It started as a line in a poem: “Unlearn Fear + Hate.”
Since then, that phrase has become an artwork, a global endeavor some people call a movement, and now it is an exhibition.
Friday, Transylvania University-based artists Kurt Gohde and Kremena Todorova open “Unlear Fear + Hate” in the second floor gallery of the Pam Miller Downtown Arts Center as part of Lexington Gallery Hop. The exhibit, which will run through Jan. 6, illustrates where the project has gone since it launched in August 2016 in a contentious time when the fate of statues of Confederate War figures on the Old Courthouse Square was being hotly debated.
Gohde and Todorova participated in those discussions, which were eye opening for the artists.
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“It became clear how divided we were in terms of this conversation about racism and confederate monuments,” Todorova said, noting the divisions went well beyond historical disagreements. “So we wanted to create an artwork that humanized people to each other, because we believed and still believe that if we can see each other as fully human, there won’t be the same kind of violence toward each other.”
The roots of “Unlearn Fear + Hate” go back to one of the duo’s most successful endeavors, The Lexington Tattoo Project. In the 2012 to 2014 project, participants volunteered to have a phrase from a poem by then-Lexington poet Bianca Spriggs tattooed on their bodies and be photographed to form a collective image. A successor to that Project was the Global Tattoo Project, which utilized Frank X Walker’s poem “Love Letter to the World.” It included the passage:
We can’t pass the course on humanity
if we keep failing the lessons
and until we unlearn fear and hate.
One of the major differences between the two tattoo projects was while the Lexington project limited each word or phrase from its poem to one participant, global project participants were free to use whatever phrase they wanted, regardless if someone else had used it.
“Unlearn fear and hate” turned out to be the most used phrase by project participants around the world. Gohde and Todorova honed in on the phrase and created a “halo” presenting the phrase in a form that people could take a photograph in front of it creating a saint-like image. Gohde said the idea was that the images would be a “visual petition” as the images and idea were shared.
The project launched in August 2016 with the installation of the original halo on the wall of the 21c Museum Hotel across the street from the courthouse and the statues, which have since been removed. There was also a Spanish version of the halo installed at the Village Branch of the Lexington Public Library.
Gohde and Todorova have worked on a variety of inventive and thought-provoking projects for the past decade, starting with “Passing,” an in-depth look at drag queen culture in Lexington. They have also worked on the tattoo projects and “Discarded,” a photo project that explored the stories of couches put out on the curb.
None of those efforts took on lives of their own the way “Unlearn Fear + Hate” did, which is what the Pam Miller Center exhibit explores.
In addition to the halos, simple stencils of the phrase displayed prominently in communities around the country and the world grew in popularity. In Lexington, the phrase was painted on the street in chalk paint on roads such as Bryan Avenue where monthly Night Market celebrations are held and in front of First Presbyterian Church.
The labor intensive work often brought out diverse communities to do the painting, including a Christian, Jewish and Muslim collective that created the Bryan Avenue display, which presented the phrase in four languages. But it didn’t stop there.
“This only happened as a joke on Facebook, where a friend of ours bought some letters at Michael’s and spelled out ‘Unlearn fear and hate’ on his sidewalk, and he tagged us saying, ‘look, my sidewalk was vandalized,’” Todorova says. “All these other people started to comment saying, ‘I want my sidewalk vandalized.’ We realized we have one small stencil this size. We can give it to people so they can make their own stencils. So we made 10 more, 20 more, 30 more, so for a while, there were many of them circulating.”
Gohde and Todorova were invited around the country — lo, around the world — to discuss “Unlearn Fear + Hate” and put the phrase in new places including Los Angeles, Bulgaria and South Africa, where the phrase was painted on a road in Cape Town’s notorious District 6 where, during apartheid, people of color were displaced to make way for a planned white enclave.
Then there were projects like seven halos at the University of Kentucky in the seven most spoken languages on campus — English, Spanish, Arabic, Hindi, Korean, Chinese and Swahili — a cross-stitch project to put the phrase in all the languages spoken in Lexington — more than 130 — and stickers that were found around the world.
Todorova said the stickers were created by Third Street Stuff owner Pat Gerhard with her own money, and they were distributed for free. The artists note there have been requests for Unlearn Fear + Hate gear, like T-shirts and hats.
“We never wanted to make anything to sell, because it didn’t seem right to us that we or anyone should profit from our feelings about our collective suffering in this country,” Todorova said.
But there will be something at the exhibit: bamboo drink coasters, along with coupons for people to get two cups of coffee, one for themselves and one for a stranger. The artists acknowledge they cannot enforce the stranger part of the equation, but say they want to advance the idea of sharing a cup of coffee.
The project has been an engrossing and unpredictable journey on which Todorova and Gohde have even been challenged to consider what fears and hates they harbor. While Todorova says she and Gohde tend to favor the “accessible and so democratic” nature of street art, the exhibit gives them a point to assess what the project has done.
“My biggest feeling is it’s an idea that came at the right time, and the city was generous enough to embrace it but also in need enough to embrace it,” Gohde says. “It doesn’t feel like we started something so much as there was a lot of motion happening, and we created an artwork that was basically able to take part on that motion.
“I don’t think it would be honest to say this has fixed anything. But I think what it did, and hopefully will continue to do, is create a place where people can have conversations.”
Todorova says, “Our lives have become so much richer because of the people we have met and are now friends with and work with. But we’ve also seen other people’s lives become richer, and I know there are a lot of lives we don’t know about. So the hope is other people have found something positive by their proximity to this artwork or participating in it.”
IF YOU GO
‘Unlearn Fear + Hate’
What: Exhibit of photos, videos and other objects from the Unlearn Fear + Hate project by Kurt Gohde and Kremena Todorova.
When: Nov. 16-Jan. 6 at the second floor gallery of the Pam Miller Downtown Arts Center, 141 E. Main St.
Hours: 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Fri., Sat.; 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Sun.; closed Mon.; 11 a.m-5 p.m. Tues.-Thurs.
Opening reception: 5-8 p.m. Nov. 16 during Gallery Hop (see below)
What: More than 50 open galleries and exhibition spaces in and around downtown Lexington
When: 5-8 p.m. Nov. 16