Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
September 30, 2019
Abdul Alkalimat, Romi Crawford, and Rebecca Zorach, eds. The Wall of Respect: Public Art and Black Liberation in 1960s Chicago Second to None: Chicago Stories. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2017. 376 pp. Paper $35.00 (9780810135932)

In the summer of 1967, as the first national conference on Black Power convened in Newark, New Jersey, and the city of Chicago awaited the unveiling of a monumental sculpture by Picasso in the Chicago Loop, a group of artists—painters, photographers, and graphic designers affiliated with the recently formed Organization of Black American Culture (OBAC)—created a mural on Chicago’s South Side, at the corner of Forty-Third and Langley. The mural, which was unveiled in late August, featured images of prominent African Americans grouped into a variety of professional categories: statesmen, religious leaders, rhythm and blues musicians, jazz musicians, stars of stage and screen, writers, and dancers. Each section was created by a different artist (or, more often, a group of artists including at least one painter and one photographer). The Wall of Respect, a monument to Black achievement, celebrated African American cultural heroes at a time when positive representations of Black people were rare in American public culture. Within a month of its initial unveiling two central portions of the mural—statesmen and religious leaders—had been repainted with new imagery, and the mural had begun to spread onto adjoining buildings and across the street, where it became The Wall of Truth. Changes in the imagery—from celebratory portraits to images representing the struggles of African Americans—continued until 1971, when the building was torn down following a fire. Despite its short life, The Wall of Respect has had significant ongoing influence, inspiring the creation of similar murals in other American cities, and acting as an icon of art as social practice and public engagement. The many people involved in its creation have not all agreed about the facts of the wall’s creation, and the changes made in the fall of 1967 have been an ongoing point of contention. This has resulted in a field of conflicting and partial narratives about the mural, its history, and its meaning.

Published fifty years after the creation of the mural, The Wall of Respect: Public Art and Black Liberation in 1960s Chicago—edited by Abdul Alkalimat (one of the founding members of OBAC) and art historians Romi Crawford and Rebecca Zorach—seeks to address these points of contention, not by privileging one narrative or point of view but by embracing the complexity of a history told by many voices. Addressing conflicts that arose in the creation of the mural and disagreement about the facts in retrospect, Zorach advocates embracing these conflicts as both evidence and reality of collective endeavors, stressing that the book “does not seek to present a unified voice” (33). A carefully compiled collection of images, first-person accounts, short essays, interviews, and archival materials, the polyphonic structure of the text reflects the goals of the artists and community organizers whose stories are told in its pages.

“I: Looking at the Wall of Respect” begins with an essay by Zorach describing the mural’s subject matter, production history, and some of the cultural events that took place around it. Zorach presents the wall as “a call and response” that “emphasized the performing arts” and “was also a kind of performance” (24). Following her essay are four examples of the multidisciplinary life of the wall in four poems that were read aloud at its unveiling. One of these was by Gwendolyn Brooks, who had delivered a poem commissioned for the unveiling of the Chicago Picasso a few weeks earlier. “The Wall,” later published with her poem for the Picasso as “Two Dedications,” was the only one of the four that made no explicit reference to the European artist. The antagonism that the poems by Haki Madhubuti, Useni Eugene Perkins, and Alicia L. Johnson direct toward this other work of public art is itself a rich arena within which to consider the complex relationship between artists of the African diaspora and the canonical modernists who had so aggressively “civilized” and reduced an array of African aesthetic traditions to formal innovations and the thrill of difference. The foregrounding of these poems, unconventional for an art historical or historical publication, is an example of one of the text’s characteristic strategies: inviting readers to consider the broader implications of the history it explores without presenting an explicit argument. 

