Creators of an app want the name Breonna Taylor to conjure up more than visions of a young woman killed by police in Louisville, Kentucky, in 2020 in a late-night raid of her apartment.
Tap on the "Breonna’s Garden" app and you see her contagious smile, perfectly coiffed hair and joyful eyes. You hear the refrain from Mary J. Blige’s “Everything,” the song Taylor planned to play at her wedding to boyfriend Kenny Walker.
In augmented reality, Taylor is alive, laughing with relatives, being kissed by her mother, bouncing in a car with her cellphone in her hand, standing and grinning, with her arm draped over her sister’s shoulder.
“Because of the injustice and the trauma around it, for her family, we can’t lose the memory of her life,” said Lady Pheønix, creative director and founder of "Breonna’s Garden."
“The news media will never let you forget … that Breonna Taylor was brutally shot. It’s our responsibility to continue to say her name and change the energy of her name out in public.”
To paint a fuller picture of Taylor after her death, her younger sister, Ju’Niyah Palmer, began posting photos and videos of her on Instagram doing regular things, like dancing and singing behind a Snapchat filter. Palmer was grieving out loud while also vowing that her sister’s name would be more than a national cry for justice or a news story about a 26-year-old emergency room technician being killed by police executing a “no-knock” warrant for her ex-boyfriend on drug charges.
Lady Pheønix, who is based in Sacramento, California, noticed the Instagram posts and reached out to Palmer in September 2020, suggesting the creation of a digital tribute to Taylor. Palmer was suspicious but her mother encouraged her to respond.
“My mom said these types of opportunities don’t come all the time and that something like that hadn’t been done,” said Palmer, who said she also sometimes receives hate messages from strangers online.
Lady Pheønix spoke with her creative partner, known as Sutu, about the images of Taylor’s family she kept seeing. It turned out he was 400 miles south in Los Angeles watching the same images.
“She mentioned how she was following the story and hadn’t seen much opportunity for Ju’Niyah to tell her story and she saw the toxic comments on her social media page,” Sutu said. “So we talked about, ‘How do you create a safe space online? And how do we do it for Ju’Niyah, specifically?’”
Because the creative duo wanted to reach as many people as possible, Sutu suggested using augmented reality, which could be viewed with a mobile phone.
Palmer recalled the developers asking her for her sister's favorite flower and song. “I told them she loved butterflies,” she said. “She was cremated, and I picked out a vase with butterflies on it. It was a symbol of her being free. She had a tattoo of a tulip on her right foot. She always said she was going to grow some tulips in her garden when she got a house.”
Lady Pheønix and Sutu, the app’s artistic and technical director, put those elements together. Users can see Taylor and Palmer in long dresses, standing in a garden of tulips.
At the time of Taylor’s death, the sisters lived together in an apartment along with Walker, Taylor’s boyfriend, who was with her the night of the shooting on March 13, 2020. Palmer was visiting friends in California.
Taylor and Walker planned to marry and buy a house. Taylor was going to enter nursing school.
After Taylor’s death, Palmer, her mother, other relatives and close friends got tattoos that include butterflies. Palmer also released butterflies at a demonstration after a grand jury failed to file criminal charges against the police officers involved in her sister’s death.
Meanwhile, Lady Pheønix grappled personally with how to honor Taylor and push for justice.
“Protesting has its benefits … but I think sometimes, especially as people of culture, we maybe need to employ different approaches,” she said. “My approach is creative. I’m not going to ever be out in the streets.”
“I would look at the news and see her mother bravely out there, standing, trying to get justice, and I would look at Ju’Niyah in the background, silent, sometimes with blank expressions. Sometimes deep anger, sorrow,” Lady Pheønix said.
She conceptualized a place of healing that would represent who Taylor really was and counter the inaccuracies she saw in media coverage that alluded to Taylor being involved in drugs.
In "Breonna’s Garden," a hologram of Ju’Niya stands next to her sister and tells a favorite anecdote that illustrates how her older sister took care of her. A user can also hear messages from other people, some about Taylor and some from people talking about other deceased loved ones. Users record their own messages and new tulips grow.
After Sutu sent the app to the family for them to test it, Tamika Palmer, Breonna’s mother, left a message that says in part: “Breonna, I don’t know if you’ll ever understand or be able to feel what you being taken away from us has done. I only get comfort in praying that you are with your granny looking over each other because I know how much you missed her.”
“Even though our situation was terrible and public, people grieve in their way, and everyone needs a sacred space,” Ju’Niyah Palmer said.
So far there have been two physical temporary installations of “Breonna’s Garden,” where a local floral artist was invited to create a physical garden and place for people to step in and use the app and speak of their grief and anecdotes of loved ones. One installation was at the Tribeca Festival in New York in July 2021, and the other was this past December as part of Art Basel in Miami.
The app’s creators said are brainstorming ways to use the app to raise money for the Breonna Taylor Foundation, established by her family to support causes Taylor cared about, including youth programs and scholarships for students pursuing careers in health care.
“There’s also no rush for this to be a national sensation. The point is healing,” Lady Pheønix said. Sutu said he views the technology used in the app as an indication of how history may be told in the future.
“The hologram represents a new form of capturing memories,” Sutu said. “I can imagine that hologram we captured of Ju’Niyah could end up in a museum.”
The creators expect that Walker, Taylor’s boyfriend, will appear in the next generation of the app. Ju’Niyah Palmer admitted that seeing the app the first time was “bittersweet. My mom and her boyfriend cried and played it over and over,” she said
“I don’t look often but if I’m having a conversation with someone, I tell them to check it out,” Palmer said, adding, “I looked at it last week. I have my days,” she said of the grief process. “It’s up and down. Holidays are especially harder.”
Palmer’s 21st birthday was Dec. 5, a day when she and Taylor usually celebrated together. Now she’s bracing herself for the second anniversary of Taylor’s killing. At least now, she’s used to sharing her sister with the public.
“It was strange in the beginning,” Palmer said. “But as time has gone on, I have grown to be OK with sharing her.”
Palmer said what still hurts is when people malign her sister’s reputation. She said she finds it upsetting when people who oppose the movement to find justice for Taylor “try to say things they don’t know about her and everything they say is incorrect.”
The mischaracterization of Taylor’s story is where Lady Pheønix and Sutu say they think augmented reality can help protect Taylor’s legacy.
Lady Pheønix wants people to recall Taylor as “someone associated with healing and well-being instead of death, trauma, injustice and destruction. It’s not fair to her to attach the energy of all of that to her name. That’s not who she is. That’s not who she was.”