How murals tell the story of black Philadelphia

Artist Ivben Taqiy stands for a portrait in front of his tribute mural to Derrick Rowland along North 52nd Street in West Philadelphia on Thursday, Feb. 15, 2018. Taqiy painted the mural in November for Rowland’s family.

Artist Ivben Taqiy sometimes imagines what happens when people come into contact with his work. He hopes they feel inspired and moved. To show black faces, black stories, black joy in a culture that often ignores them, the West Philly native hopes he’s offering a chance for visibility.

“It’s giving a conversation to the people without having to have a conversation with the person,” said Taqiy.

Having grown up in a religious family that restricted photography, he was inspired to become a portraitist. He paints on canvas, but he also gets commissions for murals —  what has become a Philadelphia obsession of sorts.

In black enclaves, these murals have become ubiquitous, thanks to Mural Arts Philadelphia’s projects and a long-established folk art tradition. In them, artists argue, people can reconnect with historical figures, pay tribute in times of loss, record political resistance, and share community culture. Taqiy creates commissioned paintings for anniversaries and birthdays, but business owners also call him for murals at their hair salons, day-care centers and retail stores. By his count, he worked on more than 35 R.I.P. paintings and murals last year.

Camera icon TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer
Paintings by artists Walter Edmonds and Richard Watson at the the Church of the Advocate. Inspired by biblical passages of oppression and captivity, the artists painted murals in the church in the 1970s.

Murals may have a unique place in Philadelphia’s landscape, but as the reactions to the recently unveiled Obama portraits shows, portraiture is in the middle of a resurgence. Even after the art form fell out of favor in fine-art circles by the 1950s, a focus on portraiture remained in African American art. Last week, Valerie Mercer, a curator at the Detroit Institute of Arts, explained on the WDET show Detroit Today that this tradition owes its origins to the Harlem Renaissance and has been a vehicle to raise questions about representation.

By painting a face on a wall, there’s an opportunity to express black identity, but also the impulse to present a manicured version of black life in the face of caricatures and racist portrayals.

The artist Shawn Theodore, who also goes by the name xST, has noticed that many walls in Philadelphia are influenced by notable black artists over time. The faces might follow the tradition of Horace Pippin and be wide-set. Light rays might beam like artist Aaron Douglas dreamed them up. And then there’s the “hyperreal depictions [where it’s] super-important that they’re very correct and accurate, but they’re highly stylized,” said Theodore. “The highly stylized pieces are necessary, because we see ourselves highly stylized.”

Camera icon TIM TAI / Staff Photographer
Artist Ivben Taqiy.

Taqiy’s murals often have a storybook look — his subjects are often cheery people who appear as if they’re stepping out of a shadow.

“It definitely is a responsibility, because you’re now a history-maker,” said Taqiy. “You have the responsibility of saying what shade you’re going to make that person, what height you’re going to make that person, what weight you’re going to make that person.”

Street art is a mode for self-expression, but more than that, it’s a way to memorialize someone — on a budget. “It’s much easier to have paint than to find yourself in the midst of casting bronze or masonry,” said Theodore. Camilo Jose Vergara, an urban photographer who shoots murals around the country, put it this way: “If you have money, you buy a whole building and donate it to the University of Pennsylvania. … Other folks have other ways to leave their imprint, to be remembered.”

For Mural Arts, Willis “Nomo” Humphrey has painted about eight tribute murals, including of the Roots on South Street, a grinning Kevin Hart near Broad and Erie, and Richard Allen with the likenesses of other heroes at the A.M.E. Church’s headquarters, among other homages. The design for his Octavius V. Catto mural will be unveiled next week.

“There’s a lot of stories that have to be told,” said Humphrey. “A mural is a way to have that front and center.”

Mural Arts produces around 75 to 100 artworks annually. Last year, the tally was 101, with 41 projects stemming from community proposals. Mural Arts received 300 applications in 2017.

The approval process varies: An application from a community group might spur a roundup of neighborhood stakeholders. A proposed mural of a jazz musician might inspire the organization to reach out to arts advocates. If artists have a concept, they’ll research the community’s leanings to make sure it’s a good fit.

Some public art advocates say new construction is getting precedence over old murals in gentrifying neighborhoods. (For his part, Theodore photographs folk murals as a means of preserving them.) Others, they say, are deteriorating, as the city’s aging building stock contends with blight. Theodore and Vergara said Mural Arts might choose an artist from outside Philadelphia, and include people in the decision-making process who aren’t from the neighborhood.

“The neighborhood does not speak through someone coming in and having that person’s idea filtered through a committee,” said Vergara. “It tends to be patronizing and sort of boring sometimes.”

Golden said projects call for finding “the sweet spot” between community hopes and an artist’s perspective. “I see our work as a nexus of the public, the private, the social, the civic and the aesthetic.”

Humphrey acknowledged that working for Mural Arts calls for compromise. “I don’t think I’d be able to make inroads into the schools and into the prisons on my own,” he said. He approaches projects understanding that at times, “my voice is going to have to be lowered, and I have to willing to be flexible. I think it’s a balance.”

An early example of black empowerment murals is inside the sanctuary in North Philadelphia’s Church of the Advocate, where artists Walter Edmonds and Richard Watson spent three years in the 1970s reinterpreting biblical passages into scenes of black history and resistance.

Camera icon TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer
Richard Watson, artist and curator, at the Church of the Advocate.

Watson, now an artist-in-residence and exhibitions manager at the African American Museum in Philadelphia, looked around the sanctuary on a recent Tuesday afternoon.

He based the murals on his own experiences as a civil rights activist who’d been raised in a Baptist church. “That’s the only perspective I could come from,” said Watson.

Initially, he said, he remembers wondering, “How I could tell a story that could be perpetual in this church?” But today, he realizes that their significance will always evolve. “It’s an ongoing process, and the murals touch people where they are right now.”