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Home / Downtown Iowa City murals deliver messages on white privilege, Black joy
IOWA CITY — Two murals under construction in downtown Iowa City are putting Black and white messages in full color to provoke conversations the artists hope will inspire more than performative gestures.
The Oracles, a pair of 60-foot tall murals, will adorn the parking ramp stairwells along the Capitol Street ramp’s south side on East Burlington Street. There, artists Antoine Williams and Donte’ K. Hayes have designed messages for two audiences.
The first, for Black viewers living in predominantly white spaces, assures them that “Black joy needs no permission.” The other urges white viewers to “weaponize your privilege to save Black bodies.”
"We wanted to be a little bit more than a typical mural,“ said artist Antoine Williams. ”Murals in themselves cannot solve these problems.“
The murals, a joint project by Public Space One’s Center for Afrofuturist Studies with funding from Iowa City’s Public Art Program and the University of Iowa’s Office of the President of Research, first grew out of the protests in the wake of George Floyd’s murder in 2020.
“We saw this as an opportunity to not only paint a mural but more importantly be around for all the conversations that came before and will come after,” said John Engelbrecht, executive director of Public Space One. “We think that the role of public art is not to just be happy go lucky or make people have warm fuzzies, but to promote pushing culture forward.”
Murals previously planned for the towers fell through, giving the Center for Afrofuturist Studies a new opportunity. Public Space One said the murals represent the commitment to the Black communities of Iowa City by prioritizing their voices in art and paths to equitable opportunities in other institutions.
“You should be able to sit in that discomfort. That’s the goal we need to get to, being uncomfortable within this conversation. Because it’s not an easy fix.”
Using that opportunity, Williams said the artists did not want the murals to serve as a chance for others to grow complacent.
“This is at a time we’re seeing all these Black Lives Matter murals go up,” he said. “Murals are fine, but the issues we have is those murals allow institutions, cities and white folks to do symbolic gestures and pat themselves on the back rather than taking accountability.”
Using a pleasing visual aesthetic to lure the viewer in, the interdisciplinary artist said the messages will serve as a constant reminder that anti-white supremacy work is an ongoing challenge.
Inspired by W.E.B. Du Bois’ double consciousness, the concept of internal conflict that Black Americans face by seeing themselves through the eyes of a predominantly white society, the message on Black joy speaks to a struggle many Black residents in Iowa can identify with, according to Williams.
“Understanding your safety and who you are as a person is something at stake. You have to remind yourself to claim joy,” said Williams. “I look at it as a radical act for Black people to claim joy and try to be ourselves as much as we can. The world doesn’t always want us to.”
The other message, he said, is a constant call-out to the responsibility white residents have in dismantling white supremacy — more than symbolic gestures. But those actions don’t always have to be loud or grandiose.
“When you’re in that room with all white folks, maybe ask why it’s only white folks,” he said. “Racism isn’t a Black problem, it’s a problem that white people have that’s affecting (people of color.)”
Dismantling that in ways that people of color cannot do will require more than a quick fix.
“You should be able to sit in that discomfort. That’s the goal we need to get to, being uncomfortable within this conversation,” he said. “Because it’s not an easy fix.”
Inspired by West African mythology and artistic styles from the Black arts movement that sprang out of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s and 1970s, the murals display bright colors, prominent Black figures and text to get a message across in clear terms.
“When I break through discomfort, that’s when I find the most growth in my life. If we can spark some discomfort and we don’t run away from it, we can have some great positive growth. Things won’t stay the same.”
Over July and August, lead Des Moines painter Jill Wells will work with a team to install the murals, which will cover a total of 6,550 square feet along the towers that are 60-feet by 17-feet.
“As soon as I started to read about The Oracles and the artists’ vision, I was blown away,” Wells said. “These murals are serving as not only reminders of the work that needs to be done to dismantle white supremacy, but also where the starting point was.”
Using aerial lifts, painters on Monday started to prime the surfaces that will be outlined at night using a large projector. Soon, they’ll be able to fill in the large, organic shapes with color, with the goal of completion by mid-August.
Perhaps the most challenging part of the project will be maneuvering the lift through traffic, Wells said. Weighing 25,000 pounds, the lift can only move 5 mph. Regular lane closures scheduled for week days will allow the painters to park it as they work.
A Black artist, Wells said representation with images folks can see and hear themselves in is key. But after a year of planning and challenging logistics, she hopes the paint on the concrete will serve as a positive, healthy dialogue.
And positive dialogue isn’t mutually exclusive to conversations that cause discomfort.
“When I break through discomfort, that’s when I find the most growth in my life,” she said. “If we can spark some discomfort and we don’t run away from it, we can have some great positive growth. Things won’t stay the same.”
Williams also hopes the mural can be the center of future programming that propels the conversation long after the murals’ completion is celebrated.
“It’s important for all of us to stay in communion as a community,” Wells said. “That’s why I enjoy public works.
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