weeks has set up a makeshift studio inside the cultural center site where he has large plywood cutouts that he's coating with white primer. These will be the base for his design to transform a rusty sign post - left over from a restaurant demolished years ago - into something new.

Marvin Weeks glues oak leaves for his newest body of work.
Liz Baker / NPR
Marvin Weeks glues oak leaves for his newest body of work.

"That'll be like the big bulb of a tree," he says, explaining how vines and branches will incorporate portraits of key figures along with scenery from Brunswick's environment.

"I've gotten some oak tree leaves, and placed them in there," he says. "And oyster shells."

Weeks recalls with fondness growing up among Brunswick's salt marshes and Spanish-moss draped oak trees. He says as a kid he would dig in his yard for shards of pottery and other fragments of history. His mother's green thumb was a major influence.

"My mother was a flower person right here in Brunswick," he says. "She would fix her yards up. We never thought we were poor because it was so rich with so many things that we did. You just go and plant a flower and you'll change that neighborhood."

Finding stories hidden and 'hushed over' for decades

Now Weeks is trying to change Brunswick by broadening the conversation to include stories that have been hidden, or hushed, over decades.

He unfurls a portrait of a Reconstruction era figure he wants to include in the installation.

"I've been researching Tunis Campbell and the legacy he left along the coast that people have kind of hidden and not talked about," says Weeks.

Campbell was a key African-American leader — a state senator and military governor for communities of formerly enslaved people on Georgia's Sea Islands. Former slave holders eventually ran them off the land.

Weeks says not acknowledging all that has happened here allows history to repeat itself. And that's how he sees Ahmaud Arbery's killing, a tragedy that was little known when it happened in February 2020.

A pickup truck was the enemy

It wasn't until months later, when graphic cell phone video was leaked, that Arbery became another name to call in the movement for racial justice.

The video shows three white men chasing Arbery with pickup trucks as he is running through a neighborhood on the outskirts of town. When he's cornered, Arbery fights back and is killed by three shotgun blasts.

Mural of Ahmaud Arbery.
/ Nicole Buchanan for NPR
Nicole Buchanan for NPR
Mural of Ahmaud Arbery.

Weeks says he couldn't help but think about his childhood, when he and friends would cut through alleyways in white neighborhoods.

"A pickup truck was the enemy," he recalls.

He described that as Black children would be walking to the store or the park, white people would pass them riding in the back of pickup trucks.

"And holler at you and throw something. Everyone my age could tell you that was the fear when you saw a pickup truck coming."

Weeks says he thinks a racial divide persists because people haven't been honest about their shared history and interconnectedness.

"Everybody's saying 'be quiet, calm down, the outsiders are coming in,' as if somebody is coming in to tell this story, as if there's something to hide," Weeks says.

"I think we're continuing that old 'everything is alright, show everyone from the outside everything is okay.' It hasn't been okay."

Weeks says it won't be okay until people can acknowledge that Brunswick belongs to all of its citizens no matter their race.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

NPR National Correspondent Debbie Elliott can be heard telling stories from her native South. She covers the latest news and politics, and is attuned to the region's rich culture and history.
Liz Baker
Liz Baker is a producer on NPR's National Desk based in Los Angeles, and is often on the road producing coverage of domestic breaking news stories.