Bed-Stuy mural honors Sha-Asia Semple, Black woman who died during childbirth

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Dennis Semple gestures to the newly-unveiled memorial mural of his daughter, Sha-Asia Semple, on Lewis Avenue in Bed-Stuy on Saturday, Sept. 19.
Photo by Caroline Ourso

Mourners gathered in Bedford-Stuyvesant on Saturday for the unveiling of a mural for Sha-Asia Semple, a local woman who died during childbirth at Woodhull Medical Center center in July. The artwork, located on Lewis Avenue and Monroe Street, looks to honor the life of the Bedford-Stuyvesant native while spreading awareness of the high maternal mortality rate among Black women, said the painter.

“I wanted it to be more a celebration of her and her family and her love,” said Danielle Mastrion. “I hope that it does bring awareness to the maternal mortality crisis. I personally did not know the alarming rates before I started researching this.”

Semple died on July 3 at the age of 26 from cardiac arrest after she was given an epidural despite her untreated preeclampsia — a condition in pregnant women marked by high blood pressure. Doctors successfully delivered her baby, Khloe, during an emergency C-section, said the family of Semple’s boyfriend in July. 

Semple’s death sparked outrage over the racial disparities in maternal health in New York City, where Black women are eight times more likely to die of pregnancy complications than white women. At a July protest outside Woodhull Medical Center — a city-run hospital in Bedford-Stuyvesant — protesters recounted the dismissal and aggression Black women often face in healthcare.

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Chaniqua Semple, Dennis Semple, Ruby Butler and Demeill Semple smile in front of the newly revealed memorial mural of Sha-Asia Semple on Lewis Avenue.Photo by Caroline Ourso

“I’ve seen people criminalized at bedside. I’ve seen other systems like child protective services and others used as a tool to get people to comply with medical procedures,” said doula Chanel Porchia-Albert. “Some of it centers around delayed care or no care or not believing a person when they express something.”

Following Semple’s death, her godfather reached out to Danielle Mastrion, a Brooklyn-based mural artist, to ask her to paint a mural in Semple’s honor. The family identified a spot for the painting, located around the corner of Semple’s native block where her family still lives, and helped design and finish the work of art, Mastrion said.

“Her family was incredible,” she said. “Her father was there every hour every single day, he took off work just to make sure I was ok, just to make sure everything on the wall was accurate and correct.”

The mural features a portrait of Semple based on a photo taken during her pregnancy photoshoot, a poem written by Semple’s mother called “To My Beautiful Angel,” dedications from her and her boyfriend’s families, and floral designs. In front of the mural are benches built by a doula named Efe Osaren who has been vocal about Semple’s death and the reproductive racism, and volunteers she recruited, Mastrion said.

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Volunteers built benches in front of the Bedford-Stuyvesant memorial for Sha-Asia Semple so her family and friends can sit in front of the site.Courtesy of Danielle Mastrion

Mastrion — who has also painted a mural for the New York Aquarium on the Coney Island boardwalk and a large Shirley Chisholm mural in Starrett City, among other significant projects — said that painting the memorial for Semple was particularly emotionally taxing. 

“For me, it was very emotional, I did have to step away from it a few times,” she said, adding that the presence of Semple’s family made her feel their suffering. “I felt the love, I felt the pain. I felt it all just being around them constantly. I hope people feel that in the wall.”

More than 100 family members and friends came together on Saturday afternoon for the unveiling of the mural, which one close friend of Semple’s said was the perfect tribute to the beloved 26-year-old.

“It was beautiful. Very life-like, the artist was awesome,” said Lisa Whitney, a Bedford-Stuyvesant resident and a friend of Semple’s family. “Everything was well-deserved for her. At some point her daughter will be old enough to recognize her mom.”

Whitney added that Semple’s death is still so new that the tribute, while beautiful, pains her whenever she sees it.

“It’s so heart wrenching,” she said. “I probably won’t ride past there for a while because it’s still so fresh and it bothers me.”

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Danielle Mastrion painting the mural of Sha-Asia Semple on Lewis Avenue.Courtesy of Danielle Mastrion