Artist’s Black Pietà a Call for Justice

Tylonn J. Sawyer’s art portrays the lives and experiences of black people in America. Through works like his Pietà, he calls on our shared humanity and urges us to pay attention to what’s happening around us and work for change.

“A mother mourning the death of her son is something that is visceral,” Tylonn shares. “No matter what language you speak, it’s something that I think anybody seeing that image would understand.”

Video Transcript

Meet Tylonn: visual artist

Images of Tylonn’s paintings scroll across the screen — they depict black subjects, many with masks, and images from American culture. 

Tylonn Sawyer: From racism, from police brutality, the intersection of history, and the absurdity of pop culture. I like my work to have a certain degree of visual poetry to it, rather than just objectively being what it is that you see in front of you. And so, when I look at something like the pieta — if you think about Michelangelo’s Pieta — that is still a very poignant sort of subject matter to have. A mother mourning the death of her son, or child in general. It is something that is visceral, and no matter what language you speak, it’s something that I think anybody seeing that image would understand.

(The pieta he painted shows a black mother holding her dead teenaged son in front of an American flag.)

Because for the most part, my work exists in the African American community, but it is nice to see that, once exposed to it, that it sort of made white people think about it, because people are familiar with that image of Jesus and Mary. And hopefully it inspires, and it evokes, and it gets white people collectively to see that this type of civil unrest and this type of rage that is happening here is the effect of a cause that’s been happening for hundreds and hundreds of years in this country — and to really pay attention, and to take action, to address the concerns of black people. Because even with our short attention spans, this seems like something we may be in for the long haul. And it’s something that I hope we are in for the long haul, until change is made. 

(A black woman singing from a fragment of film made by Tylonn.)

It can be challenging to say, “Just what does that look like as a perfect future?” Because, I guess, the way that I feel when I’m here in Detroit, by myself, right — I live in a black city. I don’t think about racism, sometimes. Don’t get me wrong — something happens every day that reminds me that I’m black, but if I just think about my normal existence here in Detroit, I’m just allowed to be. And that’s not even a grand thing to do — just to be. And sometimes that can be challenging. I don’t know if white people can understand, because white people get the opportunity to be 24 hours a day, seven days a week, their entire life. Even when black people are yelling at them about what’s happening to us, white people are still allowed to be.

There is no perfect world. We’re humans. Humans are fallible. We are a very crazy and destructive species. But that’d be a pretty good start for the concept of the utopia for me.

If you want to find more of my work, you can reach my website, tylonn-j-sawyer.com.

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