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Desmond Lewis: From Symbolic Sculptures to Detonating Fireworks
By: Jovia Zhang
Memphis-based artist Desmond Lewis was unloading bundles of fireworks connected by a high-speed fuse from a pickup truck in a public park in Greenwood, Mississippi. These fireworks, also called cakes, were to provide a display for 150 excited viewers during a Juneteenth celebration on Saturday night, June 18.
Primarily a sculptor, 28-year-old Lewis’s works are carved, cast, fabricated, and forged from industrial materials. In his piece “Bout that split tho,” a construction of steel solidly sits in a block of pocked and striped cement. In another piece, “America’s Forgotten,” steel shaped like broken chain links decorate a vertically standing cylinder of concrete. The 16-foot sculpture can be found overshadowing the campus of the University of Memphis.
Lewis is able to convey a deeper meaning through his works: To him, their smooth surfaces show how national narratives that discuss African-American labor histories are concealed, covered up, or dismissed. While many constructions that feature finagled concrete still look pristine, his sculptures look like they’re about to fall apart. They show the truth behind the fabricated fantasies of white super mercy (the fantasy that white slaveholders treated slaves mercifully) and the realities of Black life. Although there is a deep meaning to his sculptures, Lewis also adds bits of fun – a splash of color, a vivacious placement, a nostalgic handprint.
Lewis’s pyrotechnic adventure started in the summer of 2018, at the prestigious Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture. During this time, Lewis began to think about ways to “break through” in his artwork. He had been dealing with images of police brutality and connected protests in cities such as Ferguson, Missouri and Baltimore, Maryland. “As a Black person,” he explained, according to the New York Times, “you can only hold so much in for so long.”
As he was doing research to analyze the ways a “very warranted” explosion could be made sculpturally, Lewis realized there was little visual difference between the flames that emerge from a firework and those that come from a burning car. According to Lewis, “One’s socially acceptable, the other’s not.” In order to test his theory, Lewis built three small concrete columns and placed fireworks inside. In a large meadow at dusk, he lit his first firework.
That first “strike” sent Lewis plunging into the intricate, multimillion-dollar industry of professional pyrotechnics. He wanted to enter an industry governed by complicated state and federal laws and guidelines and controlled by a small number of large companies. Display fireworks, Lewis found, were extortionately-priced—especially for under-resourced communities, many of them Black. Plus, the fireworks industry is owned primarily by white people. Yet, Lewis held steadfast to his goal of becoming a fireworks insider.
Lewis started working part-time for a large pyrotechnics company, accumulating on-the-job training and eventually earning his display operator’s license. Lewis was sent to small, mostly-white towns throughout the Southeast, where he was one of the few Black people to hold this type of job. He later described these experiences as “scary” and “uncomfortable.”
“As a sub-30 Black male in this country,” he says, “I have two options. I can either be six feet underground or in a six-foot cell. The labor that it takes to avoid those options are just inherent risks of survival.”
On his own, Lewis obtained fireworks licensures in multiple Southeastern states. Eventually he acquired a federal Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms “Type 54” license—along with a commercial driver’s license “holding a hazardous materials endorsement.” This license lets him purchase, transport, and shoot professional-grade fireworks.
According to the New York Times, “Greenwood is on the eastern edge of the Mississippi Delta, not far from where the Tallahatchie and Yalobusha Rivers meet to form the Yazoo. According to the 2021 U.S. census, more than 70 percent of the city’s 1,400 residents identify as Black. Nearly 30 percent of the population lives below the national poverty threshold. The city currently hosts two firework shows — one with a Christmas parade, and another for Independence Day, but none for Juneteenth. Two hours south in Jackson, where 80 percent of the population identifies as Black and the poverty line hovers around 24 percent, the City Council earlier this year voted down measures to fund pyrotechnics on Juneteenth and July 4 — a combined cost of $25,000 — according to news reports.”
In order to arrive in Greenwood, Lewis drove about 15 hours, carrying with him nearly 300 pounds of fireworks for a show that would take about 5 minutes. Although he had never been to Greenwood before, the site plans he had sent earlier had been approved by the local fire marshal.
At the end of the day, once everyone had settled down after the fun of the festival, Lewis began his vibrant display, lighting the up sky with pink and green flashes. Once, a spectator failed to respect the safety radius Lewis had established earlier. Even with Lewis yelling at him to get back, the man still persisted. While everyone was enjoying the last moments of the spectacle, Lewis used his body as a shield between the disobedient spectator and the exploding fireworks. When the show ended, the unidentified man—unhurt—sauntered back to the street that bordered the public park.
According to the New York Times, Mayor Carolyn McAdams said, “It is a wonderful event for Greenwood,” adding, “it was a well-attended event, safe and catered toward people enjoying life with friends and family.”
Although Greenwood was the only Juneteenth celebration Lewis “shot” this year (in pyrotechnic parlance), he hopes to organize more displays and shows to honor the holiday. And if you ever asked Lewis if the expense and effort were worth the payoff for such a brief fireworks presentation, he would respond, “Why can’t we just have our five minutes?”