THE INDEPENDENT VOICE OF THE VISUAL ARTS
Book Review Posted 4/5/20
by Janina Ciezadlo
All of the issues of race, public art and collaboration that artists and audiences struggle with today, which may seem new to us now, were the vital center of the career of William Walker. Walker, an African-American muralist, is known in Chicago for the Wall of Respect and other work he created during the 1960s and ’70s. Jeff W. Huebner’s meticulously researched, clearly written book, Walls of Prophecy and Protest: William Walker and the Roots of a Revolutionary Public Art Movement, published last fall by Northwestern University Press, elucidates Walker’s life and the historical, political and social environment on the South Side of Chicago where many of his murals were painted.
Huebner parses the murals, most no long extant, and narrates the building of community among collaborating artists and in the streets as Walker painted. The book gives an account of the many struggles a working-class African-American man would face in his unwavering commitments to art and to his marginalized community. The Wall of Respect helped spark a national public art movement that would focus on community involvement and integration with the people in neighborhoods where art could deliver, in Walker’s words, “a message of respect and understanding.”
William Walker, Wall of Respect, 1967, 43rd & Langley. Original Organization for Black American Culture version, August 1967. Photo: Robert A. Sengstacke. Destroyed 1972.
Born to a poor family in Alabama, Walker studied art in Ohio before coming to Chicago. Even in Chicago, however, he was outside of the mainstream of the African-American art community. Though famous for painting a series of murals, mainly on the South Side of Chicago, during the late ’60s and ’70s, his career began before that and lasted longer. Chicago is a famously hyper-segregated city, with most African-American communities on its South and West sides. The Wall of Respect, Walker’s most well-known mural, expressed all of the cultural and political ferment of the late sixties in Chicago and the country. It featured portraits of Black heroes and heroines from slave rebellion leader Nat Turner and Malcolm X to poets Gwendolyn Brooks and Amiri Baraka. Singers Nina Simone and Aretha Franklin shared the wall with thinker and activist W. E. B. Du Bois and boxer Muhammad Ali among others portrayed in groups.
Walker was influenced by his study of the works of Diego Rivera; he saw his murals not as masterworks, although he was an excellent painter with a distinctive, incisive style, but as a community process. While Walker was the main creative force, along with the most “dedicated” of his collaborators, Eugene “Eda” Wade, the wall was launched by a collaborative group call Organization of Black American Culture (OBA-C), an acronym based on the Yoruban word oba, meaning “king.” About 20 artists worked on the wall as it grew and changed from August 1967 until 1972, when the building caught fire and the wall was destroyed.
Left: William Walker, Peace and Salvation: Wall of Understanding, 1970, 872 N. Orleans. Photo: Courtesy of the Chicago Public Art Group. Destroyed 1991. Right: Walker at Peace and Salvation, 1970. Photo: Courtesy of the Chicago Public Art Group.
Walls of Prophecy and Protest offers an important look back at an alternative model of art and aesthetics in light of all the controversies concerning historic and contemporary public art as well as the entry of artists of color into galleries, museums and art historical canons. Jeff Donaldson, another one of the Wall of Respect’s key figures (and a founder of the AfriCOBRA collective the following year) pointed out that “the unauthorized painting of the wall”—it belonged to a white absentee landlord— “was to be a revolutionary act in and of itself beyond the astounding effects the project would itself engender. Before the Wall was finished on August 24, 1967, it had become an instantaneous shrine to black creativity, a rallying point for revolutionary rhetoric and calls to action, and a national symbol of the heroic black struggle for liberation in America.”
Walker, humble and altruistic, had an unwavering belief in the connection between art and community, and while his dedication gave his contributions to the mural movement value and meaning, the larger art world was not just unaware but probably uninterested in black work that did not fit the white art world narratives (and the market) of the time. As Huebner puts it, “socially conscious outdoor ‘street’ murals are a significant but overlooked feature of Chicago’s cultural legacy.”
William Walker, All of Mankind: Unity of the Human Race, 1971-74, Cabrini-Green, Clybourn & Evergreen (exterior, 1971-1972). Photo: Courtesy of Chicago Public Art Group. Destroyed 2015.
William Walker, All of Mankind, interior.
Walker’s vision addressed the people in the streets who would gather and participate while Walker and his collaborators worked; the walls became sites for dedications, rallies, festivals, poetry readings, and “the exchange of food, feedback, friendship and ideas was… an expression of the ‘call and response dynamic’” as noted by art historian Michael D. Harris. Another way of saying it would be to connect the murals to the African aesthetic processes of collaboration, community building, improvisation and bricolage, or in Walker’s own words “the spirit of the people”:
“The spirit of the people was tremendous…I was privileged to be part of it, to be part of the people trying to do some good things.”
Huebner has a journalist’s gift for narrative, and while he hits all of the important art historical points, compelling stories give his account a sense of human drama rather than academic argument. It makes sense that a community project and ephemeral murals, most of which have been lost to the dynamic changes of urban neighborhoods, would be preserved in a series of stories and accounts, centering the history of the mural movement as process and performance rather than a set of documents that prove provenance. William Walker’s engagement with the city of Chicago came at a time of turmoil and progress; there were internal and external factions, riffs, contentions, supportive partnerships and influence. Elijah Muhammad threatened to sue Walker because he was painted on the wall with Malcolm X. A woman’s mural was desecrated with yellow paint. A gang member associated with the Wall of Respect was later shot. In time, some of the OBA-C artists migrated to well-known collective AfriCOBRA.
William Walker, History of the Packinghouse Worker, 1974, 49th & Wabash. Photo: John Pitman Weber. Restored, 1998. EXTANT.
Towards the end of his career, Walker was particularly critical of Ronald Reagan’s policies, Reaganomics, which he saw as fostering poverty, neglect and devastation in the neighborhoods he cared about. His later murals contained scathing, unstinting caricatures of Reagan, as well as others who preyed on the vulnerability of poor neighborhoods like pimps and drug lords.
William Walker, Reaganomics (detail), 1982, 55th Pl. & Indiana. Photo: James Prigoff Archive of the Chicago Public Art Group. Destroyed, date uncertain.
Overall, Walker’s engaged and humane vision was clear in the titles of the Wall of Respect and his subsequent murals: All of Mankind: Unity of the Human Race, Gift to the World’s Children, and the Wall of Dignity. The mural movement spread—Walker himself worked on several murals in Detroit—but the complicated and detailed account of what Huebner calls the “roots” in Chicago will be key to understanding black aesthetics, public art and American art when it is represented in all of its myriad, formal, material, multiracial, multiethnic, variously gendered, layered, geographic histories.
Janina Ciezadlo is a writer and artist. Her criticism has appeared in The Chicago Reader, The NewCity, Afterimage: the Journal of Media Arts and Cultural Criticism and Hyperallergic among other publications.
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