Local artist opens new art exhibit highlighting mothers who’ve lost sons to violence

PITTSBURGH — Award-winning Pittsburgh artist Emmai Alaquiva and the mothers of Mike Brown, Philando Castile, Antwon Rose and Oscar Grant were in Pittsburgh on Saturday to unveil “Optic Voice: Mama’s Boys,” an interactive art exhibit at the August Wilson African American Cultural Center. The exhibit explores racial trauma, injustices, and healing through the lens of 10 mothers who lost their sons to violence.

“The fact that he called out to his mom really touched me,” said Alaquiva, the creator of the exhibit.

Alaquiva said that in 2020, when he watched George Floyd cry out to his mother as he took his last breaths, he knew [as an artist] he had to do something.

Alaquiva said he wanted to explore social justice and racial trauma through the lens of the mothers who have lost their sons to violence.

“I picked up my camera, and I traveled to 10 cities in two different countries to tell the story of these women that had incredible relationships with their sons that are no longer here,” Alaquiva said.

The exhibit tells the stories of 10 mothers — women like Lezley McSpadden, Mike Brown’s mother, and Michelle Kenny, Antwon Rose’s mother, whose unarmed teenage boys were shot and killed by police.

“My son Philando Castile was murdered on July 6, 2016,” said Valerie Castile.

Valerie Castile’s 32-year-old son was killed by a Minneapolis police officer.

Castile said it was important for her to be a part of the exhibit because while the world may know her son’s name, this exhibit will share his story.

Philando Castile was a cafeteria worker. His mother says he went above and beyond.

“Sometimes, he would pay for the children’s lunches if they didn’t have the funds. He knew all 500 children by name and their allergies,” Castile said.

Naturally a quiet guy, Castile said her son enjoyed video games which is why she included his game controller in the exhibit.

“He didn’t have an excessive number of friends, but he had friends all over the world through that box,” Castile said.

From Valerie, a mother, to Emmai, a creator, both said this exhibit is about healing and accountability to ensure the world never forgets the names, the stories, and the mamas who will carry their sons’ legacies.

“We have to recognize when the protest signs go down, when people stop showing up. As artists, we still have to show up,” Alaquiva said.

Castile said, “My son meant something to me, the community, and this world.”

Guests can visit the exhibit at the August Wilson Center from Thursday through Sunday until Jan. 31.

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