Posts Tagged ‘D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities’

The Paul Robeson Mural

As I was riding along the U Street corridor during this bike ride, I looked down an alley next to the Hung Tao Choy Mei Leadership Institute, located at 1351 U Street (MAP), and caught a glimpse of a mural that necessitated turning around and going back to get a closer look.  The mural is entitled “Living Time Line: Paul Robeson,” and is the work of lead muralists Cory L. Stowers and Andrew Katz, their artist conclave known as ART BLOC (comprised of Eric B. Ricks, Maria Miller, Serena Z, Ernesto Zelaya, Jaa), and made possible with the permission of the building owner, and funding from the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities.

The mural depicts the life of Paul Robeson, who became famous as an American bass baritone concert artist and a stage and film actor known for productions like “The Emperor Jones” and “Othello.”  But in addition to his cultural accomplishments, he was also equally famous for his political activism.  An example of a 20th-century Renaissance man, his talents made him revered during his time, but his radical political beliefs and activism all but erased him from popular history.

Paul Leroy Robeson was born on April 9, 1898, in Princeton, New Jersey, the youngest of five children born to Maria Louisa Bustill, who came from an abolitionist Quaker family, and William Drew Robeson, an escaped slave who became a Presbyterian minister.  After his mother, who was nearly blind, died in a fire when he was only six years old, his father moved the family, eventually landing in Somerville, New Jersey, where he grew up.  After high school, Robeson won a four-year academic scholarship to Rutgers University, where he won 15 varsity letters in football, baseball, basketball, and track, before graduating as the valedictorian of the class of 1919.  He then went on to from Columbia University School of Law.  While attending law school he sang and acted in off-campus productions, and also played football for the National Football League.  It was also while at Columbia Law School that he met and married his wife, Eslanda Cordoza Goode.  He graduated from Columbia with an LL.B. in 1923.

After completing his education Robeson took a job with a law firm.  But he resigned when a white secretary refused to take dictation from him.  It was at this pivotal time that he left the practice of law, and decided to use his artistic talents in theater and music to promote African and African-American history and culture.  This decision would define the rest of his life.

After leaving the practice of law, Robeson began his career as an actor and a singer.  It was a career that would take him around the world during the 1930’s.  In London, he earned international acclaim for his lead acting role in “Othello,” for which he won the Donaldson Award for Best Acting Performance, and performed in Eugene O’Neill’s plays, “Emperor Jones” and “All God’s Chillun Got Wings.”  And he used his deep baritone voice to sing black spirituals, to share the cultures of other countries, and to benefit the labor and social movements of his time.  He sang for peace and justice in 25 languages throughout the United States, Europe, the Soviet Union, and Africa, and became known as a citizen of the world, equally comfortable with the people of Moscow, Nairobi, Helsinki and Harlem.

But it was during these travels that he learned racism was not as virulent in Europe as it was back in the United States.  Back at home, it was difficult to find restaurants that would serve him, theaters in New York would only seat blacks in the upper balconies, and his performances were often surrounded with threats or outright harassment.  It was a lesson that profoundly affected him and never left him.

During the 1940’s, Robeson continued to perform and to speak out against racism.  He was a champion of working people and organized labor. He spoke and performed at strikes and rallies, conferences, and labor festivals worldwide.  And as a passionate believer in international cooperation, Robeson protested the growing Cold War and worked tirelessly for friendship and respect between the United States and the Soviet Union.  It was during this time, when dissent was scarcely tolerated in the U.S., that Robeson openly questioned why African Americans should fight in the army of a government that tolerated racism.  Because of his outspokenness in supporting civil rights causes and pro-Soviet policies, he was investigated by the FBI, and later accused by the House Un-American Activities Committee of being a communist.  The accusation caused his income to plummet and nearly ended his career.  The attempt to silence him, however, did not succeed.

