By Sharon Fountain, Chicago Crusader
When a group of artists formed an organization to bring public art to their African American community in 1967, they did not know it would become a worldwide phenomenon or the catalyst redefining how people protest worldwide.
The art created by the group of artists was “The Wall of Respect.” Once located on a building at 43rd St. and Langley Ave. in Chicago, it became a movement. Today, expressing ones disapproval or objection to something through murals has become a common occurrence, but it was not always the case.
The Chicago Cultural Center, recently held a reception followed by a panel discussion the next day in conjunction with the opening of the “Wall of Respect: Vestiges, Shard, and the Legacy of Black Power” exhibition. Romi Crawford, Abdul Alkalimat and Rebecca Zorach curated the various components of the exhibition. Although a few months ahead of the original completion date, the exhibition coincides with the 50th anniversary of the “Wall of Respect.” It is open now through July 31, 2017.
Roy Lewis, who was on the panel, made the following statement:
“After 50 years the spirit of the “Wall of Respect” still lives. When you walk into the exhibit, you feel as though you just turned the corner at 43rd & Langley and what you heard and read about is there in front of you. It’s attributed to having institutional support like the Art Institute of Chicago, the South Side Community Art Center and the Chicago Cultural Center, where the exhibit is housed. In addition to the curators, Romi Crawford, Abdul Alkalimat and Rebecca Zorach, who had the vision to collect the photographs from the photographers and to make their museums available to bring the wall downtown from 43rd and Langley so that it is available to the whole world.”
The exhibition chronicles how the Organization of Black American Culture’s Visual Artists Workshop (OBAC) designed and produced a monumental mural within Chicago’s Black South Side communities. Featuring the images of leading Black icons ranging from Sarah Vaughan and John Coltrane to Marcus Garvey and Ossie Davis.
The OBAC was a collaborative effort consisting of artists, writers, and musicians. It was a bold endeavor because of the cultural indifferences of the time.
A process to design and paint the “Wall” was presented by Sylvia (Laini) Abernathy. Abernathy suggested dividing the wall into themed sections of contemporary Black heroes and sheroes. Everyone set about bringing it to fruition — including the community, which supported the project. Walker, who had the strongest relationship with the community, was the liaison. It would take three months from the start in June 1967 to complete.
Members included Ed Christmas, Jeff Donaldson, Hoyt Fuller, Barbara Jones-Hogu, Elliot Hunter, Wadsworth Jarrell, Carolyn Lawrence, Norman Parish, William Walker, Onikwa Bill Wallace, who suggested the idea of a pubic work of art to the organization, and Myrna Weaver.
Photographers were William (Fundi) Abernathy, Darryl Cowherd, Roy Lewis, and Robert A. Sengstacke.
A section of the wall was painted a second time by Eugene Edah.
When the “Wall of Respect” was dedicated, Gwendolyn Brooks read her poem, “The Wall of Respect” and Don L. Lee (Haki Madhubuti) also read his “Wall of Respect” poem.
The “Wall of Respect” received national media coverage catapulting the idea into communities in other major cities. Ebony magazine wrote one of the first articles featuring the opening dedication with detailed photographs of the wall. It gave expression to other walls in Boston, St. Louis and Philadelphia, as well as the “Wall of Dignity” in Detroit.
Just the other day, March 15, 2017, the Internet newspaper called the DailyMail.com reported, “A group of Yemen artists took to the streets Wednesday, painting murals on the wall of Sanaa University in a visual protest against three years of war.” Yemen is on the other side of the world so the “Wall of Respect’s” legacy continues to reemerged today as one of the most significant influences of art projects in Chicago’s storied public art history.
Several of the contributing artists received invitations to paint, photograph and exhibit their works in highly recognized museums and galleries. Because a fire destroyed the interior of the building, the “Wall of Respect” was later razed in 1971.
The exhibition is comprised of paintings, photographs of sections of the wall, two photomurals of the “Wall of Respect,” a replica of the newsstand that once stood in front of the “Wall of Respect,” a sculpture depicting artist on a scaffold and documents with artist names, applications and records documenting the organization from Gerald McWorter’s (Abdul Akalimat) archive.
Today, nearly 50 years later, the cultural climate resembles that time with protests and movements. Major museums and galleries would rarely exhibit the African American art. That’s why the wall at 43rd and Langley became the canvas for these artists.
The exhibit in the Chicago Cultural Center truly depicts the hope, the passion and spirit of the men and women who gave birth to the marvel — the “Wall of Respect.”