Spotlight / Walls and bridges: scaling a cultural divide
Artists Chuck Tingley, John Baker, Edreys Wajed, and Julia Douglas
Photos by kc kratt
Aaron Ott never saw it coming. When the Albright-Knox Art Gallery’s curator of public art announced plans to create a three-hundred-foot mural depicting civil rights leaders in the heart of the East Side’s black community, he had no idea that he was stirring a hornet’s nest.
Museum representatives announced that the Freedom Wall would be located at the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority’s (NFTA) Cold Spring bus facility, on the corner of East Ferry Street and Michigan, and it would be painted by Buffalo artist Chuck Tingley. But, at a public meeting held in the Frank E. Merriweather Jr. Library last April, a crowd of angry residents, harboring years of pent-up frustration, vociferously protested the project’s exclusion of artists from the black community. Ott took the brunt of the community’s fury. Tingley, who is Vietnamese-American, was not present at the meeting. “My dad passed away on February sixteenth unexpectedly,” says Tingley. “[His] wake happened to be the same day of the East Side community input. I was saddened by all of it. I was sad that it was a misstep from the beginning, and that other artists of color weren’t included.”
In response to the public outcry, three African-American artists, John Baker, Julia Douglas, and Edreys Wajed, were added to the project. Predictably, in comments to printed media coverage, some readers characterized the additions as a form of reverse discrimination. “MLKJ is rolling over in his grave,” wrote one commenter. “Isn’t that judging by skin color?” Another comment suggested, “Have people apply with a portfolio and then select the best without knowing the gender or background of the artist.” Baker, who often addresses civil right themes in his work, which included many murals, was so frustrated by the comments that he responded with a short essay emphatically titled, “NOT BECAUSE I’M BLACK.”
The notion that it’s simply a matter of selecting the “best” artist—a subjective judgment that also involves cultural bias—sounds straightforward to many. “Much of the white community seems to see this as cut and dry,” says Douglas. “Pick an artist who is good and let them paint the mural. However, from a black person’s perspective, this is about so much more than that.” It turns out the Freedom Wall poked some raw nerves relating to racial disenfranchisement, perennial disillusionment, and historical city divisions. Yet, within the story, there is a lesson: in a political climate where doubling down in the face of opposition has become the norm, open dialogue can lead to something better for everyone.
“I did not anticipate this [angry] reaction,” admits Ott, who saw Tingley as a good fit for the project because his illustrative painting style corresponds to what community members were asking for. “We talked to people at Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, right across from the wall, and people at Open Buffalo, and they raised concerns, as is always the case with public art.”
John Wilson’s Martin Luther King Jr. Park sculpture
Chief among those concerns was not repeating what many consider to be an aesthetic miscalculation in Martin Luther King Jr. Park. RoadsideAmerica.com describes the park’s signature sculpture of the civil rights leader as “a giant, creepy head that makes you feel more like cringing with horror than remembering with reverence.” “I think it was a case of me over-privileging that one concern,” says Ott, reflecting back. “If we are going to represent portraits, they need to be something you can recognize, and I knew Chuck could do that.”
That there are also accomplished African-American artists in Buffalo, some from the East Side where the black community has been historically segregated, was not considered. “For whatever reason, there were a number of people in the African-American community that I hadn’t been introduced to,” says Ott, who has only lived here since 2013. “I don’t think I did the work that I needed to do to really reach out.”
John Baker thinks the Albright-Knox was unfamiliar with local artists of color, “because they didn’t go into the community.” Baker has enjoyed a long career as a painter and educator, but when plans for the project were announced, he was unaware the artist selection had been finalized. “And then it started going around on Facebook, and [people from the black community] contacted me and asked, ‘John, do you know anything about this?’” says Baker, who didn’t, but he was heartened by the spontaneous show of community concern. “This is our history, and you mean to tell me you’re not going to have an artist of color being a part of telling the history—and becoming a part of history at the same time? Because long after we’re gone, those walls will still be standing.”
Julia Douglas, "Philmore" and "Manny"
Julia Douglas, who recently had a successful, solo exhibition at Buffalo Arts Studio, stresses that everyone involved supports and admires Tingley. “No one I’ve spoken to is unhappy that a white/Asian artist paints black figures,” she says. “People were unhappy because a team comprised primarily of white members came into an extremely historic black space and chose to paint a mural that depicts the history of black people overcoming exclusion—while unfortunately excluding us. I think the Freedom Wall controversy highlights the autonomy of the black community when it comes to taking control of our own narrative.” Ott agrees: “We stumbled a little out of the blocks. The community felt as if we walked into the room with the script written. Now that was not my intention, but that was the effect. But we were able to fix it.”
Edreys Wajed, who previously worked at the Albright-Knox as assistant for community programs, expresses admiration for those who publicly voiced concern. “I saw people taking action,” he says. “Going backward, there’s always time to remedy and rethink your steps.”
