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Light Up Your Life (For Sandra Bland)
198.1 x 121.9 cm (78 x 48 in.)
Medium and Support:
Neon, Plexiglas, faceted hematite, and aluminum chain
Commissioned and produced by Artpace San Antonio. Purchase through the generosity of an anonymous donor, 2020
Cauleen Smith’s neon banner blinks “I will light you up” and “I will light up your life.” Texas State Trooper Brian Encinia shouts the first statement at Sandra Bland, a Black woman, in a 2015 video of the rapidly escalating traffic stop that led to Bland’s death in police custody. The latter phrase plays on the song title “You Light Up My Life,” Debby Boone’s saccharine 1977 hit, which was reinterpreted by Aretha Franklin and Whitney Houston.
Smith’s use of neon allows the reclamation and transformation of these phrases and imagining of alternative social conditions. Emblazoning the trooper’s words in neon makes them unforgettable, insisting that we witness the cruelty of racist state violence, but we see them change into something positive, rooted in care for others. Smith writes:
“I wanted to play with this threat, ‘I will light you up,’ by finding a response that neutralized it. . . . And so this flashing neon is a dance off, a sing-a-thon, a battle, a protest, a memento mori that collectivizes Sandra Bland’s resistance, reclaims her sovereignty, and reifies the ways in which Black culture is inextricably woven into national identities and cultures.”
Smith was a professor in UT Austin’s Department of Radio-Television-Film from 2001 to 2007. Her return to Texas for a residency at Artpace San Antonio, Bland’s death, and the more recent police killings of Botham Jean and Atatiana Jefferson in their Dallas-Fort Worth homes prompted her to create this work.