Walls of Heritage, Walls of Pride: African American Murals

Document Actions
African-American community murals had their roots in the generation of artists that flowered under the WPA's Federal Artists Program and then taught in historically black colleges.

James Prigoff and Robin J. Dunitz

Reviewed by Mike Mosher

Wednesday, September 5 2001, 2:29 PM

The histories of community murals and people of the African diaspora intersect in fruitful ways.

African-American community murals had their roots in the generation of artists that flowered under the WPA's Federal Artists Program and then taught in historically black colleges. This generation included such well-respected older figures as John Biggers and Charlies White.

With the rise of black conciousness in the 1960s, the contemporary community mural movement sprang up. It arose as much from the black neighborhoods of the United States as it did the Chicano/Latino ones. Projects often emerged from artists' initiative, like the Wall of Respect with its range of black heroes. The late William Walker of Chicago, who varied the size of proximate figures for effect and employed cubist layering of faces, was one of this era's first masters. Murals became so well-known as a staple of black neighborhoods that Hollywood producers created a mural of blues musicians as a backdrop on one Chicago streetcorner for the 1980 movie The Blues Brothers. I heard the neighborhood decided it was respectful in its renderings and a pretty good job.

James Prigoff and Robin J. Dunitz faced a marvelous and under-documented orchard of material. Both writers have long and complex histories with the community murals movement. When they produced their first book together, Painting the Towns: Murals of California, word on the street was that several Bay Area muralists felt misrepresented, misquoted or incorrectly cited. Prigoff then appeared at the S.F. MoMA and elsewhere billed as a 'mural historian," undeservedly putting him in the league of Alan Barnett, Eva Cockcroft, Shifra Goldman or Tim Drescher (the latter oddly uncredited in the bibliography, probably for a long-standing rivalry.) Probably every Californian who has followed community murals could name important works and diverse community traditions in numerous California cities and towns that were left out.

That book, for example, omitted the four-story mural that dominates Mountain View's downtown, one that combines architectural trompe-l'oeil with a portrait of the Chinese-American patron's family. Yet the book includes smaller, slighter and more trivial trompe-l'oeil works of that style in Palo Alto. Most egregiously, in Painting the Towns, Prigoff claims credit for initiating the ILWU mural-sculpture to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the 1934 San Francisco General Strike. That project actually was begun by a muralist who soon dropped out of it in disgust. Prigoff has photographed many murals over the years, but hasn't shaken a reputation as a bit of a carpetbagger riding on artists' coattails.

Walls of Heritage, Walls of Pride opens with a foreword by Edmund Barry Gaither. Gaither argues that Aaron Douglas' figurative murals of the 1920s and 1930s, alluding to Egyptian and Nubian art, made Douglas the first among black muralists to create comprehensive visions of black history, ambitious visual narratives that encompassed social, spiritual and aesthetic concerns.

In his essay "Keeping Hope Alive: The Story of African American Murals" Floyd Coleman notes that Charles Alston's WPA work in the 1930s and Hale Woodruff's 1952 mural cycle 'The Art of the Negro' both employ not only African but Native American and classical Greek sources. Michael Harris writes of murals since the 1967 Wall of Respect in Chicago, a self-sponsored work of nine artists that inspired the Wall of Dignity the following year in Detroit and another in Atlanta. Harris expresses some skepticism about the direction of murals since, titling one section of his essay "1975-1990: From Revolutionary Effort to Creative Decoration."

The subsequent two hundred pages are divided into a showcase of pre-1967 murals, then into five regional chapters. Each work pictured is accompanied by the words of the muralists, sometimes several years after the painting of the work. Was a suitable "soundbite" culled from fuller explanations by the artists excluded here? Following the regional sections are the artists' biographies, together with a bibliography with notable omissions essential to any community murals library.

The book includes major midwestern muralists, the Chicagoans William Walker, Calvin Jones and Mitchell Caton, the Detroiters Leroy Foster and Jon Onye Lockard. I was delighted to see included the great teacher Jon Onye Lockard's "Continuum from the Manoogian Student Center on the Wayne State University campus in Detroit. "Continuum" spans the struggles of African and African-American peoples. Lockard's work is notable for emotive, muscular figures with the power of Michelangelo, human furnaces of the oppression-stoked fire next time, their full dimensionality licked with rich warm and cool highlights upon their black skin. Prigoff uses a murky photograph of the panel in the shape of Africa, yet neglects the incredibly powerful wall opposite that depicts the struggles and contradictions of black life in the United States. Lockard's Wilberforce University mural on the life of Paul Robeson is also included. Elsewhere in the Midwest, Calvin Jones employs motifs of the Blues in his 1980 "Ceremonies for Heritage Now" on Chicago's South Side. John Biggers, Seitu Jones, Ta-Coumba Aiken and team used African and Native American combs, iron pots and stools in the 1996 "Celebration of Life."

