Valerie Castile examining the video game controls that belonged to her son Philando Castile. Photo by Dave Hochendoner.

Two years ago, Emmy Award-winning filmmaker and documentarian Emmai Alaquiva had what Marvin Gaye called a “Make Me Wanna Holler” moment. 

It was the summer of 2020 when the televised murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer galvanized street protests around the world. For Alaquiva, the moment that stood out for him was when Floyd, with an officer’s knee on his neck, “called out for his mama with his last breath.”

That was the incident that gave birth to Alaquiva’s latest exhibition, now at the August Wilson African American Cultural Center through Jan. 29. OPTICVOICES: Mama’s Boys, is an interactive/multimedia exhibition showcasing 10 mothers of 10 sons who were victims of “systemic violence.”

The show provides a platform to the mothers who became household names often because of the death of their sons, but isn’t designed to be an indictment of the police despite its origin in Alaquiva’s “frustration and anger as a result of what was going on in America at that time.”

As he was assembling the elements of “Mama’s Boys,” the filmmaker began to “look inside” for a deeper understanding of what was happening because he didn’t want to simply contribute to the anger already swirling in society. 

Several mothers on stage at the August Wilson Center are interviewed by Celeste Smith. Photo courtesy of Dave Hochendoner.

“As I began to grow spiritually and emotionally, I found purpose in my pain and started to heal my hurt,” Alaquiva says. “My mission was to create a safe space to be occupied by the healing journey of mothers around the world.”

It was a counterintuitive instinct that paid off for both the artist and the mothers who entered into the project with him. The women were looking for ways to translate their trauma into healing as Lezley McSpadden, the mother of Michael Brown, the teenager killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, says so eloquently in a filmed segment.

Alaquiva notes that these mothers “may never be able to fully heal from the loss of a son,” but that they see the importance of continuing to represent their legacies “when all of the marches are over, protest signs get put away and people stop showing up.”

Emmai Alaquiva. Photo courtesy of Those in Motion.

Against the odds, Alaquiva has put together a fundamentally positive exhibit that showcases the humanity of these young men and the strength of their still-mourning mothers.

Two local mothers and sons have earned a place in an exhibition they would give anything to not be a part of. Michelle Kenney, the mother of Antwon Rose II, who was killed by an East Pittsburgh police officer on June 19, 2018, is featured along with Latonya Green, the mother of Leon Ford, who was shot and paralyzed during a traffic stop by police a decade ago.

Leon Ford is still very much alive and engaged in his own mission of peace and reconciliation between the city’s Black communities and police. In many ways, the work by Ford and Alaquiva dovetail perfectly because they are primarily oriented toward healing.

Alaquiva is aware that some gallery visitors won’t be attuned to that message immediately because of their anger.

Lezley McSpadden, the mother of Michael Brown. Photo courtesy of Emmai Alaquiva.

“When you tour an exhibit like this and see Mike Brown’s high school diploma or Oscar Grant’s sports trophy or Eric Garner’s basketball jersey, you start to see the components of humanity and healing that make this exhibit one of its kind in the country,” he says. “Encouraging healing is the core mission of OPTICVOICES: Mama’s Boys.”

Alaquiva is one of the inaugural artists of the B.U.I.L.D. Residency of the August Wilson African American Cultural Center sponsored by the Richard King Mellon Foundation. Alaquiva credits it with supplying the financial resources he needed to execute the project.

“This was a project that taught me to be at peace and accept my very own mental health journey,” he says.

Dear readers: I hope you’re enjoying the change of pace in my weekly column in NEXTpittsburgh as much as I am. I’m also working on a new podcast with my friend and fellow journalist Natalie Bencivenga. In Other News will launch in early 2023. Stay tuned!

Tony Norman’s column is underwritten by The Pittsburgh Foundation as part of its efforts to support writers and commentators who cover communities of color that historically have been misrepresented or ignored by mainstream journalism.

Award-winning writer Tony Norman tells the untold stories of Pittsburgh’s Black communities in a weekly column for NEXT. The longtime columnist and editorial writer for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette was a Knight-Wallace Journalism Fellow at the University of Michigan and an adjunct journalism professor at Chatham University. He is the current chair of the International Free Expression Project.