The Tulsa race massacre is memorialized at Oxley Nature Center in Sarah Ahmad’s The American Dream, a Greenwood Art Project-sponsored installation featuring a replica of a refugee tent.
In 2019, as Sarah Ahmad prepared to move to Oklahoma to become a Tulsa Artist Fellow, she learned about the Tulsa race massacre, a horrific event that has often been overlooked in the country’s history of racial violence.
On May 31 and June 1, 1921, a white mob overtook Tulsa’s Greenwood neighborhood, often cited as Black Wall Street due to the thriving Black businesses and Black culture that existed there at the time. Historians estimate that the assailants’ domestic terrorism tactics, which included gunfire, explosives, and firebombs dropped from airplanes, killed up to 300 people and displaced approximately 10,000 more.
After Ahmad arrived in Tulsa, she learned as much as she could about the event by talking to writers, historians, and attending meetings at the Greenwood Cultural Center and the Tulsa Historical Society and Museum. Ahmad says the museum contains the largest archival photograph collection—over 300—of the massacre, which marks its centennial today and tomorrow (May 31 and June 1, 2021).
(A weekend of events, featuring a performance by John Legend and a keynote speech by Georgia politician and activist Stacey Abrams, was called off on Thursday, May 27. Various news reports cite “unexpected circumstances with entertainers and speakers” for the cancellation.)
Ahmad got to know a friend, whose grandmother survived the attacks and fled Tulsa when the bombing started. (Ahmad says that the friend’s grandmother, who was nine years old at the time, died a few years ago at age ninety-nine.) The artist, who lives on Greenwood Avenue on the massacre site, eventually landed on an idea to create an installation that would memorialize the victims, survivors, and descendants.
“Coming from Pakistan, I grew up listening to the stories of massacres in our country and the state-sponsored violence and U.S. drone strikes,” Ahmad explains. “The images of the Tulsa race massacre did not even seem new to me. It felt like I’ve been seeing these images for decades.
“They look indistinguishable from the images of the drone attacks in Pakistan and massacres from all over the world,” says Ahmad, who adds that she was initially hesitant to apply for the project. “This is not my history and I wasn’t really comfortable being a part of it, especially as an immigrant,” she says.
Ahmad’s installation, The American Dream, is a replica of a refugee tent that might have been used by survivors of the Tulsa race massacre. The placement of orange and yellow marigold flowers and garlands, which Ahmad made out of fabric, symbolizes the “fiery destruction of people’s homes.” Marigolds, Ahmad says, also suggest renewal and rebirth.
Copies of archival images are included inside of the tent, which has been installed at Oxley Nature Center, an 800-acre nature preserve located next to the Tulsa International Airport.
“There’s also a shooting range nearby so the sounds of the planes and gunfire often coincide. When we were standing inside the tent, we heard the planes and the gunshots while being immersed in these images of violence. The sound installation component was not planned,” says Ahmad.
The piece, pre-COVID 19, was slated to be a community collaborative project. During the height of the coronavirus pandemic, Ahmad and a neighbor engaged in socially distanced walks throughout Oxley Nature Center. That’s when she started reimagining the project, which is a co-production between the Greenwood Art Project and the Tulsa Artist Fellowship.
“The forest became my refuge,” she says. “The whole idea evolved where I could take the work to the forest and bring people out there for the experience of being out in nature as part of the healing process.”