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Pigeons are Black Doves, 2017

Cauleen Smith

Look closely at this powerful textile from MAD’s permanent collection. Consider its urgent call for racial justice in the context of current news stories and how art can advance social equity in this object lesson designed for students in grades 6 and up


Pigeons are Black Doves is among a series of banners multidisciplinary artist Cauleen Smith created in response to the proliferation of videotaped shootings of black men and youths. The series was catalyzed by the killing of Tamir Rice, a twelve-year old African American boy shot by a Cleveland police officer in 2014. Take a long and careful look at the image above.

  • What is the very first thing that comes to mind?
  • What does the overall shape of the artwork remind you of?
  • What materials does it appear to be made of?
  • In what context or environment might you see flags or banners like this one? To what purpose?

The image depicts the front and back of a single banner.

  • What imagery can you identify on the image to the right?
  • The artist uses an eye, two birds of prey and a (magic?) eight ball as symbols. What do you think they signify?
  • How would you interpret the phrase spelled out on the left?
  • How do the two sides of the banner relate to one another?


Trying to give voice to her outrage and despair, Smith started jotting down phrases and mantras into her sketchbook. These ultimately became the inspiration for her banners, which were to be used in a procession-style performance with specially commissioned gospel music.

Smith has described her interest in processions as an artistic tool as follows: “There is something really, really personal about processions. When you walk down the street and are making a public declaration, it draws individuals to you who want to know or are concerned or are engaged or curious about what you’re expressing or what you’re demonstrating. That’s kind of different than really large political protests or agitations where there’s sort of like a very forceful push outwards.”

  • How would the work change through its use in a procession or protest march as opposed to its display in a museum gallery?
  • How do you think viewers would be emotionally and physically affected by the work?
  • Smith meticulously crafted the nearly six-feet-high banner out of velvet, sequins, and silky fabrics. Why might the artist have chosen these materials?
  • Why do you think Smith made this banner so large?


Reflecting on art’s activist potential, Smith has said: “I actually think that art might be the only thing at this point. Not protesting, and not politics, but art may be the only thing that could actually create conversation and dialogue or reconciliation or mediation. Because politics has just completely failed us. What I hope my work is capable of is for individuals, it’s for just any one person. If there’s just enough of an opening in them that they think about themselves or the world, or just think—and not even think differently, but just think for a moment. Just contemplate. Just open up a little bit—then I’ve done my job.

  • Has art ever affected you in the way Smith describes?
  • Do you think visual art is a good way to raise awareness of or communicate your opinions on social and political issues?


Think of a social justice issue that is impacting you, your community, or people in different parts of the world—it could be racial or gender equality, immigration, LGBTQ rights, environmental concerns, or any other cause that you want people to be more aware of.

  • Come up with a poetic or evocative sentence or motto that expresses your point of view.
  • How would you design your text to grab people’s attention?
  • Is there a simple image that could go along with your text?
  • Using fabric, felt, thread, buttons, ribbons, and other materials, make a protest banner featuring your slogan.

Cauleen Smith
Pigeons are Black Doves (from "In the Wake"), 2017
70 × 49 1/2 in. (177.8 × 125.7 cm)
Textile, sequins, acrylic paint
Museum of Arts and Design, New York; purchase with funds provided by the Collections Committee and Mike DePaola, 2017

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