Tingley is now looking forward to working with the other artists, and he’s sympathetic to their concerns. “I’m aware that the conversations we create, the connections we build, and the legacy of relationships we foster along the way are all just as important as the finished piece,” he says.
Douglas questions the intentions of people who object to the added artists, describing the foursome as “a stronger and more informed team.”
Albright-Knox deputy director Joe Martin Lin-Hill contends that conversation and artistic flexibility are vital components of public art, and he views dialogue as the whole point of this project. (“Conversation” and “dialogue” are recurring buzzwords that pop up with remarkable regularity among all the project participants.) Lin-Hill believes that lack of representation was the problem with the Martin Luther King sculpture, “Because it somehow didn’t represent [the community] as it had sought, or as it had hoped it might.” Undertakings like the Freedom Wall require what he calls “participatory dialogue,” which inevitably leads to adjustments in the plans.
Ott adds, “It doesn’t matter what I’m working on, it does have to stay malleable. [With] public art, you’re working with a different set of challenges, and very often it requires being responsive.”
“You have to applaud the Albright-Knox and Aaron,” Wajed acknowledges. “They did not have to have the conversation. They certainly could have pushed forward and just said. ‘Sorry, you are going to be disappointed.’ And I think this is indicative of a change that’s happening. I’ve been in Buffalo a long time and all I see is stagnation; good ideas; ‘we should; maybe we will.’” But, with this project, Wajed feels the museum demonstrated a commitment to getting it right, despite the initial misstep.
Ott thinks the ensuing dialogue has informed the Public Art Initiative—now in its fourth year—on how it should function in a community, “especially one that feels underserved. I think the criticism was warranted.”
Lin-Hill explains that public art projects operate under constraints that are often not visible to the public. He considers the public meeting at which the community voiced its anger to be part of an information gathering period, suggesting that many decisions—including the selected artist—were not yet finalized.
Tingley isn’t so sure: “because of the initial idea that community input would reflect which Civil Rights leaders would be chosen. I don’t believe it was on Albright-Knox’s radar that there would be a community suggestion to add other artists to the mural.” But, he agrees that the overall project was improved by the additional artists. “I’m still super excited and pumped about this,” he says.
Lin-Hill thinks the project is better now, “because it is much more dialogic and participatory and engaged, and we are collectively envisioning how this can make a lasting contribution for all of us in Buffalo.”
“I’m glad that the community was able to introduce me to Julia and Wajed,” says Ott. “And I’m glad I met John Baker, who has been instrumental to the success of this piece.” Baker introduced Ott to retired teacher and African-American historian Eva M. Doyle, who is now assisting in selecting subjects for the mural.
“I told them about Miss Doyle,” Baker says, “and expressed the idea that this could have an educational component. This could be even bigger than [they] anticipated!” Baker contends that artists of color historically paint in an ethnically distinct stylized manner, and cites such examples as Jacob Lawrence and William Johnson. He suggests that this characteristic style will be incorporated into the finished mural now, adding to its significance.
Douglas sees another reason it’s necessary to have black artists paint the mural: “It’s fundamentally important that young people in the community have a chance to see black artists working. We tell young black students, ‘You can be anything you want!’ Here we have this project that hundreds of students will pass every day—from an art-focused school no less [Buffalo Academy for Visual and Performing Arts]. So, what does it say to them when they see a project in a black neighborhood, about black people, telling black history, but not a single black person working on it? It will reinforce the lie that there aren’t talented and capable black artists working in Buffalo. They will walk by and just assume this is simply one more thing that’s ‘not for them.’”
“When you talk about putting the best artists on the wall,” says Ott, “the four that we’ve chosen are phenomenal, and they have this collective vision about how they can each produce the kind of work they do, but also produce something that is content-based, and also based on community input.” All involved agree that the four artist styles together will create a distinctive visual flow that a single artist would not achieve. “Moving forward, we have to work as a team to create a successful mural,” says Tingley. And Ott points out: “You have a young African-American woman in her twenties, a Vietnamese-American in his thirties, an African-American man in is forties, and another in his fifties, which crosses race, gender, and age, and the wall itself becomes representative of the kind of diversity that civil rights embraces.
“It’s been one of the more critical learning experiences of my young career,” continues Ott, “I see now how a curator has to work at these things. We were able to ultimately solve this particular issue, but it took some work on our part, and it took some help from the community.”
“My takeaway from this is opportunity begets opportunity,” says Wajed. “What I mean is, no matter the road, it provided the opportunity for the conversation.”
Tingley sums it up saying, “I am happy that Albright-Knox is putting its best foot forward and I’m working alongside three amazing artists. I’m honored to be a part of this project. The mural isn’t about me; it’s so much bigger.”
Artist and educator Bruce Adams is a longtime Spree contributor.