By Ana Martinez-Ortiz
The year 2017 was a plethora of emotions. It was filled with heartbreak, with healing and with a triumph over tragedy, at the very least these were the responses in Milwaukee.
In light of the tragedies that struck Milwaukee in the years before, residents saw 2017 as a chance to repair themselves and strive for a brighter future. This goal was interpreted in a variety of ways, but many took it as an opportunity to literally brighten cream city with colors. As a result, several murals were commissioned and revealed during 2017, including “Sherman Park Rising” and “The Healing Quilt”.
Aside from brightening the city, these murals brought communities and residents together in an act of healing, that caused residents to reflect and celebrate.
The mural, “The Healing Quilt” came to life in Walnut Hill. It was the first public mural curated by the Milwaukee Art Project (MAP).
Located on the corner of Lisbon Avenue, on the Londyn Food’s wall, the bright colors sweep the viewer’s eyes across the mural. It stands at 42×18 feet and is truly a sight to behold. It’s a symbol of community and a plea for an end to gun violence. While certainly a statement piece, the mural is a collection of stories.
For some, like the children who participate in the group Our Next Generation, it’s a story filled with joy and happiness. They picked the colors and a few even helped paint. For others, like members of MAP and St. John’s on the Lake, who sponsored the mural, it’s a story of strength and advocacy.
Most importantly, “The Healing Quilt” depicts people hailing from different nationalities. From Black to Hispanic to Hmong to white, there’s a visual representation of the city of Milwaukee and its people.
In addition to the art beautifying Milwaukee, it was also a great year for African American artists like Rashid Johnson and Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald. All three are known for their works, as they directly reflect the black community.
Originally from Chicago, Johnson now resides in New York with a Brooklyn based studio. He first became known in Milwaukee with his piece, The New Negro Escapist Social and Athletic Club.
Johnson’s traveling exhibition “Hail We Now Sing Joy” resided in Milwaukee’s Art Museum (MAM) in June through September. With 10,000 square feet of space, it was one of the largest exhibitions the MAM has hosted.
The exhibition included Antoine’s Organ, Escape Collage, Anxious Audience and Falling Man. Each piece captured the viewer. Furthermore, Johnson deliberately included aspects of African and African American culture in each work of art such as books by prominent black authors.
A popular tool of his was shea butter, which appeared several times on any given piece. Easily moldable and forgiving, Johnson displayed it throughout the exhibition and most memorably on a large table at the conclusion of the narrative.
While both a narrative and display in its own right, “Hail We Now Sing Joy” allowed the viewers to be both a witness and witnessed as they transitioned from piece to piece in reflection and critique.
Like Johnson, Kehinde Wiley is a familiar name among MAM patrons. His piece, St. Dionysus, is on display in the museum.
As a young boy growing up in Los Angeles, Wiley spent his weekends at an art conservatory according to his website. While there, he grew and expanded his repertoire from still life objects to live ones. He’s best known for his portraits, specifically those of African American men.
In October of 2017, President Barack Obama announced that Wiley would be painting his official portrait for the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery. First Lady Michelle Obama will be depicted by Baltimore based artist, Amy Sherald.
Like Wiley, Sherald is best known for her portraits of African Americans. Her paintings capture the spirit and thoughtfulness of her subjects in a simple yet simultaneously captivating way.
All in all, 2017 was not just a year filled with art in Milwaukee and the nation, but one filled with opportunities for black artists. A trend, that hopefully continues throughout not only 2018 but for years to come.