On the afternoon of the year’s hottest day so far, Sahara Clemons stands at a concrete wall about three times her height, a roll of masking tape around her wrist, a brush in the other hand, cans of paint and a cup of melting bubble tea at her feet.
As she puts the finishing touches on her mural for the Charlottesville Mural Project, Clemons, who grew up in the city and recently finished her first year at the Rhode Island School of Design, periodically steps back to consider her work.
A larger-than-life black woman reclines across the full width of the wall, her face illuminated by the warm, intense, orange-pink light radiating from a lightning bolt she holds above her. She has the air of a goddess, powerful and at rest.
Clemons found inspiration for the piece in her mother, Eboni Bugg. Bugg, who currently serves as director of programs for the Charlottesville Area Community Foundation, is a licensed clinical social worker, a family reunification advocate, and a yoga instructor who has worked to make mental health resources more available and accessible to women of color in the area. “She has shown me a lot” about what it takes to become a leader in a very racially polarized community such as Charlottesville, says Clemons. “That really affected me.”
While the mural isn’t an exact likeness, Clemons says it is most certainly a representation of her mother’s essence.
She drew inspiration from the lightning bolt tattoo on Bugg’s wrist. “She talks about it as empowerment…and empowerment in the ability to rest,” says Clemons. “Life is tiring for a black woman, and we don’t always get that luxury [of rest], whether or not we are in a leadership position. There’s [always] a level at which we are having to uphold some sort of position, some sort of level of expectation that sometimes goes beyond our capability.”
To complement the lightning bolt, Clemons incorporated clouds (“they are about contemplation…rising above, heaven, the ethereal”) and light. A golden yellow halo circles the woman’s head and a sun emanates from the earring on her earlobe. Her dress looks as though it is composed of beams of light.
“I don’t usually put [the sun] in all of my work, but it’s specific to black women, to black girl magic,” says Clemons, and depicting that in this work was important to her. “There is a lot of invisibility that happens with black women, in Charlottesville and in general, that I wanted to combat,” she says.
This mural would be a powerful statement anywhere in the city, but its location—on the border of West Main Street and the historically black and now quickly gentrifying 10th and Page neighborhood—amplifies its message.
Above the mural is the recently built Standard apartment complex, which offers “lavish amenities” for UVA students. To its right, the new Tenth Street Warehouses retail development. Across the parking lot from the mural is the Westhaven public housing community, built in the 1960s to house (mostly black) people whose homes in the Vinegar Hill and Gospel Hill neighborhoods were razed by the city in the name of “urban renewal.”
Clemons didn’t select the site, but it’s significant to her. She and Bugg once lived in the neighborhood, and this afternoon, looking at the landscape around her, she can’t help but acknowledge how much it’s changed.
She designed the mural a month ago, and says the image has taken on new meaning in the wake of the killing of George Floyd by a white Minneapolis police officer, and the resulting protests against racial injustice.
“It’s different now. It’s challenging to think about it in terms of police brutality and what that’s doing to the black community,” she says. “I hope that what this does is…present something different in terms of what’s happening within the black community.”
“I’m reminding [people] that there’s strength happening as well.”