The Chicago Picasso isn’t the only public artwork worth celebrating | On Culture | Chicago Reader

The Chicago Picasso isn’t the only public artwork worth celebrating 

The Wall of Respect is gone, but its impact shouldn’t be forgotten.

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click to enlarge Contributor and photographer Billy Abernathy in front of the Wall of Respect, 1967 - DARRYL COWHERD / COURTESY NU PRESS
  • Contributor and photographer Billy Abernathy in front of the Wall of Respect, 1967
  • Darryl Cowherd / Courtesy NU Press

This month marks the 50th anniversary of two seminal pieces of Chicago art.

At noon on August 8, the city's throwing a big public party for the less important one—the iconic Chicago Picasso.

There'll be a reenactment of the ceremony that took place on August 15, 1967, when in front of thousands of people jamming the plaza now named after him, Mayor Richard J. Daley pulled a cord and the wraps fell away from the towering metal sculpture to reveal—huh?—a 50-foot-tall, funny-faced, slick enigma, probably a woman, but maybe a horse or a bird or an Afghan hound.

It could've been worse: at least it wasn't (discernibly) one of the voluptuous naked ladies flashing their private parts that Picasso was turning out at that late point in his career.

Broadcaster Studs Terkel made a tape of reactions from the bewildered crowd that day, and another legendary Chicagoan, Illinois's newly appointed poet laureate, Gwendolyn Brooks, was also there, reading the poem she'd been tasked with writing for the occasion. She'd seen only a small scale model of the sculpture before that moment, but she'd found it inscrutable, its ambiguity uncomfortable and cold. It had led her to this opening line: "Does man love Art? Man visits Art, but squirms."

Brooks would later link that chilly poem with the fevered one she wrote for the other unveiling, 12 days later and six miles south. The contrast between them is as stark as the difference between the two visual artworks.

"It is the Hour of ringing, rouse, of ferment­-festival," Brooks wrote for the August 27 opening of the stylistically motley, homegrown, and momentous mural named—after an Aretha Franklin song—the Wall of Respect.

Collaboratively produced and aimed at celebrating black identity, the wall was a portrait collage of heroes, commemorating dozens of achievers from Nat Turner to Miles Davis and Brooks herself. An artistic embodiment of the then-surging black liberation movement, the Wall of Respect turned the street below it, at 43rd and Langley, into a forum for performance and political action.

And, says U. of I. professor emeritus Abdul Alkalimat, a founder of OBAC (the Organization of Black American Culture), whose visual arts workshop members created the wall, "No one had to wonder what it meant."

The Wall of Respect only lasted four years: after damage from a mysterious fire, the building it covered was razed by the city. But a new book, The Wall of Respect: Public Art and Black Liberation in 1960s Chicago, to be published in September by Northwestern University Press, has collected the documents, reminiscences, photographs, and commentary that make its historical significance clear.

Written by Alkalimat, SAIC professor Romi Crawford (daughter of photographer and friend of OBAC Bob Crawford), and Northwestern University professor Rebecca Zorach (whose contribution, among other things, points to the contrasting Brooks poems), the book tells how a series of discussions and meetings that started with Alkalimat, then a University of Chicago graduate student, and two friends, Conrad Kent Rivers and Hoyt Fuller, launched OBAC and its subgroups in 1967. The subgroups included the 15-member Visual Arts Workshop that produced the wall, at the Bronzeville address where another major leader of the group, muralist William Walker, had already arranged to do a piece.

Designer Sylvia Abernathy worked out an overall layout and general color scheme, but there was no attempt at aesthetic coherence beyond that. The wall was broken up into seven spaces, each with a theme: literature, theater, jazz, sports, religion, rhythm and blues, and statesmen, and each artist or team of artists forged ahead in their own style. Work started August 5, with neighbors commenting, street gangs protecting, and plenty of interest from the Chicago Police Department and the FBI's anti-communist arm, COINTELPRO.

The result was a patchwork of styles and a controversially evolving canvas that contributed to the dissolution of the visual arts group. Within weeks of its completion, Walker unilaterally approved and helped create a sectional redo by a new artist, Eugene "Eda" Wade, that wiped out the work of one of the original members, replacing it with stronger colors and more confrontational images, including a dominant raised black power fist. Wade would later explain that this was done at the behest of members of the community, to reflect its growing militancy (an attitude that had kept Martin Luther King Jr. off the wall from the beginning). A former gang leader turned community activist who'd supported the wall wound up murdered, his body propped up against it. In the aftermath, the artists splintered—some went on to form the African-American visual arts collective AfriCOBRA (the African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists), others joined the nucleus of what became the Chicago Public Art Group.

Still, in its short life span, the Wall of Respect became a place of pilgrimage for African-Americans and an inspiration, not only for its immediate community, but for a national and international community street-art movement.

Alkalimat says the Picasso, created by a man who never set foot in the city, was "the world coming to Chicago," while the Wall of Respect—a homegrown, working-class political statement—was "Chicago coming to the world."

Or as another OBAC writer, Haki Madhubuti, put it in his own commemorative poem, "The Wall": "'picasso ain't got shit on us."  v

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