More Than a Hashtag: Memorial Portraits of Black Lives Lost

Portland’s Ameya Marie Okamoto is one of many artists who create memorial portraits of people who have died in unjustified police shootings and other controversial situations. These images are widely used in public memorials and community remembrances, and in social media campaigns meant to draw attention to the circumstances which led to their deaths.    

Okamoto’s first memorial portrait was for Quanice Hayes, an unarmed East Portland teenager shot by police in 2017 while on his knees complying with orders. Hearing about the case from the activist group Don’t Shoot Portland, she made the portrait on her laptop in two hours, and sent it to them. In less time than it took to create, the image was widely disseminated on social media.    

Since then, she has created memorial portraits for  Christopher Kalonji (shot by Portland police in 2016), Taliesin Myrddin Namkai-Meche (killed while defending two teenage girls who were being attacked by a white supremacist on a Portland MAX train in 2017), and many other victims.    

Okamoto recognizes that the two functions of a memorial portrait can sometimes come into conflict – as a personal remembrance for the victim’s family, and as an icon for a wide audience. “People get so attached to the hashtag and the movement of George Floyd or Quanice Hayes,” she told Oregon Public Broadcasting. “They forget that George Floyd was a trucker who moved to Minneapolis for a better life, or that Quanice Hayes was actually called ‘Moose’ by his friends and family.”   

As she spent more time making memorial portraits, Okamoto wondered if it were proper for an Asian American to be so involved in an issue where African Americans were the primary targets. Reassured by African American activists that she was more than welcome, she reconsidered, and finally concluded, as she told OPB, that “there has to be a space for every one of us to be able to take down the system.”    

A pastor was once asked what he considered his job to be, and quoting Finley Peter Dunne, he replied, “To comfort the afflicted, and to afflict the comfortable.” Memorial portraits function in this way: they provide a family or a community with proof that someone they loved is remembered, and they show the wider world that the name they hear on the news was a living person with a family, someone who is missed and should not be easily forgotten.    

By John M. Burt