In honor of Black History Month, two students from the University of Nevada, Reno, who refer to themselves under the name Khan, have painted murals of important figures in the black community in the graffiti staircase of the Church Fine Arts.
The artists have painted individuals such as John Coltrane, Chance the Rapper, Jimi Hendrix, the cast of ‘Black Panther’ and Billie Holiday.
“We have an idea of someone that we want to do, that we feel represents what we think the stairwell has done for us which is this safe area for free expression for us,” Khan said.
Khan first garnered attention after they painted a portrait of jazz musician John Coltrane the day after several swastikas were found spray painted in the well-known graffiti staircase.
“After the negative images and words following the several racial incidents on campus, and in the nation, it’s safe to say that I was losing hope in this campus,” Precious Gbenjo, president of the Black Student Organization at UNR said. “But out of those hateful and racist incidents came something inspiring. Students and artists like [Khan] coming in and standing up against the vandalism, making the hallway beautiful again. [Khan’s] artwork in particular, especially during Black History Month, is comprised of strong and inspiring figures in the black community, which is more than can be said about the rest of campus. It gives people of color on campus something to be proud of and excited about.”
Khan says they paint these murals to bring representation through the expression of art to UNR.
“There’s a severe lack of representation on campus,” Khan said. “We’re definitely planning on spreading out to more people of color. It was a great opportunity and area to be able to represent that.”
Recently, a portrait of UNR alum and NFL football player Colin Kaepernick was vandalized when a large ‘X’ was painted over the mural.
“When we were painting it, we fully expected there to be backlash,” Khan said. “For it to be defaced. That didn’t stop us. We felt that he is an alumni of this school, he does speak for a message we want to share. Just after we found out, as soon as we could we put another Kaepernick out of reach. We’ll keep painting Kaepernick’s until they can’t cover them.”
Khan says that the most rewarding part of this experience has been the feedback they have received from students.
“Students always come up to us and say ‘Finally representation,’” Khan said. “We had a student come in who didn’t really feel welcomed into this school. […] she kind of just felt like she didn’t belong and she sat with us and watched us paint and by the end of hanging out with us, she felt that the piece was welcoming and different.”
The process in which Khan creates their murals is done in a quick turnover period. A sketch is initially designed which is followed by determining the colors that will be used to paint the mural. Once the materials needed to paint are gathered, Khan generally finishes the portrait within one night.
The artists have a few projects planned in the near future. One of which will be dedicated to Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival recipients and will be painted on the side of a veterinary hospital.
Khan encourages others to express themselves through art and hope to see more people displaying their artwork in the CFA stairwell. The artists also extend an invite to those interested in joining them to paint. Stop by the CFA to view their work or visit their Instagram @ khanartwork.
Karolina Rivas can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @karolinarrivas.