In 1950, the U.S. revoked Robeson’s passport when he would not recant his public activism and advocacy, leading to an eight-year battle to have it reinstated so he could travel again.  His passport was eventually restored as a result of the 1958 United States Supreme Court decision, Kent v. Dulles.  During those intervening years, Robeson moved to Harlem and published a periodical entitled “Freedom,” which was critical of United States policies.  He also studied Chinese, met with Albert Einstein to discuss the prospects for world peace, published his autobiography entitled “Here I Stand,” and sang at Carnegie Hall.  Robeson made his last concert tour to New Zealand and Australia in 1960.  In ill health, he retired from public life in 1963.  Robeson died on January 23, 1976, at age 77, in Philadelphia.

The Robeson mural concept stems from the Hung Tao Choy Mei Leadership Institute’s efforts to introduce Paul Robeson to the current generation and re-introduce him to previous generations through the Paul Robeson “Here I Stand” Award galas at the nearby Lincoln Theatre.  The two-story mural features two large portraits of Robeson at opposite ends of the building’s dark grey wall, which bookend smaller depictions of him at different stages of his life.  One of many quotes attributed to Robeson, “I make no distinction between my work as an artist and my life as a human being,” is also prominently featured in the mural.

Much like the mural, this blog post is just a short introduction to the fascinating career, activism and life of Paul Robeson.  I suggest you go down and see the mural it for yourself, if you haven’t already.  And then for a more thorough understanding of the vastness of his thoughts and experiences, read Robeson’s autobiography, entitled “Here I Stand.”

 

[Click on the photos to view the full-size versions]

Other Paul Robeson quotes:

  • “We must join with the tens of millions all over the world who see in peace our most sacred responsibility.”
  • “As an artist I come to sing, but as a citizen, I will always speak for peace, and no one can silence me in this.”
  • “I do not hesitate one second to state clearly and unmistakably: I belong to the American resistance movement which fights against American imperialism, just as the resistance movement fought against Hitler.”
  • “Yes, peace can and must be won, to save the world from the terrible destruction of World War III.”
  • “Four hundred million in India, and millions everywhere, have told you, precisely, that the colored people are not going to die for anybody: they are going to die for their independence.”
  • “In Russia I felt for the first time like a full human being. No color prejudice like in Mississippi, no color prejudice like in Washington. It was the first time I felt like a human being.”

 

Howard Theater Walk of Fame

On this lunchtime bike ride, I stopped riding and walked my bike one the sidewalk starting north on 7th Street beginning at S Street (MAP), and rounding the corner onto T Street before ending at The Howard Theatre in northwest D.C.’s U Street neighborhood.  I did this so that I could see the sidewalk medallions that comprise The Howard Theater Walk of Fame.

The concept for the new walk of fame was in development since 2008 by the Shaw and LeDroit Park communities in their passion to preserve and honor the rich history of the historic Howard Theatre, and was subsequently commissioned by the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities in partnership with the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development, and Cultural Tourism D.C., a nonprofit that promotes the arts across the city.

After a call for artists in 2016, D.C.-based design firm Hackreative along with sculptors Jay Coleman and Joanna Blake were selected to design the medallions. Their pieces draw design elements from the architecture of the Howard Theatre itself, including the braided arch and banner on the building’s sign, and the block frame around the marquee.

The walk of fame consists of fifteen medallions memorializing and recognizing different artists and musicians that have performed at the Howard Theater since it first opened in 1910, who were chosed by a panel of representatives from the commissioning groups, plus a few Shaw and LeDroit Park leaders.  The medallions honor Pearl Bailey, Chuck Brown, James Brown, Ruth Brown, Cab Calloway, The Clovers, Billy Eckstine, Ella Fitzgerald, Marvin Gaye, Lionel Hampton, Moms Mabley, Abbie Mitchell, Billy Taylor, Sister Rosetta Tharpe and a combination of Howard Theatre managers and owners.  Upright signs that detail the history of the theater and the artists represented bookend the project.

After today’s ride, I later went home and listened to performances by the artists recognized by the walk of fame.  That music was a perfect way to end the day, and a long workweek.

 

[Click on the photos to view the full-size versions]

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The Afro-Columbian Mural

The Afro-Columbian Mural, also known as Currulao y Desplazamiento, is a public mural that celebrates the Afro-Colombian culture of D.C., while at the same time increasing public awareness about the widespread displacement and other human rights violations related to the ongoing armed conflict in the South American country of Colombia.

