‘We Thrive in Middle Spaces’: UNO artist illustrates billboard project celebrating BIPOC, LGBTQIA2S+ Omahans

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Leta Lohrmeyer
EDITOR IN CHIEF

“We Thrive in Middle Spaces,” features queer people of color in the Omaha community on five different billboards. The project’s lead artist, Tiana Conyers,  was chosen by The Union for Contemporary Art. Photo courtesy of Tiana Conyers.

As you drive through North Omaha, take a moment to look up and enjoy the colorful art on five new billboards, it’s thanks to Tiana Conyers.

Conyers, an artist and UNO student studying studio art, collaborated with The Union for Contemporary Art to create the project “We Thrive in Middle Spaces.” Each of the five billboards will feature a Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Intersex, Asexual, 2 Spirit+ (LGBTQIA2S+) individual who is Black, Indigenous, or a person of color (BIPOC) in the Omaha community.

The billboards spread throughout North Omaha debuts on Aug. 10 and will remain there until Aug. 30. The Union’s project is financed by the Equality Fund through the Omaha Community Foundation

“As a queer, Black illustrator whose work often features fat bodies and queer identities, The Union identified Conyers as having both an ideal eye for portraiture and an artistic commitment to elevating overlooked identities,” stated The Union’s press release.

The project’s title, “We Thrive in Middle Spaces” comes from a line in Adrian C. Nava’s “An Open Letter to the Boy Who Outed Me.” Conyers read it years ago in an email and was inspired by its poetic nature. 

“I had a lot of ideas from the open letter for an art project, so I decided to take those ideas, write them down and put it in my email. Then it sat there for years and I forgot it completely,” said Conyers.

When The Union reached out to Conyers about the prospective project, she immediately thought about the ideas sitting in her inbox. She came into the project focused on how to visually feature and uplift intersectional identities of queer people of color. 

“Oftentimes, we’re forced to see which thing [identity] comes first,” Conyers said. “Are you a queer person first? Are you black or brown first? Instead of choosing which one, I wanted to feature them intersectionality and together.” 

In addition to creating the art, Conyers helped chose the subjects to feature, along with the curatorial intern and fellow Omaha artist, Ang Bennett. 

Conyers also interviewed all the participants of this project: Charlene and Markia Kelly-Hill, a Black lesbian couple with their three-year-old son Roman; Rustina Roze, a gay Black award-winning drag queen; Big Mama, a long time teacher whose tribe is Winnebago; Seng Naw Marip, a gay Kachin tattoo artist; Mr. Little Cat, a genderqueer performer of the Havasupai and Diné tribes.

“These are people who make up our community and make up Omaha,” said Conyers. “Whether you like it or not, we’re here, and we deserve to be heard and be seen. Being on a billboard is one of the most prominent ways to be seen, especially by the public.”

In this project, Conyers brought her own identity as a pansexual Black woman into the creation process. Conyers said that as a queer person of color you often have to hide parts of yourself in order to make other people comfortable or for your own safety. She doesn’t often see people like herself in media, which is why she’s excited to highlight these participants. Conyers said it’s significant to represent identities and cultures accurately, but also the people themselves.

“A major part of this project is humanizing us. Often with queer people, others will say ‘oh, yeah they’re gay.’ We become our identities and nothing more than that,” Conyers said.

Conyers’ artistic style consists of bright pops of colors, making subjects bold and expressive. This project is different from her normal work, which primarily takes place on a digital medium, instead it’s now physically taking up space in the skyline. “We Thrive in Middle Spaces” is quite literally the largest project Conyers has ever done. 

“I just can’t wait to see my work on this scale,” said Conyers. “I just can’t wait to see how everybody else, responds and feels about it. I’m gonna be happy regardless. People could hate it and I’d still be happy, but at the end of the day, I can’t wait to actually physically see it.”

This project wasn’t Conyers’ first experience with The Union. She once worked at The Union as a teaching artist, assisting in classroom instruction for two and a half years. She said she was glad to return to work with people she’s familiar with.

“It makes this event and everything I’m doing particularly more special. Because I get to work with an organization of people that I’m familiar with and I know who respect my artistic craft,” said Conyers.

Now Conyers works at the Creative Production Lab on the UNO campus, she’s the one responsible for the “Baby Yoda” stickers. Conyers said that the university still lacks the various amounts of different cultures and identities that she was used to growing up around. Conyers wanted to send the message to UNO students, in particular, to be prepared to have conversations about implicit and explicit racism, citing the current events revolving around Black Lives Matter.

“While this project isn’t necessarily meant to push any sort of message for revolution, our existence here as queer people of color, especially in the predominantly white city of Omaha, Nebraska is revolutionary, and it is bold and it is political,” said Conyers.

Conyers said she hopes that people go out and visit these billboards, but not just as a form of performative activism.

“If you believe in supporting queer people outside of Pride month; if you believe in supporting people of color take this opportunity to educate, respect and to reach out to people and communities to uplift their voices and to center them. Not just simply take a selfie in front of a colorful billboard.”

 

Here are the locations of the five billboards:

  1. E/S 30TH STREET n/o SPENCER
  2. W/S RADIAL HWY n/o CHARLES STREET
  3. W/S 30TH STREET s/o SPAULDING
  4. N/S AMES e/o 39TH STREET
  5. SW CORNER of 24TH & GRANT

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