“II. Heroes and Heroines” offers a straightforward breakdown of each section of the wall, identifying the figures represented, encapsulating the reasoning behind their inclusion, and providing some background on the artists who worked on each theme. “III. The Wall in History and Cultural Politics” is the most substantial section of the book, including two historical essays by Alkalimat and an extensive collection of primary documents. “Black Chicago: The Context for the Wall of Respect” will be helpful to any reader unfamiliar with the history of the city and its racial politics, while “Black Liberation: OBAC and the Makers of the Wall of Respect” focuses specifically on the history of the umbrella organization under which the Visual Arts Workshop that created the wall operated. Alkalimat, as the surviving founding member of the organization and a professor of information sciences and African American studies, is uniquely positioned to provide an account of the events surrounding the creation and destruction of the mural that is both personal and historically informed. The collection of archival material includes OBAC documents and articles published at the time addressing the concerns and goals of Black art workers and organizers in Chicago. These historical texts provide some of the most gripping material in the book—and the most frustrating, given how little some aspects of the art world have changed in the intervening years. Essays written by Alkalimat and OBAC founder Hoyt W. Fuller in the late 1960s and early 1970s offer compelling arguments for the need to create critical spaces for Black art and culture. Discussing the struggles of white critics in their attempts to assess Black art, Fuller wrote, “The essential point here is not the presence of overt hostility; it is the absence of clarity of vision. The glass through which black life is viewed by white Americans is, inescapably . . . befogged by the hot breath of history” (184). This claim, published in 1971, lies in uncomfortable conversation with related sentiments expressed half a century later in Elizabeth Méndez Berry and Chi-hui Yang’s recent New York Times op-ed, “The Dominance of the White Male Critic.” Of particular urgency in the late 1960s and early 1970s, as today, is the relegation of Black experience (and of the experience of people of color in general) to the role of the specific projected against a screen of universalizing white cultural hegemony.

“IV. The Impact of Photography” provides rich visual documentation of the wall, the artists who worked on it, and its context, along with a short essay and commentary by Crawford, who seeks to redress the historical sidelining of participating photographers into the limited role of documentarians. Instead, Crawford insists, we must recognize the important role played by photography, which was instrumental in creating the wall—through the inclusion of photographs on the surface of the wall and photography’s role in shaping its representational aesthetics—and in connecting the wall to a larger cultural network. “The photographs on the Wall of Respect gestured toward an interdisciplinarity that was eventually realized through the various activities and performances that took place in close proximity to it” (199). The work of these photographers in documenting the wall, Crawford stresses, was part of a larger project of representing the community. “Like the Wall itself,” she states, quoting the 1967 OBAC handout that explained the goals of the mural, “the purpose of their art was to unite Black people by positing ‘heroic self-images and standards of beauty relevant to the Black experience in America’” (209).

“V. Reverberations” offers a deeper dive into some of the conflicts that emerged around the wall, and allows for a degree of first-person accounting of these events through the inclusion of a series of short articles about the wall from the time period, as well as interviews with key figures and remarks from the 2015 Wall of Respect Symposium. It is in this last part of the book that we hear from William Walker and Eugene “Eda” Wade, the artists responsible for the repainting of key sections—an act described by Alkalimat earlier in the book as “negative and divisive” (107)—as well as from the son of Norman Parish, the artist who had created the statesmen section that was painted over.

The wall, despite its brief existence, is an important historical monument to, and of, Black accomplishment in Chicago—and, importantly, of Black accomplishment in Black communities, rather than in majority-white institutions. The process of its creation and of its transformation provides key insights into a historical moment in need of continued discussion and analysis. The wall is a nodal point within the larger landscape of the Black Arts Movement, the Black Power movement, and the arenas of racial politics and public art in America. Alkalimat, Crawford, and Zorach have done an extraordinary job of presenting and contextualizing important archival material, and in doing so have raised a number of compelling questions that a new generation of art historians are likely to find productive, while reminding us of uneasy questions that still remain unanswered a half century later. 

Sarah Hollenberg
Assistant Professor (Lecturer), Department of Art and Art History, University of Utah