Located in an alley at 1344 U Street (MAP) in northwest D.C.’s U Street corridor, the mural was funded by the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities, and created by internationally recognized muralist Joel Bergner and his organization, Action Ashé! Global Art & Social Action Initiative, who also painted a number of other mural throughout the city, including Release Your Burdens and Be Free, Cultivating the Rebirth, “My Culture, Mi Gente” and A Survivor’s Journey.

According to the artist, he designed this mural with guidance, input, and inspiration of many of my close friends in D.C.’s Afro-Colombian community, many of whom have been granted political asylum in this country due to the severe human rights violations.  For additional inspiration, he also traveled to the Pacific Coast region of Colombia where the conflict is often most severe to visit his friends’ families, do research, and learn more about the political situation.

The colors of the mural are vibrant, intriguing and welcoming, while the mural’s complex content is depicted by several different scenes.  The size of the woman in the mural and the people underneath her portray the importance of Afro-Colombian traditions and culture.  These encouraging images are in a paradox with the depiction of the Colombian paramilitary, with people running from the forces, while a group of Afro-Colombians being exiled to huts is in the foreground.  And while working with a green field, Bergner also paints an airplane hovering above releasing ammo on the people below.

The mural was completed in 2009, and unveiled at a public event featuring speeches from the Afro-Colombian activist Marino Córdoba, as well as live music, traditional Afro-Colombian food, and a traditional dance presentation by the local Afro-Colombian dance group Tangaré.  The event was co-sponsored by TransAfrica Forum and the U.S. Network in Solidarity for Afro-Colombian Grassroots Communities.

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[Click on the photos to view the full-size versions]

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You don’t normally see large outdoor murals in purely residential neighborhoods.  But on this lunchtime bike ride in northwest D.C.’s Bloomingdale neighborhood, I happened upon a mural I had not seen before.  Located on the side of a home at 73 W Street (MAP), near the corner of 1st & W Streets, the mural depicts a young African-American woman wearing a yellow tank top and red boxing gloves, and sporting what symbolically appears to be a black eye.  Behind her is a colorful  shooting starburst originating from a specific point behind her.  Because it seemed to me to be somewhat out of place for the residential neighborhood where it is located, I researched it later after the ride.  And the story I learned was as oddly intriguing as the mural itself.

The 34×15′ enamel and spray paint on brick mural is entitled “Boxer Girl”, and was created by a local artist named Lisa Marie Thalhammer.  According to the artist, the image comes from a series of  drawings created while she was participating in a mentorship program at D.C.’s nonprofit Transformer organization, and is about “the empowerment of women, the relationship between self esteem and athletics and the beauty within each individual’s personal struggle and journey.”

The artwork was funded by the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities, and was originally intended for a different location.  However, that other venue fell through.  It was at that point that Veronica Jackson, a local art collector and the principal of the Jackson Brady Design Group, which focuses on museum and art exhibition design, offered up its current location – her own Bloomingdale home.

After its completion in the spring of 2009, however, some of the nearby residents objected to the mural.  Some described it as out of place for the neighborhood, while others called it a blight or simply bad art.  Some even complained that the mural was graffiti featuring hidden gang code, and described it as too “ghetto” for the area.  By fall of that year the opposition to the mural grew to the point that a meeting of the Bloomingdale Civic Association was scheduled to address residents’ demands that the work be removed or covered up, demands that the mayor’s office was reported to be considering at that time.  Nothing came from the meeting, however, with members of the Civic Association contending that they had no procedure for reversing projects that were already funded.

But the dispute did not simply go away quietly.  As part of a last-ditch effort to rid the neighborhood of Boxer Girl, one nearby resident actually asked police to determine if the mural caused an increase in crime in the neighborhood.  When the statistics indicated that there had been a 55 percent decrease in crime during the time since the mural’s completion, that effort was abandoned.

Years after the murals creation, one of the neighbors who spearheaded the unsuccessful effort to have it painted over was reported to still not be on speaking terms with the homeowner on whose house the mural remains.  But others have accepted it even if, like me, they think it looks a bit out of place.  Yoko Ono once said, “Controversy is part of the nature of art and creativity.”  And that certainly seems to be the case for Boxer Girl.  But I have to say, the mural also seems to realize the artist’s hope that the image would “brighten the neighborhood”.

