Murals are a powerful means of narrating history. Usually, by their sheer size they command our attention. The first murals that immediately come to mind are the massive murals painted by the Mexican Diego Rivera, in l932-33, at the Detroit Institute of Art, narrating the history of the auto industry. A capitalist Edsel Ford hired a Communist Diego Rivera to capture the story of the auto industry on the walls of the Institute. Rivera's murals emphasize the continuous cycles of the myriad connections and interactions necessary for man to produce the complex vehicle. The rhythm of these murals is established through the interaction of robust men working in sync with intricate machinery and equipment. They remain the largest murals painted by a Mexican in this country. The book
Diego Rivera/ The Detroit Industry Murals
by Linda Bank Downs reproduces the murals in great detail and it documents the entire process by which murals such as these are created. Fortunately, Rivera's cartoons (full-scale drawings for the murals) remain intact and are part of the process featured in this book. This book will be invaluable for my students in their final collaborative project of creating a mural on the wall in our school cafeteria.
For those who wish to pursue Mexican murals further, there is an illuminating book filled with colorful paintings titled
Mexican Muralists: Orozco, Rivera, Siqueiros
by Desmond Rochfort. It is apparent from studying this book that the role of these artists' murals fused a relationship between politics and art that became part of Mexico's national identity. One gigantic mural by David Alfaro Siqueiros, on the side of a building at the National Autonomous University of Mexico in Mexico City, is titled
The People for the University. The University for the People
. The mural portrays five gigantic figures representing: Science, Technology, Industry, Agriculture, and Culture. This mural, along with others in the book, might be an inspiration for students who are planning the mural in our cafeteria.
A historical survival story is documented in
The Amistad Murals
by Hale Woodruff at Talladega College in Alabama, portraying, in three separate murals, the tumultuous survival story of the Mende people of West Africa, kidnapped and sold into slavery in Cuba in 1838. The murals are accessible on the Internet. Of course, we in New Haven have a particular interest in this piece of history since one of the three trials to determine the culpability of the leader Cinque and his people was held here in New Haven in 1839, and our harbor now is home to the full scale replica of the Cuban ship Amistad that brought Cinque and the other Mende people from Cuba to the North East.
Making a contemporary connection, students will visit a website of urban murals which also narrate history such as: Richard Wyatt's mural
in San Francisco, depicting musical legends: Duke Ellington, Nat King Cole, and Billie Holliday; Noni Olabisi's mural in Los Angeles,
To Protect and Serve
, dedicated to and featuring the Black Panther Party.
It is my plan that the study of murals will culminate in a student art project in our cafeteria, where there is a very, very old, dog-eared mural, which our staff has discussed replacing. This unit seems like the perfect opportunity for this student project.
While Lois Mailou Jones's painting
The Ascent of Ethiopia
is not a mural, it is a large, (approximately 60 x 44 inches), vibrant painting, which might inspire students creating a mural for our cafeteria. Jones's painting, done in l932, the same year that Diego Rivera was working on his murals in Detroit, narrates four thousand years of black history, beginning with a profile of a black pharaoh and pyramids at the bottom and ascending to skyscrapers and black musicians, actors and painters at the top. It is remarkable to see the progression of these four thousand years in one painting. Aaron Douglas, an artist associated with the Harlem Renaissance, painted a similar work in l944, titled
Building More Stately Mansions
, (54 inches x 42inches), in which he also spanned these four thousand years, using some of the same symbols as Jones. I have slides of both of these paintings and plan to show them side-by-side, asking the students to compare their colors, symbols, and flow or composition as vehicles for history and as survival stories. This will be an excellent lesson in visual literacy and an ideal opportunity for the students to practice preparing for and writing a standard five-paragraph essay. (
I will develop this exercise in my LESSON PLAN:
I will ask students to identify and compare: the
colors and hues
in each painting , the symbols in each, and the
composition or structure
of each painting. They will make their
and record their
on Graphic Organizers and then turn this activity into a five-paragraph "formula" essay, a skill I stress in my classes.)
History recreated through a series of paintings
Sometimes an artist chooses to convey a historical event through a
of paintings. Jacob Lawrence was famous for recreating survival stories in this way. His series of sixty panels titled
The Migration Series
depict the mass migration of African Americans from the rural South to the urban North during the Industrial Revolution in this country. By viewing these panels from beginning to end students will see that each subsequent panel tells more of the story and reveals the desperate conditions that drove African Americans from the South and the hardships they faced in the North. Examples of these desperate conditions in the South appear in panel nine, showing cotton crops destroyed by the boll weevil; panel ten, showing a table set with barely any food (because the war had doubled the cost of food); panel 15 shows an African American weeping under the limb of a tree where a noose hangs; and panel 17 shows a white landowner dealing unjustly and harshly with a black tenant farmer who has lugged his crop in to the landowner for payment. Examples of the hardships faced by the migrants when they arrive in the North appear in panel 22 showing three African Americans in handcuffs, arrested for no apparent reason; panels 46, 47, and 48, showing housing in the North as crowded and unhealthy; panel 49 showing a segregated restaurant in the North; and panel 52, showing angry northern workers beating up migrants with whom the northerners now had to compete for jobs. This series expresses graphically that survival is fraught with struggle and pain, and sometimes failure.
Lawrence, a participant in the great migration himself, painted this series when he was twenty-two and twenty-three years old, and it was sold shortly thereafter to the Phillips Collection in Washington D.C. and to the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Phillips purchasing the odd numbered paintings, and the MOMA purchasing the evens. From time to time the Series comes together for an exhibit.
In l993 this Series, narrated by Jacob Lawrence himself, was made into a children's storybook
The Great Migration
, and includes an image-rich poem by author and poet Walter Dean Myers, titled
, in appreciation for Lawrence's work. This poem narrates a public history, and its opening lines begin:
In the waiting room, "Colored,"
Hands, calloused and as black as the rich
Georgia/Carolina/Alabama dirt they leave behind,
Clasp and unclasp silently,
Some hold Bibles older than freedom. . . ( 1 - 5 )
Lawrence lived the great migration himself, living in three different cities by the time he was six years old, finally, being left behind for three years by his mother while she tried to establish herself in New York City. At thirteen he was reunited with his mother in Harlem where he began first as a student of art and then as a master painter. His private history is narrated and laced with his paintings in a children's book titled
Story Painter: The Life of Jacob Lawrence
by John Duggleby. Lawrence's own personal experience in the migration and life in Harlem is highly visible in his art, a private and public narrative, converging.
Lawrence painted a forty-panel series narrating the public history of Toussaint L'Ouverture, the brave black leader who liberated the slaves of Haiti from the French in 1800, although L'Ouverture himself was captured and imprisoned in France where he died. Not only is this series about the valiant struggle of a brave man to free Haiti from slavery, but also it symbolizes man's need to live freely and his struggle to win that freedom, even at the expense of his own life. Collaborating with author Walter Dean Myers, Lawrence used these action-packed paintings to create a children's storybook, just as he did with
The Migration Series