This article by [Jeff Donaldson], one of the artists involved in the creation of the Wall of Respect, details the process behind the wall's development, its interaction with the surrounding community, and its aftermath for Chicago and the art world.
The Organization of Black American Culture was founded by a group of scientists, historians, academics, writers, and artists in May 1967. The organization's goal was "to organize and coordinate an artistic cadre in support of the 1960's bare-bones struggle for freedom, justice and equality of opportunity for African Americans in the United States." The group formed workshops for writers and for visual artists, and acted in coalition with local Chicago creative organizations.
It was the visual artists' workshop, a group of fifteen men and women, that developed the plan for the Wall. As a collective, they determined that they should produce one collective, collaborative work as a contribution to the community. Viewing cultural expression as a "useful weapon in the struggle for black liberation," the artists chose to depict "Black Heroes" as positive role models for identity, community formation, and revolutionary action.
The creation of the Wall proceeded with three particular considerations in mind:
-There were to be no artists' names or signatures affixed to the Wall.
-The artists' relations with the media would be carried out as a collective, meaning that any public statements would require consensus.
-The Wall was owned by the community, and so no individual or group could attempt to benefit from the attention surrounding the Wall.
The project was conceived of as a "guerrilla mural," since the owner of the building was never contacted about the proposal and a policy of non-cooperation with the media was adopted. Community support from the residents in the surrounding neighborhood was the only consent the OBAC group was concerned with.
The Wall was painted with figures the community had approved, in a variety of styles but with some established color and composition standards. While work was going on, individuals from within and without the community came to watch and participate in the artistic work-- the Wall became a site for impromptu musical or dance performances, poetry readings, and spoken word events.
The OBAC Visual Art Workshop more or less disbanded after the Wall's completion. The "enormity of the project" entailed a good deal of media attention, and there was internal disagreement as to the collective's responsibility to reporters. The radical work had also attracted the attention of [COINTELPRO], prompting several pointed threatening notes and phone calls to members in an effort to exacerbate internal tensions. These divisions caused a split in the group, with some members avoiding the wall and others clutching to it. Painter William Walker, the progenitor of the project, took advantage of this conflict and whitewashed the section produced by another member, Norman Parish, only to cover it with the work of another artist previously unaffiliated with the project.
The Wall was created with the full participation of community members, with neighbors, business owners, leaders, and even local gang members accepting the work into the fabric of the community. Not long after the end of OBAC's disolution, gangs from outside the area encroached on the block, charging passers-by for looking at the wall and killing Brother Herbert, a man who had been instrumental in establishing the protection of the local gang in the first place.
In 1973, the City elected to raze the building that displayed the mural. (The building had suffered damage from fire in 1971, but this by no means excludes the possibility that political motivations were involved in the decision to remove rather than restore the work.)
The Wall revitalized the mural painting style that had existed in the country for several decades. Its community-centeredness and positive, relevant call to action were elements copied in the art of other marginalized groups and communities generally.
What does it mean to have a "guerilla action" in the context of a community? If community members welcome and contribute to it, does that dispel the disruptive aspect usually part of guerilla activity, or does it implicate the entire community in the action against a larger entity?
The role of neighborhood gangs and public space is really interesting. A similar project, undertaken by Juan Angel Chavez at the Damen Pink Line stop in Pilsen, was created with significant community input. Four faces are featured in the mural, and they are not abstractions or models but rather four residents of the neighborhood: a woman who lives down the street from th mural, a young girl who lives in the neighborhood, a restaurant owner, and a homeless man who lives in the blocks surrounding the train station. Much public art in the surrounding area suffers from gang-related tagging, but in the three years since this mosaic has been installed, it has sustained no intentional damage.
Jeff Donaldson, "The Rise, Fall, and Legacy of the Wall of Respect Movement" in International Review of African American Art, vol. 15 no. 1 (1991), 22-26.
Juan Angel Chavez, personal interview. (July 2007)