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Mama Ayesha and the Presidents

During this lunchtime bike ride as I was riding across the Duke Ellington Memorial Bridge in northwest D.C.’s Adam’s Morgan neighborhood, I saw a mural on the side of a building on the eastern end of the bridge.  So I rode over to get a better look at the mural.  I discovered it was on the side of Mama Ayesha’s Restaurant, located at 1967 Calvert Street (MAP), and depicts the restaurant’s namesake standing in front of The White House.  She is flanked on either side by eleven different presidents standing in chronological order, starting with Dwight D. Eisenhower and ending with Barack Obama. The content of the public artwork is so unusual that I just had to find out more about it.

The mural was funded by the National Endowment for the Arts, the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities, and private donors.  It was created in 2009 by Karla Rodas, also known as Karlísima, who is a native of El Salvador but moved with her family as a child to nearby Alexandria.  After graduating from Annandale High School and Washington University, she returned to D.C. and has since become one of the capital city’s most well-known and respected muralists.

The initial concept for the mural was planned by Mama Ayesha’s family members, who have run the restaurant since its opening in 1960. However, the original plan did not have Mama Ayesha as the centerpiece of the work. Instead, the family wanted Helen Thomas, a renowned White House reporter and regular customer at the restaurant, to be at the center of the mural. She was envisioned to be seated at a desk with pen and paper in her hand. However, Thomas politely declined the family’s request, opining that Mama Ayesha should be portrayed instead.

The final design depicts Mama Ayesha in traditional Palestinian garb standing in front of the White House. With six presidents on her right and five on her left, she stands in the middle between Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, with their arms interlocked. Interspersed throughout the mural are other symbols and additional scenes and landmarks from the national capital city. They include a bald eagle, the city’s famous cherry blossoms, as well as the Lincoln Memorial and its Reflecting Pool, the Jefferson Memorial, the Washington Monument and the United States Capitol Building.  And representations of the U.S. flag appear on the sides of the painting.

With President Obama’s successor to be determined in tomorrow’s election, I hope the mural will be updated.  There is sufficient space in front of the Reflecting Pool for either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump.  I very much look forward to the election being over.  And I also look forward to being able to come back to see the updated mural at some point in the near future.

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[Click on the photos to view the full-size versions]

"This is How We Live"

“This is How We Live”

Public art is fairly commonplace in many parts of D.C., and as I have been able to see during my bike rides, it has become even more prevalent over the past few years. One of the contributors to this increase is muralist Garin Baker, who has a number of pieces of public art throughout the city. On this ride my destination was one of his murals, one entitled “This is How We Live.” It is located adjacent to a playground, on the side of a building at 239 Elm Street (MAP), near the corner at 3rd street in northwest D.C. And it is not only located in the LeDroit Park neighborhood, it captures the neighborhood as the subject of the mural.

Mr. Baker currently runs a small public art company called Carriage House Arts Studios, which is responsible for countless public and private large scale mural projects across the country, including in New York and Atlanta, as well as D.C. In fact, Mr. Baker recently completed two murals located at the Turkey Thicket Recreation Center in northeast D.C.’s Brookland neighborhood, which I hope to ride to and see one day soon.

The D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities, in collaboration with residents from the LeDroit Park community, commissioned Mr. Baker to design, create and install ”This is How We Live,” a photo-realistic mural, which was done in the tradition of the depression-era muralists hired by the Works Progress Administration as part of the President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal Plan, which employed millions of mostly unskilled, unemployed people to carry out public works projects, including the construction of public buildings and roads.

As one of the city’s first suburbs, LeDroit Park was developed and marketed as a “romantic” neighborhood, with numerous flowerbeds and extensive landscaping to include narrow tree-lined streets. The developers even named the streets after the trees that shaded them, differing from the street names used in the rest of the city. Originally a whites-only neighborhood, it was through the efforts by many, especially actions by students from neighboring Howard University, which led to the integration of the area. By the 1940s LeDroit Park became a major focal point for the African-American elite, with many prominent figures residing there. Today, LeDroit Park residents represent a wide variety of ethnic groups, and it’s that diversity that entices new residents to the community.

