US Open art initiative seeks to raise awareness of gender equality, inclusivity and LGBTQ+ issues

Fans weren't permitted to attend the 2020 US Open, but artwork representing Black Lives Matter was front and center. ASON SZENES/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

NEW YORK -- At last year's US Open, Black Lives Matter artwork transformed the otherwise empty front-row seats at Arthur Ashe Stadium. It was the height of the pandemic, and Flushing Meadows looked very different: Just players and their teams, no fans.

But 18 BIPOC artists took the opportunity to create a moving set of paintings to depict Black lives as part of "Be Open," a USTA initiative launched to acknowledge the issues faced by Black Americans.

This year, the initiative is back -- with a broader theme -- focused on raising awareness about gender equality, inclusivity and LGBTQ+ issues. A group of diverse and underrepresented artists was invited to the US Open to create original work.

The result: Vibrant and genre-bending portrayals of minority communities, of women and of the world, featured in an exhibition outside Arthur Ashe Stadium throughout this year's tournament.

Here is an inside look at the artwork and the artists who created it.

Islenia Mil, illustrator

"My vision of representation and inclusivity captures the idea that regardless of gender, race, or sexual orientation, we are all still remembered, that we all have a chance to show that we are here and play a crucial part. I've visually depicted in having several different figures, each representing a different group that has historically been discriminated against simply for being who they are. All of them existing and working together to catch the shooting star tennis ball," Mil wrote in a description of her art.

Mil is an Afro-Latina, Dominican-born, New York City-based illustrator who uses vibrant colors and characters in her visual storytelling. Mil's illustrations have been featured as an NPR podcast illustration and in Quanta Magazine, and her clients include Facebook, Twitter NYC and others.

Wednesday Holmes, artist and activist

Named by Out Magazine as one of the "world's top queers to follow on Instagram" in 2019, Holmes is a queer and non-binary artist and activist who explores identity and mental health in their art. They use bright colors and themes to challenge societal norms towards the LGBTQ+ community. They have over half a million TikTok followers and use their platform to raise awareness about mental health.

Chella Man, artist, actor, activist:

"At times, I have felt like a crowd of people all at once. A body of bodies. This piece not only makes peace with the multitudes I have come to know within myself, but welcomes them," Man said about this work.

A genderqueer, trans-masculine and deaf artist and actor, Man has achieved international acclaim for his medium-bending artwork, acting and LGBTQ activism. Man, who is of Jewish and Chinese descent, uses film, painting, collage and performance art to explore the continuation of identity in his work. He has written a book ("Continuum"), acted in movies (Jericho in "Titans of DC") and directed a short film ("The Beauty of Being Deaf").

Demont Pinder, artist and historian

"A child handing food to a homeless woman at the bus stop as she walks past with her father. It may seem as if he's not paying attention to the woman but the moral of the story is he taught his daughter well," Pinder said about this painting.

In the Washington, D.C., area, Pinder is known for his emotive paintings of the city's youngest victims of violence. Originally from Queens, New York, Pinder uses his art to record human hardships and successes.

"When things like this come across my phone and my screen, in the middle of everything I got going on, I try to stop for a second and I try to paint a bright picture of a dark situation," he told the Washington Post in 2019. "As I'm painting these pictures, as a young Black male, it takes a piece away from me. My heart aches for the family and for the children in these schools."

Sheryo, artist:

"A room where equal opportunities, kindness, new friendships, endless sunshine and cool vibes abound for everyone and anyone," Sheryo said to describe the painting.

Sheryo is one half of the artist duo The Yok and Sheryo. The New York City-based artists are wanderers who have produced murals, mixed-media paintings and sculptures that have been exhibited around the world, including Singapore, France, Thailand and Sweden. This is how they defined their art on their website: "Their art exists in 'Yeahnahnesia,' a fictional tropical island with rich, made-up tales of mythology, deities, philosophies, religion, animals and landscapes and a ton of archaeological treasures yet to be found."

Stormy Nesbit, illustrator and designer

"A semi-abstract depiction of a Black woman who owns every room she walks in and has no fear. She embodies strength, elegance and calmness and it can't be missed. When I look at that girl I realize I'm that girl and she is me," Nesbit described.

A Phoenix-based designer and illustrator, Nesbit, uses her work to explore the beauty and strength of women in the Black communities. Nesbit's work has appeared in several national publications, including the now-famous Black Lives Matter illustration, which ran along with Vice President Kamala Harris' story "To Be Silent Is To Be Complicit" in Cosmopolitan in June 2020. https://www.cosmopolitan.com/politics/a32766156/kamala-harris-black-lives-matter-protests/

Jamaal Lamaaj, artist and educator

In this piece, Lamaaj "reaches to restore what we hand over to the next generation in mind, body and spirit. A quest for truth to build on for a brighter future of love, peace and prosperity," the written description of the painting says.

Barber by day and artist by night, Lamaaj mixes real and abstract themes in his work to question human behavior and to inspire people to leave the planet in better shape. His work has been showcased in the Washington, D.C., Auto Show and Revival DC among others.

Steven Paul Judd, artist, screenwriter, filmmaker

"When most people think of Native Americans, they think of them as monoliths. But there are over 500 different tribes in the U.S. alone. Each with their own unique culture. From their music and food to their songs and language. I wanted to do a mosaic, each beautiful color representing the many different tribes across the land," Judd said about the painting.

Judd is Kiowa and Chocktow from Oklahoma. The recipient of the Hatch USA Artist Fellowship, Judd's artwork gives us a glimpse into the world of Native Americans. His written screenplays have been bought by HBO, Netflix and Disney. He is known to use humor and satire in his work to great effect.

Niege Borges, illustrator and designer

"A tribute to strong women that are always on the move. I like to portray women in heroic poses that resemble a warrior because that's how I see them. This is also a tribute to all immigrants that, like me, had the courage to start a life in another country," Borges said in a description of the painting.

Borges is a Brazilian-American, Brooklyn-based illustrator and graphic designer who uses bright colors and themes to explore gender fluidity, body shapes and race. Some of her clients include Nike, Instagram, Apple and Sephora.

Edward Ubiera, artist

"A tribute to teachers during the pandemic," reads Ubiera's description of his art.

Dominican-American artist Ubiera lives in New York City and focuses on illustrations and collages that travel between realism and abstract themes. Ubiera's work has appeared in The New York Times, Tidal Magazine and Ad Age Magazine, and he has worked with brands including The North Face, Aeropostale and Levi's.