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An interview with Kerry James Marshall about his series Mementos

Video by SFMOMA. Artist Kerry James Marshall explains the background of his series Mementos (1994–2003). The paintings and lithographs were inspired by Marshall's memory of 1960s-era souvenirs commemorating heroes of the civil rights movement. Created by Smarthistory.

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Video transcript

The group of paintings called Mementos had to do, initially, with a requiem for the 1960s, around the Civil Rights Movement, and the black liberation struggle When John Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, and Martin Luther King, Jr were assassinated, a certain kind of popular commemorative souvenir came into existence and became really ubiquitous So that those three figures came to represent all the hopes and aspirations of the period, of the movement, and in a sense, became like a kind of trinity, like a religious trinity, around the 196s And so I started noticing that with a banner -there was a banner that had the phrase, "We Mourn Our Loss" printed on it It was a felt banner, with the image of Martin Luther King and John Kennedy and Robert Kennedy on it And so you started seeing this kind of thing all over When I was growing up in the 1960s, I saw it everywhere And you could hardly go into a home and not find some manifestation of that souvenir You know, so you saw there were ashtrays, you know, there were pillow cases, there were dinner plates, these like photographs It was like all of this material It started to look like kitsch and commemoration sort of went hand in hand And so what I tried to do with those paintings was to first, extend the pantheon of people who were recognized as having contributed significantly to the 1960s, beyond the two Kennedys and Martin Luther King, but to include a whole host of other people who died in that period And one of the conditions of being represented in the group of works was that you had to have died between 1959 and 1970, which were the days that bracket the 1960s Those people, though, are the largely unsung people They didn't get the same level of popular commemorative souvenir that the Kennedys and Martin Luther King did And so I was trying to redress the lack of recognition that they got by putting them, including them in the pantheon of people whose contributions to the decade was meaningful, as well