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"My Culture, Mi Gente"

“My Culture, Mi Gente”

While on this bike ride in northwest D.C.’s Columbia Heights neighborhood, I discovered a mural entitled “My Culture, Mi Gente.”  But as I later discovered when I was trying to find out more about what I had seen, it is more than just a mural.  And the man who created it is more than just an artist.

“My Culture, Mi Gente” is located at 3064 15th Street (MAP), across the street from the Columbia Heights Metro Station, in northwest D.C.  Funded by the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities, the colorful mural celebrates the neighborhood’s rich diversity and culture, and was created by artists from the Latin American Youth Center’s Art+Media House, including Jamilla Okubo, Daphne Zecena, Janie Velasquez, and Gean C. Martinez, along with lead artist Joel Bergner.

Also known as Joel Artista, Joel Bergner is a social action muralist and street artist, as well as a youth and community art organizer who through art projects seeks to educate others on issues of culture and social justice by creating works that relate stories of those who have been ignored or misunderstood by society.

In addition to “My Culture, Mi Gente,” Joel Berger has also created large public murals in many other U.S. cities, as well in Brazil, the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan, Cuba, Kenya, Mozambique, Poland, Cape Verde in West Africa, El Salvador, and Peru. And much like his collaboration with the Latin American Youth Center here in D.C., his other works often feature collaborations with other youth-based organizations which represent incarcerated teenagers, Syrian refugees, youth from marginalized communities, the mentally and physically disabled, and street children in Rio de Janeiro. He has been commissioned by and worked with human rights groups as well, including the International Rescue Committee, the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, the Boys & Girls Club, UNICEF and Amnesty International.

I also found out that he has created other murals and other public art works here in D.C. So I hope to visit them on some of my future bike rides, and continue to learn more about the social awareness and action which they inspire.

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[Click on the photos to view the full-size versions]

Duke Ellington's "Encore"

Duke Ellington’s “Encore”

On this bike ride I rode to Ellington Plaza in the Shaw/Uptown neighborhood’s “U Street corridor” in northwest D.C., to see a statue entitled “Encore.”  Located in front of The Howard Theatre at Florida Avenue and T Street (MAP), the 20-foot stainless steel statue on a granite base depicts Edward Kennedy Ellington, better known as “Duke” Ellington, who was a native Washingtonian.  It was created by sculptor Zachary Oxman, also a D.C. native, who was commissioned to complete the piece by the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities.  The statue depicts Ellington sitting on a giant treble clef while playing a curved piano.  The site where the statue is located was chosen because Ellington spent his childhood and the early years of his career in the neighborhood.

Ellington got his nickname when childhood friends noticed that “his casual, offhand manner, his easy grace, and his dapper dress gave him the bearing of a young nobleman.” and then began calling him Duke.  Ellington credited his friend Edgar McEntree for the moniker, stating, “I think he felt that in order for me to be eligible for his constant companionship, I should have a title. So he called me Duke.”  The title stayed with him for the rest of his life.

It was not until his teen years, when he began hanging out at Frank’s Billiards next door to the Howard Theater, that Duke Ellington really focused on a musical career that would eventually lead to him being considered one of the best  American composers, pianists and jazz orchestras bandleaders of all time.

In New York, jazz musicians were in demand and by 1923 The Duke moved to Harlem, and formed his first band, the Washingtonians.  Once his career took off, he not only played local venues including the Cotton Club and Carnegie Hall, but toured and played internationally, including Europe, South America and Australia.  But even after achieving success and national recognition through recordings, radio broadcasts, and film appearances, Ellington continued to return many times to D.C. to perform.  One of his most important trips was to give a boost to the re-opening of the Howard Theater that had fallen on hard times in the late 1920s.  At the Howard, beginning on September 29, 1931, Ellington was the top headliner and played to standing-room-only audiences for an entire week.  It was this commitment and dedication to the neighborhood and the Howard Theater that makes it an ideal location for this fitting tribute.

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