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PITTSBURGH — Liberation Wall (2017-20) is on the exterior wall of a large building, a former Catholic school now housing Community Empowerment Association, a social services agency in a predominantly African-American community in Homewood, Pittsburgh. Created by artist Kyle Holbrook with his arts organization, Moving Lives of Kids Community Mural Project (MLK Mural), which has done hundreds of murals in and 43 countries and 27 states, it’s the largest such mural in Pittsburgh — a complex, two-part artwork.
As Rashad Byrdsong, founder and CEO of the Community Empowerment Association, a veteran local organizer, has noted to Pittsburgh City Paper, the local public schools have “never focused enough on African-American history” or culture. And so Holbrook, a Pittsburgh native, has created a marvelous pedagogic tool. Liberation Wall shows various influential activists, musicians, and athletes, as well as military figures, including Black soldiers from the Civil War and the Tuskegee Airmen of World War II.
You see Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, Billie Holiday, Jackie Robinson, and victims of lynchings and police violence, including Emmett Till, and of course George Floyd and Antwon Rose II. The mural also shows the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where Greenwood, a thriving, self-sustaining Black community, was completely wiped out by white mobs. The taller of the mural’s two sections is defined by a river of color — ribbons of blue (in the form of schematic, paper-doll-like figures), yellow, and green — that bisects the composition as it descends to the street, with crowds of figures on either side, while multicolored arrows race upward against the current. The other section, which runs across a wide, lower wall, is structured around three dominating pyramids, with the wavy blue strip of schematic figures and swarms of multicolored arrows undulating beneath.
The words on the left side of the tall section read: “You Already Possess Everything Necessary to Become Great.” Liberation Wall is a memorial in the best sense of those words, commemorating people and events that deserve attention right now. Although this mural is a little more than four miles from the museum where the Carnegie Internationals are held, it’s really in another universe. Almost all art-world art caters to the viewer in the know, while Liberation Wall aims to communicate immediately and as effortlessly as possible to the people in the community, who will recognize (or be inspired to learn to identify) the figures it celebrates.
For all their determination to become more accessible, art museums inevitably feel exclusive, in terms of class and consequently, of course, in relation to race. It’s a threshold built into the presentation and nature of most museum art. As I wrote in an essay recently published in A Companion to Curation, a book edited by Brad Buckley and John Conomos (Wiley-Blackwell, 2020):
When you enter the Carnegie, you come into a luxurious space, open to every member of the public paying the admission fee. I enjoy this experience, but I am aware that the building is a palace. And if I, a relatively privileged, former tenured professor, see it this way, imagine how such a museum looks to a minority person, or a poor outsider.
In their visionary 1991 Carnegie International, the curators Lynne Cooke and Mark Francis displayed works around the various city neighborhoods, including Homewood. Often out-of-town critics fly in, see this exhibition, and fly home again to write their reviews. But this 1991 show encouraged reviewers and adventuresome spectators to take time to get to know these various neighborhoods.
But even that admirably inventive exhibition merely reinforced the basic division between art-world art and work such as Liberation Wall: Christopher Wool’s “The Show is Over” was installed on a billboard above a parking lot and eventually taken down, while his untitled painting from the same year, which features a related but longer word inscription, was shown in the museum and added to the collection, where it remains on display.
It’s impossible to imagine The Show is Over being permanently installed in Homewood and it’s unlikely, I think, if the past is any indication, that the next Carnegie International will include work by Holbrook. (Though nothing, I grant, is impossible. Maybe the curator will read this essay?)
The ironies that are Wool’s stock-in-trade mark him as an art-world artist. Were I to describe “The Show is Over” in a review, I would cite the use of words in postmodernism; the much discussed death of painting; and Wool’s aggressive humor. But if I were to say more about Liberation Wall, I would identify precedents that, for far too long, have rippled along the edges of mainstream art historical narratives, if not left out altogether: the legacy of socially conscious Black artists, starting with Jacob Lawrence; Sun Ra and Afro-Futurism; street art, political posters, and record album design. Which account would you find more engaging?
In two recent books, Joachim Pissarro and I described what we dub “wild art” — art from outside the art world. Applying that analysis to this Homewood mural, I would amplify our claim that the distinction between art shown in museums and wild art is ultimately arbitrary. In principle that’s correct, but what’s needed is a discussion of the politics of contemporary art-world art — its power structure, sources of funding, and exclusionary practices — an analysis that is fortunately now underway.
Kyle Holbrook and Moving Lives of Kids Community Mural Project (MLK Mural): Liberation Wall (2017-20) is located at Nadir Way and Kelly Street, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.