BLACK ARTIST USES FIREWORKS TO PROTEST
By: Alina Zheng
All around him is swallowed by darkness, with only the moon radiating light. Standing in the middle of a large meadow, is Desmond Lewis, a 28-year-old African American man, wearing dark-rimmed safety glasses. One after another, he lights a firework and watches as it shoots up into the sky and explodes into a burst of color.
Lewis first began to experiment with pyrotechnics in the summer of 2018 when he attended the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, a highly selective summer residency program located in rural Maine that intends to enlighten rising artists and has produced acclaimed alumni Ellsworth Kelly, David Driskell, and Robert Indiana.
While completing his residency, Lewis used his works to express his feelings toward police brutality and attendant protests, saying “As a Black person, you can only hold so much in for so long.”
During his residency, he also learned more about pyrotechnics and lit his first firework. Sarah Workneh, the co-director of Skowhegan recollected the moment when Desmond displayed his first firework, saying, “It was thrilling. Everybody was pretty excited that it happened and that it could happen here.” She talked about the audience’s reaction stating, “They were excited by the event itself, by being shown what is possible.”
After this experience, Lewis wanted to enter the multimillion-dollar industry of professional pyrotechnics, which was ruled by complex state and federal regulations and controlled by a few large companies. He soon realized, however, that the industry was majority white, and because of the cost to display fireworks, low-income communities, especially Black areas, would have a small chance of seeing them. However, with the intent to give back to his community, Lewis didn’t back down and he worked to provide shows for low-income communities to watch fireworks.
Greenwood, for example, is located on the eastern side of the Mississippi Delta. According to the 2021 U.S. census, at least 70 percent of the city’s 1,400 residents were Black and nearly 30 percent of the residents are under the national poverty threshold. Greenwood hosted only two firework shows before Lewis came to perform on Juneteenth, which included during Christmas and Independence Day. Lewis spent days traveling to Greenwood, and five minutes before the show, he was hauling approximately 300 pounds of fireworks he would later ignite.
As Lewis began shooting the fireworks, the crowd filled with excitement, and the sky soon shone with a pink and green color. After the performance ended, Lewis said he would do it all over again “without a doubt.”
Lewis’ firework performances for underprivileged communities are a generous act and show that pyrotechnics bring people together, spreading joy to everyone. His hard work and effort reveal his true kindness and goal to allow the world to see the beauty of fireworks.