Above: Portrait of Brianna Harlan. All photos courtesy of the artist.


Brianna Harlan


Artist Profile   
Allie Fireel


While seeking a Master of Fine Arts focused on Social Practice at Queens College, City University of New York, Louisville-based artist Brianna Harlan has clearly honed the elements of her practice that made her such a vivid presence in Louisville’s scene. With her enveloping installation work, her thoughtful studio practice, and her effusive personality she  continues to  demonstrate what she calls “radical vulnerability.” She’s come home for the summer, and her return has been palpable, as she presents and performs works that catalogue racism and celebrate Blackness.

Black Love Blooms is a performance-centered project first created by Harlan in 2019, wherein she hands out free bouquets and love notes to Black people. It is as simple as it sounds, but its effect is complex and moving. It’s one of a duo- or possibly a trio- of works Harlan has brought to Louisville, all of which are formed by active interaction with the community. The second piece, She Ascends, is an augmented reality monument created for “Breonna Square,” the public park at 6th and Jefferson Street that has seen ongoing protesting, and ongoing harassment from police. The third piece has yet to be named, and exists for now only as a Google survey that asks Louisville-area creators to answer questions about injustice and abuse they’ve seen in the arts community.

Before I delve deeper into those effects or the genesis and evolution of Black Love Blooms and She Ascends, it is important to note that as a white writer, Black Love Blooms isn’t for me. Neither, to some extent, is She Ascends. I can observe, I can appreciate, but I believe it’s wrong for me to offer formal criticism of art created for those who’ve lived the Black experience.

Harlan spoke with me just a few days before Black Love Blooms fourth iteration, which occurred on Juneteenth of this year, after previous iterations in New York. It was also just days before She Ascends premiered.

Black Love Blooms first inspiration came from a comment on social media.

“Somebody said that Black people love to rally and cry when someone dies, or when there is violence perpetrated against the community, but otherwise they don't show up,” said Harlan.

While she felt that was incorrect, it nevertheless set Harlan’s mind in motion.

She wanted to create something that helped love show up, and she wanted it to embrace the community.

Harlan is no stranger to art based in performance and community work, though Black Love Blooms is something of an inversion of her normal process. Frequently she begins by working in the community to elicit responses to prompts from community members, and then uses the material generated to create her work. Now she is using her work as a prompt for one on one responses out in the community.

While social media planted the seeds for her idea, the structure of Black Love Blooms germinated in a class at Queens College called “Public School,” offered by Claire Bishop and Paul Ramirez Jonas.

“We went to public sites all over New York that kind ofinteracted with the space in different ways from restorative justice, to city systems, all sorts of different things. And we interviewed people and kind of learned how to bring public intervention work specific to different sites.”

According to Harlan, once her vision and basic structure were clear, the implementation was not difficult.

“You know, I  would go to the corner flower shop, and buy like, a shit ton of flowers for like, $50, and I designed these beautiful love notes that have these really  affirmative phrases on them…  and I'd say, ‘free flowers and love notes for Black people,’ and it’s as simple as that.”

She visited train stations, Times Square, and various neighborhoods. Harlan used social media to document the piece so Black Love Blooms could  pollinate in the Black community even further. On Instagram, @BlackLoveBlooms, there are flowers, smiling faces, and love notes that often read like short poems.

“BLACK AND BEAUTIFUL, YOUR SKIN IS
                                       FULL OF THE SUN.

                           NEVER DIM YOUR SHINE.”


“BLACK CHILD, THE WORLD IS NOT
ALWAYS NICE, BUT YOU ARE ALWAYS
                                              BEAUTIFUL.

                                               DREAM BIG.”

The project continued, and began to take on a life of its own, with a Kwanza iteration in Louisville, as well as additional iterations in New York. 

When Harlan announced that Black Love Blooms would have a Juneteenth interaction, she was surprised by the immediate flood of donations. While the support did include direct financial giving, Harlan was also being offered flowers, both from flower shops and flower farmers.  With overwhelming response, Black Love Blooms was ready to spring up in five different cities across the country including Louisville; New York City; Denver, Colorado; Jackson, Mississippi; and Los Angeles.

Like many pieces of performance art, the full effect of the piece can’t be seen by anyone except the artist, and the individual interacting with the art, but Harlan relates anecdotes from the experience that convey intense moments of emotion.

“Sometimes it's just utter joy and excitement. Especially like—Black men will turn into children about it. They're just so geeked. I've had them tell me they've never gotten flowers before. They get so, so happy, it's the cutest, I mean #BlackBoyJoy is so heartwarming.”

Black women on the other hand, often respond with hesitation.

“Black women are used to being the people who take care of everyone,” said Harlan. “So when someone approaches them and says hey, I want to love you, I don't know you, but you are a Black woman and I want to love you. There's a moment…I even had this one woman be like ‘um... no,’ and walk away. But her younger son accepted, then walked back to his mother and sister and gave (the flowers) to them. And she kind of looked up and made eye contact with me after she read the love note, and just mouthed, ‘thank you.’"

Black Love Blooms will continue, and Harlan envisions multiple iterations, and possibly even a time when someone can visit a website, download instructions, love notes, press releases, and even request funding. 

“That is community activation. Giving them the ownership to do something in that community, and I just provide some resources.”

The community activation of She Ascends is more immediate and literal. A viewer uses an app or their phone to “see” a monument to Breonna Taylor, the Louisville woman whose death at the hands of police sparked ongoing protests.

“I'm working with Breonna's aunt, Bianca, and their family attorney to create basically a monument to (Breonna Taylor) that's going to live in Breonna Square. She sent me baby pictures. I'm putting this thing together and I'm kind of thinking of it as her ascension into a saint or a martyr, through the uplifting of the people.”

To interact with the monument, you have to go where it “is.” While it’s hard to say what the future holds, as of the publication of this article, to see that monument, one has to travel to the center of a protest, in essence joining the protest.

The use of augmented reality isn’t a gimmick. Harlan uses its ephemeral nature to offer permanence, and protection, to the monument’s saint.

“It's the type of monument that nobody can touch. So she will be safe there forever.”

Black Love Blooms and She Ascends are both successes already, but Harlan’s next project is still unfolding. Since July 3rd and 4th she’s been asking participants to fill out a questionnaire titled “Louisville Arts Scene Report: Injustices and Inequities.”

Here is a sampling of the blunt, difficult, and much needed questions:

Can you name one local Black woman who has had a solo show at a major commercial arts gallery or museum in Louisville?

Can you think of any art spaces and publications led by Black people?

Can you name one Black led arts anything that gets major support from anyone but Black people?

Do you find sexism common in arts institutions in Louisville?

Do you find racism common in arts institutions in Louisville?

There are 21 questions, and with the exception of the four questions that ask for demographic information, every question is likely to put a spotlight on the Louisville arts scene’s problem with racism—implicit, explicit, and systemic.

With Covid-19 affecting schools nationwide, it’s hard to say if Harlan’s work in Louisville will have to take a break while she returns to Queens to finish her MFA. If she does leave, here’s hoping she returns, and continues to spread joy and ask difficult questions.

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Notes:

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7.18.20
Allie Fireel
Contributor to Ruckus
Brianna Harlan.


A flower squad member, Christian, and a recipient during Black Love Blooms in Jackson, Mississippi.


Harlan during the Louisville Black Love Blooms event on Juneteenth.


Flower squad members Ibtisam and Moza give out roses during Black Love Blooms in New York City.

She Ascends on the 4th Wall app, with audio of chanting and spoken word poetry by Hannah Drake.


The love notes that are distributed during Black Love Blooms.