In the northeastern United States, Nelson Steven's explosive, orbital application of primary colors to strong African American faces beautified 1970s Boston. Yet I would have liked to have seen New Hampshire represented with the inclusion of the Malcolm X mural--perhaps by Stevens, as stylistically very similar--in Dartmouth College's Cutter Hall, sitting only a block away from Jose Clemente Orozco's major mural cycle in the United States. In the west, Willie Middlebrook's 1995 "Portrait of My People #619" at a MetroRail station in Watts uses digitally processed and assembled imagery, suggesting new directions in which this medium might travel.

Non-African-American muralists painting black themes or figures are also shown, working with African American content to varying degrees of success. Brooke Fancher in Bayview-Hunters Point; a civil rights panel in the Great Wall of Los Angeles; photorealist Daniel Galvez' commission on the life of Malcolm X for the Avalon Ballroom in Harlem (site of Malcolm's death) are all memorable works. Kent Twitchell's portrait of Julius 'Dr. J.' Erving; a billboard for clothier Bigsby and Kruthers showing Michael Jordan and Dennis Rodman; and a mundane record-cover portrait of Tupac Shakur by a Latino student of Gary Graham are relatively lightweight depictions of contradictory figures in the black community. These deserved smaller photographs so more space could have been given to the complex works of older masters like John Biggers, Jon Lockard and Charles White.

Prigoff is a fan of graffiti. His first book was the 1987 collaboration with Henry Chalfant, Spraycan Art. That graffiti informs the aesthetic and wall experience of many artists under the age of forty is a given that needs to be acknowleged. The authors' occasional inclusion of graffiti in this volume results in some discordant combinations and sour notes, suggesting a lack of understanding on their part of the context of the works they're showcasing. Most of the graffiti works chosen are clunky and merely novel; they stand in sad contrast to the dignity, depth and resonance of nearly all the murals that surround them. A-One's jheri-curled gangsta with pistol and dripping dagger, or Vulcan and Spon's kids with guns (in Harlem, but showing pretty white faces) simply don't deserve equal space with Brett 'Dizney' Cook's fine faces or Houston Conwill's poetic homage to Langston Hughes' "Rivers." Perhaps trivial graffiti walls like San Franciscan Booker's 1992 "Ice Cube" or Apex's wild style signature are included in the hopes that these taggers will grow into artists as mature as Brett Cook, whose early graffiti work merits inclusion mainly for historical reasons.

Many community muralists, including myself, admire much in graffiti aesthetics (wild-style lettering deserves serious historical study) but decry its individualist ethics. Choosing late night 'bombing' rather than developing designs with neighborhood input seems like a logical consequence of the Reagan era, when public space started getting privatized, community organizations defunded, and communities of color displaced by gentrification.

At its worst, a community mural may be crimped or hobbled by the artists' limitations of imagination or skills or resources (like cheap, fugitive, short-lasting paint.) It may include received imagery untransformed, giving the impression you've seen this one before; or that some veteran muralist is merely going through the motions. Yet most of the time a community mural is contextualized in its surroundings, and that imagery is meaningful for the people around it in ways that art in a museum has ceased to be. It is created because people want to see those under-represented images on the wall in their daily lives, not for commodity value and fetching a high price. Consequently the worst community mural is often more interesting and better-loved than the best gallery art.

If graffiti was to be included in this book, I'm surprised it wasn't the ad-hoc memorial that sprung up for Detroiter Malice Green after his shooting by police, or other memorial walls as documented in R.I.P.: Memorial Wall Art by Martha Cooper and Joseph Sciorra. Unfortunately, with shootings, crack and AIDS, memorial walls were one of the most significant inner-city community expressions in the 1990s, though you wouldn't know it from Prigoff and Dunitz's volume. There might have also been some brief discussion of black artists using similarly environmental contexts in work that moves beyond murals, like Tyree Guyton's impressive but problematic Heidelberg Street Project (1991-2000) incorporating abandoned houses in Detroit, Colette Gaiter's multimedia installations, or the temporary installations of the Houston Row Houses project. The authors don't catch these breezes, only making maximum use of the pictures they have at hand.

In the end I like this book and am thankful to have so many fine murals between sixty-dollar covers. Still, considering the material the authors cover, I should love it. One outstanding book on this topic is In the Spirit of Resistance: African American Modernists and the Influence of the Mexican School by Lizetta Lafalle-Collins and Shifra M. Goldman. That book, dealing with the influence of Diego Rivera and his generation of Mexican muralists on the black artists who encountered them in the 1930s, is a wonderful example of the kind of connections that can be made among African American muralists, their sources and contexts for their work. Walls of Heritage, Walls of Pride by contrast is an eclectic, pleasant, colorful coffee-table volume that makes all the more apparent the need for the serious studies of African-American murals that have yet to be written.

Walls of Heritage, Walls of Pride is available from Pomegranate Communications 

Copyright © 2001 by Mike Mosher. All rights reserved.

Personal tools