Victor Arnautoff, “The Life of George Washington” (© Tammy Aramiam/GWHS Alumni Association)

The conflict over George Washington High School’s polarizing mural art is bound for San Francisco’s superior court.

Members of George Washington High School’s school’s alumni association filed suit against the San Francisco school district on Friday — alleging that its decision to shroud a historic, controversial mural departs from local law. The 1930s mural, “The Life of George Washington,” is a stark, disquieting visual: in one panel of the 13-part mural, the president stands beside a slain Native American after a skirmish. In another, he is surrounded by enslaved people of African descent. Although the mural was initially meant as a critique of Washington and his disregard for the humanity of enslaved people and Native Americans, the work has come to represent a cartoonish, exaggerated view of minorities to many of its naysayers.

The Depression-era work — sprawling, colorful, and conspicuous — is just the latest to enter a national conversation about history, representation, and the responsibility of public-facing art.

Victor Arnautoff, “The Life of George Washington” (© Tammy Aramiam/GWHS Alumni Association)

Critics have argued the mural, painted by Victor Arnautoff, is racist, culturally insensitive, and a devastating reminder of oppression. In July, a group of San Francisco educators, “Teachers 4 Justice,”  posted a statement on Medium, affirming their support for Indigenous and Black communities. “The mural depicts an image of a murdered Indigenous person, as well as several other Indigenous persons painted in stereotypical, inaccurate ways. The mural also depicts African Americans only as enslaved people, supporting the problematic narrative that Black history is a history of victimization,” the statement read.

The opposition has countered that the mural is an important artifact of our mistakes as a nation — and painful for all the right reasons. But does that mean students at George Washington High School should be forced to confront it daily? Many members of the alumni association certainly think so; and according to a report in the New York Times, many students agree. (While the vast majority of students polled elected to preserve the mural, certain students were quoted as saying they couldn’t bear to see it; others were prompted to lackadaisically refer to the disturbing images in conversation, using phrases like, “Let’s meet at the dead Indian.”)

Initially, the mural was set to be destroyed, but the Northern California NAACP intervened. Leaders from the chapter said the mural is an important educational tool, however distressing. NAACP leader Rev. Arnold Townsend told the San Francisco Chronicle that paining over the mural would be equivalent to “whitewashing history to make it reflect a history that never existed.”

But in August, after months of debate, George Washington’s school board voted 4-3 to conceal, not destroy, the mural in an effort to appease both sides of the conflict.

The fight, which began in April, continued to escalate after the board’s vote, culminating with last week’s action. The lawsuit alleges the board issued its ruling without an “environmental review” which is required by California law.

The San Francisco School Board has not yet responded to Hyperallergic’s request for comment.

Kate Gill is a writer, editor, and filmmaker based in Brooklyn.

4 replies on “Fight Over Divisive Mural Escalates as George Washington High School Alumni File Lawsuit”

  1. No one has ever “met at the dead Indian”.
    This student is trolling reporters and this line keeps being repeated.
    Have you ever met someone in the middle of a stairwell?

    Also of note, the painter of the adjacent Black Power mural from the 70s is very much in favor of keeping the work, as opposed to paying $700,000 in school funds to cover it.

    I went to G Washington HS. I never noticed how badly GW’s arms are painted. They are longer and bigger than his legs.
    This is the most objectionable part of the mural to me.

  2. The solution in 16th/17th C. was simple: much church art was whitewashed over – and it was uncovered in later days and reassessed for its historical importance. The alternative is the iconoclasm of Thomas Cromwell, Smasher Dowsing and others, who effectively destroyed most visibl British art of the time.

  3. After all that’s been said and written about this issue, this is yet another piece of reporting that plays into the notion that the Arnautoff murals are racist and cartoonish – give us a break already. The murals are an anti-facist, anti-racist WPA New Deal project by a member of the CPUSA who worked with Diego Rivera. There is no skirmish in the mural as is mentioned in this article but there are skirmishes in some of the other murals and this reporter should have a look at what she is writing about. Arnautoff used symbolic means in “Westward Vision” and not graphic means. The board members (Cook, Sanchez, Collins) that are spearheading this process, as well as superintendent Vincent Matthews, are neoliberal privateers who are happy to take down leftist art and articles this this one and the previous equivocal piece by Zachary Small on Hyperallergic (who previously criticized DP candidates for virtue signalling) don’t help because they play into what Nancy Fraser calls “progressive neoliberalism” and woke wars. It’s not only the NAACP who intervened, a lot of people intervened and it’s great that many black Americans (Willie Brown, Alice Walker, Danny Glover) as well as Native Americans have spoken out about this whitewashing operation, abetted by The Nation magazine. The statement by Teachers 4Justice, like the SURJSF actions, are from a radical left point of view quite reactionary. The debates raised by the students in the late 60s have already been addressed by the Crumpler murals and the anti-left Board members know this, which is why they are more than happy to misinform the media, because this is a career building moment for these neoliberal technocrats. This mural issue is leading into broader debates about charterization and attacks on public schools.

  4. Katie, this hacked up story reveals how ignorantly convereged you’ve become. Try to decolonize your mind and report with some level of facts and truth. I know the people you work for and with do not want to become committed to facts and truth but there is still some small chance you can decolonize your mind.

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