A museum pulled a jewelry line that named products after black victims of police brutality following accusations that it capitalized and made a commodity of black trauma.
The Gibbes Museum of Art in Charleston, South Carolina, announced that it cancelled plans to sell the ‘Wear Their Names’ collection after swift backlash from local activists and social media.
‘Justice is not jewelry. Especially not jewelry named after Black bodies. Its heinous,’ said local activist Tamika Gadsen.
The ‘Wear Their Names’ collection featured necklaces, earrings, bolo ties and rings outfitted with pieces of shattered window glass collected during Black Lives Matter demonstrations in May.
Each piece of jewelry was specifically named after a black American who died at the hands of law enforcement, and prices ranged from less than $50 to nearly $500.
The Gibbes Museum of Art in Charleston, South Carolina, said it would no long er sell jewelry pieces featured in the ‘Wear Their Names’ collection
The collection featured necklaces, rings, bracelets and rings named after black victims of police brutality (pictured)
A necklace named ‘The Breonna’ for Breonna Taylor was priced at $240; a similar piece called ‘The Elijah’ after Elijah McClain cost $480; and ‘The Trayvon’ in reference to Trayvon Martin was listed for $45.
A necklace named for Tanisha Pughsley was discounted from $190 to $155, while an earring referencing Tamir Rice was sold out.
The Charleston couple behind the controversial collection, Paul Chelmis and Jin Wen, explained their rationale to Charleston Scene last week.
Paul Chelmis and Jin Wen (left ti right) told Charleston Scene last week that they were inspired while watching demonstrations unfold in May
The pair was inspired after watching a Facebook Live stream of a peaceful demonstration in Charleston on May 30. Later that night, some residents would damage local property during clashes with law enforcement.
‘I kind of saw it as a natural reaction,’ Chelmis told the publication. ‘Like yeah, of course this is the result of our inattention.
‘Instead of focusing on how terrible these people are who are “rioting,” we should focus on what we should do to prevent it from happening in the future.’
The Charleston couple drove downtown and collected shards of window glass that was shattered during unrest
Paul Chelmis (pictured): ‘Instead of focusing on how terrible these people are who are “rioting,” we should focus on what we should do to prevent it from happening in the future’
After talking, the couple decided to ‘make something beautiful out of the rubble’ and collected the damaged shards of glass from outside storefronts and buildings.
The products were featured on Shan Shui, the couple’s online store, and would be sold in the Gibbes Museum of Art gift shop.
Proceeds would be donated to ‘From Privilege to Progress,’ a nonprofit organization seeking to ‘desegregate’ discussions about racism.
But the plan was quickly scrapped when activists and others lambasted the collection, with some comparing the sale of the jewelry to a ‘slave auction.’
On Twitter, and 18-year-old activist named Sophie Ming decried the pieces for being monetized and for the proceeds not being directed to the victims’ families.
‘It’s as if the name attached to the product determines the monetary value of each life. That’s what I’m getting, it’s disturbing,’ she wrote.
Tamika Gadsen, founder of the Charleston Activist Network, shared that sentiment and blasted the collection online after reading an article about it in the Post and Courier.
Sophie Ming, an activist who spoke out on Twitter, criticized the collection for monetizing black victims’ lives and called it ‘disturbing’
Both Elijah McClain (left) and Trayvon Martin (right) were featured in the collection with pieces priced from $95 to $480
One necklace in the ‘Wear Their Name’ collection was named after Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old EMT who was shot dead by Louisville officers this year
‘I stumbled across this story in my Twitter feed, and it’s not hyperbole when I say I’ve never responded so quickly to something so egregiously ill-conceived in Charleston. I’ve never reacted that fast,’ she told Yahoo Life.
‘I pushed myself to finish the article in record time to make sure I got all of the details, to see if this was a joke — maybe there’s more to the story.’
Gadsen described the collection under Shan Shui as a type of performative activism that, outwardly, had the appearance of supporting the black community but actually profited off the pain.
What struck her as particularly offensive was the bolo tie named after Eric Garner, a 43-year-old New York father who died after a police officer placed him in a chokehold.
Garner was seen on video pleading ‘I can’t breathe,’ which was echoed by George Floyd six years later and became a rallying cry for the Black Lives Matter.
After Garner’s death, New York banned the use of chokeholds by officers.
‘When you name a bolo tie after Eric Garner, the gruesomeness just leapt from the page. It’s so Charleston to mischaracterize that gruesome exercise as charity,’ said Gadsen.
‘They made something gruesome look beautiful.’
Tamika Gadsen: ‘When you name a bolo tie after Eric Garner (pictured), the gruesomeness just leapt from the page. It’s so Charleston to mischaracterize that gruesome exercise as charity’
Pictured: pieces of the ‘Wear Their Name’ jewelry featured on the Charleston couple’s website, Shan Shui
People on social media spoke out as well to call the collection ‘tasteless’ and disappointing.
‘There is an appropriate and inappropriate way to depict tragedies through art. Here is an example of a completely inappropriate, tone deaf, and tasteless way to do it…’ one Twitter user wrote.
‘Naming pieces after them and selling them for different prices give me slave auction vibes,’ another said.
One person called it ‘disgusting’ and said ‘do not commodify the Black Lives Matter movement, police brutality and murder.’
A number of Twitter users spoke out against the collection and expressed disappointment that black victims’ were being used in the project
Some social media users compared the sale of the Wear Their Names collection to a ‘slave auction’
User: ‘Calling it “art” is no excuse. Regardless of where the money goes, you’re commodifying the suffering of these families. There’s a difference between support and exploitation.’
User: ‘What the actual hell is this? I swear people will always find a way to capitalize black people’s pain’
‘Calling it ‘art’ is no excuse. Regardless of where the money goes, you’re commodifying the suffering of these families. There’s a difference between support and exploitation.’
In response to Sophie Ming’s original post, one user said: ‘What the actual hell is this? I swear people will always find a way to capitalize black people’s pain.
‘And I’m sure none of that money will go to the family members of any of those people their jewelry is named after.’
In response to the outcry, Chelmis and Wen apologized with a now-deleted message on their social media.
Shan Shui: ‘Though we only wanted to honor the victim’s names and retell their story, we see now that using those names was inappropriate and in poor taste’
Pictured: a bolo tie featured as part of the ‘Wear Their Name’ collection
‘While out intentions were pute and we consulted a wide variety of people before launching, it is clear that there are issues with the approach that we took,’ the statement read.
‘Though we only wanted to honor the victim’s names and retell their story, we see now that using those names was inappropriate and in poor taste.’
As of Friday, Shan Shui’s website and social media accounts have been removed.
While the couple’s approach has been criticized, Gadsen hoped that people would look beyond this one instance and educate themselves on the larger context.
‘White people feel entitled to tell us what we should do with our pain and how we should memorialize it,’ said Gadsen.
‘This is the time for white and non-Black POC folk to listen to Black people, not to take up space — and that’s what they did.’