When the Rev. Wanda Johnson walked into WorthlessStudios, a not-for-profit arts space in Bushwick, for a recent exhibition opening, what she saw was almost certain to bring her to tears. On a wall facing the entrance was a large-scale mural featuring the face of Oscar Grant, her deceased son. Grant was killed by Bay Area Transit Police on New Year's Day in 2009 in an incident that became the subject of the 2013 movie "Fruitvale Station."

Here, Grant's face was painted alongside those of others who lost their lives in interactions with police, including Sandra Bland, Marco Woods, and Philando Castile. The mural, below which patrons left flowers as a memorial gesture, is one portion of "1-800 Happy Birthday," an exhibition meant to celebrate the lives of individuals killed by police.

“Just looking at my son's pictures, and just looking at all of the other pictures of those who have been killed by law enforcement, just has me full of emotions, which it takes a lot for me to get emotional,” Johnson told Gothamist.

Photographs of individuals killed in police shootings adorned phone booths that played voicemail messages left in their memory.

The exhibition, conceived and developed by Iranian-born filmmaker Mohammad Gorjestani with WorthlessStudios, is largely an auditory experience. It centers around 12 old New York City payphones that have been cleaned up, redecorated, and reprogrammed to play back voicemail messages friends and family have left for their lost loved ones over the years.

The exhibition is a continuation of several projects Gorjestani has created on this subject over the years. After directing a series films about individuals killed in police encounters, Gorjestani developed "1-800 Happy Birthday" as a web project, inviting people to call a number and leave a message for a person killed by police on their “heavenly” birthday.

For the Brooklyn installation, those messages have been brought to the physical space. Each celebrant gets their own payphone adorned with their name. Photos provided by families fill the vitrines where advertisements traditionally appear. Each payphone rings when it's approached by a visitor, who's invited to listen to recorded messages or leave one of their own.

“The idea of this exhibition, and of the project in general, is to celebrate birthdays,” curator Klaudia Ofwona Draber said. “So it is to celebrate their lives. And with this exhibition, we want to show that they were more than the headline they appeared with at the moment of their death.”

Filmmaker Mohammad Gorjestani, Worthlessstudios artistic director Neil Hamamoto, and curator Klaudia Ofwona Draber greeted guests at the opening of "1-800 Happy Birthday."

Gorjestani, who grew up in what he described as a “Section 8 immigrant melting pot” in the Bay Area, said he was always heavily influenced by Black people and culture, and felt he had a responsibility to engage the Black Lives Matter movement in a positive way.

“What I know as an immigrant from the Middle East is that everything that has been positively impacting our lives as immigrants, or frankly just non-white people, has always been led by Black people,” Gorjestani said. “The civil rights movement allowed the legislation to allow for easier immigration. So in a lot of ways, my feeling is that we all owe Black people a great duty.”

In 2015, he made a short film, “Happy Birthday Oscar Grant, Love Mom,” in conjunction with Oscar Grant Day, an annual celebration organized by Johnson, Grant’s mother.

“What I really recognized was how it was like talking about Oscar Grant through a different context, which was his life,” Gorjestani said. “Not the loaded political conversations or the headline news kind of like discourse. It was more personal, in an intimate celebration of a person kind of way.”

Friends and family members who lost loved ones to police shootings, including the Rev. Wanda Johnson (center, in black), gathered for the opening of "1-800 Happy Birthday."

Gorjestani made two more films, and then in 2020 launched the "1-800 Happy Birthday" website, which would archive hundreds of messages from friends and family members. He began the project with Mario Woods, who was shot by police more than 20 times in 2015. Gorjestani remembers how Woods’ mother responded after the site received more than 60 messages on the first day.

“She's like, 'listen, some days I get down, and now I have something that I can listen to with a tap of a button that can just pick me back up,'” he said. “And that was enough for me to be like, 'you know, we've gotta keep doing this.'”

In 2020 Gorjestani was introduced to people at WorthlessStudios, whose mission involves meeting an artist's needs by helping to acquire materials and providing space for exhibitions and public art.

“When I realized that New York City payphones were coming out of the streets, I thought that we had found the perfect material to sort of turn his idea from a digital website into a physical large-scale installation,” said Neil Hamamoto, WorthlessStudios' founder and artistic director. “And that's really when we started to pick up speed and start to really lock in details on how we can make this thing come to life in a different dimension.”

A newsstand installation within the "1-800 Happy Birthday" exhibition sells snacks, drinks, and other small items. The proceeds are forwarded to the honorees' families.

Also included in the Brooklyn installation is a space designated as a living room, featuring photo albums and items of clothing donated by family members of each celebrant. Both Draber and Gorjestani say the room is designed to provide an opportunity to process the exhibition as a whole.

“You can see photographs. There will be photo albums. There will be books with different information about racial justice, mental health, trauma, and healing,” Draber said. “We're showing who they were, what they liked, who were the people they were hanging out with, their friends and families.”

Visitors can purchase flowers, chips, and candy at a newsstand incorporated into the exhibition, with proceeds going to the families.

Johnson hopes that visitors will come away from "1-800 Happy Birthday" with a new appreciation of the people it commemorates. “Oftentimes when our young men are killed at the hands of police, the system demonizes them, the system blames them for their own loss,” she said. “But I want the people who come to leave with these were ordinary people that lived ordinary lives, that didn't deserve to die.”