By Wen-Yee Lee
Max Sansing was spray-painting a ragged wall of an underpass between Little Village and North Lawndale — a border that separates Mexican-American and African-American communities.
Soon, images unfolded of Mexican culture and experiences in Chicago, West African symbols of strength and unity, and portraits of community residents. As a core artist for the Chicago Public Art Group, Sansing led this mural project with his partner Rahmaan Statik Barnes.
Their Sepia murals will be unveiled Thursday at noon at 2230 S. Central Park Ave. You are invited to join 22nd Ward Alderman Ricardo Munoz, community residents, the Chicago Public Art Group and local artists for a showcase of things to come in Chicago’s 2017 “Year of Public Art.”
Munoz, community groups, local artists and the city worked together to organize the current mural project.
The collaboration provides a model for the upcoming “Year of Public Art.” The City of Chicago is committing $1.5 million in local artist-led projects in all 50 city wards to bring new public art installations such as underpasses, bridges and cement walls.
The so-called “Sepia” mural project is named for the richly brown-toned murals, presenting dual cultural themes in two borderline underpasses in the 22nd Ward, one at the intersection of Cermak Road and Central Park Avenue, and the other near 2225 S. Trumbull Ave.
The murals symbolize a communication channel between two ethnicities. One side of the walls presents tapestries with patterns from different regions of Mexico and Mexican- American experiences of living in Chicago. The other side introduces Adinkra symbols from West Africa with conceptual meanings such as “unity” and “strength.”
Another theme highlights the experiences of community elders. Photos of these residents portrayed on the walls of the underpasses were taken by Munoz’s assistant Abdul-Aziz Hassan.
“Seeing some of the similarities with migration or lack of access to rights, or struggles that the communities are facing today in contemporary situations, and then putting that on the canvas” is a way of allowing people to conceptualize common ground and connect, explained Hassan why they brought these artists together.
Little Village and North Lawndale have smouldered with gang activity for years and the tension segregates the two neighborhoods. Sansing witnessed a shooting while painting the mural, he said. “I believe that is just kind of reinforcing the reason why this [mural] is needed in the neighborhood.”
“What we can do is kind of try to focus on things that are positive,” said Hassan. “That’s what we are trying to achieve with these murals.” He also hopes public art will help young people and spark their imaginations. “It’s a small, but necessary and important part of the overall puzzle to fix everything. You have to be inspired.”
The Sepia project launched through participatory budgeting in the 22nd ward. Three years ago, the residents voted to commission community murals at viaducts and underpasses, and the ward worked with the Chicago Public Arts Group and provided $60,000 in funding.
“Usually, most of the murals you see in Little Village or North Lawndale are by non-profits, or art groups, or the artists themselves,” said Hassan.
He hopes more art projects like Sepia can be launched in the neighborhood with the opportunity of the “Year of Pubic Art.” In 2017, each ward will be allowed to utilize up to $10,000 to support art installations.
“There’s a call for artists from every ward to be included in a wide-ranging retrospective of our Chicago art,” said Mark Kelly, commissioner of the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events. “The city will be on fire with public art almost in every neighborhood in the city.”
Having helped install public art such as the Sepia project in many neighborhoods in Chicago, Steve Weaver, executive director of Chicago Public Art Group, said the group will build on the many relationships already established for the “Year of Public Art.”
“We’ve already approached aldermen and are telling them about this opportunity and we’re hoping that we can get out some more projects going in neighborhoods, especially neighborhoods that are art deserts,” he said.
Weaver emphasized how public art could help start a conversation that a neighborhood needs to have or wants to have by taking the art into places like the border of Little Village and North Lawndale.
“We have cultures that need to be represented,” said Sansing, “I feel the ‘Year of Public Art’ in Chicago is a very strong tool.”