When Erin Douglas first stepped into Nevada’s Black Rock Desert six years ago for her first Burning Man festival, the African-American woman already knew by reputation not to expect to see many other people who looked like him. It met his expectations.
“I saw more people than I expected, just because I didn’t expect to see anyone,” Douglas recalled. “But that wasn’t enough to say like, it was a lot of us.”
Douglas, a travel photographer, returned to the event in subsequent years and began using her camera to capture images and stories of other color burners, which she called the Black Burner Project.
“I had this idea of ââmaybe I’ll go back there and start documenting people so that hopefully can encourage those who have been curious to know we’re there,” said Douglas.
This year, Douglas is returning to Burning Man, which officially begins on August 28, but this time she’s forging herself as an artist, creating an installation that will feature some of her Black Burner photos enlarged up to at proportions of 30 feet. . She calls the project Black AsÃ©.
“That was the main thing,” said Douglas, who lives on the East Coast. “To take up space and be big and encourage people to do that.”
The photos will act as giant bookends for two scaffolding sculptures that will create a gathering space for Burners to climb, hang out and retreat to.
“We’re never admired,” Douglas said at the Petaluma art space where she and her team were building the project. “I wanted all of those things to be the meaning and the intention behind the size.”
The project’s large-scale faces address an equally important issue for Burning Man, which was founded in 1986 and has been criticized for years for its poor diversity record.
The event’s own self-reporting census in 2018 found that about 10% of attendees identified themselves as people of color. Black participants made up about 1% of the 80,000 residents. White participants made up 76.6%.
This year’s Burning Man event will be the first since 2019 â the last two years have been canceled due to the pandemic. But perhaps most importantly, it’s the first since the 2020 murder of George Floyd, which sparked waves of self-reflection on equality.
The Burning Man organization responded to Floyd’s death by acknowledging its own shortcomings: “We recognize that we have a lot of work to do as an organization and as a society, and we’re here for that.”
During his first Burning Man of 2019, Kyle Mimms pedaled his bike through the fine windy dust of the Nevada desert and noticed a few other Black Burners among them.
âIt was an incredible but also slightly polarizing experience to be one of the few people of color to ride,â Mimms said. “When you’re in a place where you don’t see others like you, it’s a different experience.”
That year, Mimms and his wife connected with Douglas at Burning Man. They took part in a mass group photo that Douglas staged with other color burners. Amid swirling dust and the ubiquitous beats of electronic music, dozens of black attendees gathered, flanked by the event’s signature “man” sculpture.
“Then you come across this great gathering of people like your community, such a unifying and fulfilling experience,” Mimms recalls.
Mimms, an East Coast project manager, joined Douglas’ efforts to bring Black AsÃ© to Burning Man. Recently at Petaluma, he welded pieces of steel creating the 30-foot metal structure that will support Douglas’ massive photos of Black Burners.
Douglas hopes the artwork will increase the visibility of people of color at Burning Man and send a message to let the world beyond Burning Man know that they are indeed there in dust and art.
“I want black and brown people to be able to see each other and be encouraged and have a space and find a home,” Douglas said.