BU News Service
On October 23, Boston Mayor Martin Walsh and the Boston Art Commission announced the exhibition of three public art pieces in Dudley Square’s Bruce C. Bolling Municipal Building, chosen for their portrayal of the community.
New and old, temporary and permanent, public art in Roxbury continues to serve as a way for artists to preserve and share their history and culture.
“Our day to day experience is improved through our environment,” explained Boston Art Commission Director Karin Goodfellow. “Especially through…the inclusion of artwork, in our landscape, our city-scape, artworks that might reinforce our understanding of ourselves, but also art that might make us ask questions about who we are and what we believe in as a culture.”
One of the pieces, an enamel mural entitled “Roxbury Rhapsody,” Roxbury artist Napoleon Jones-Henderson portrayed Roxbury’s diverse culture and “quilted history.” Such a theme is not uncommon in Roxbury’s public art scene.
Roxbury is considered by many to be the heart of Black culture in Boston. Black pride and the celebration of events and people, such as Malcolm X, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Frederick Douglass are reflected in the public art that is seen throughout the neighborhood.
Using vibrant colors depicting people of races and cultures, or in celebration and memoriam of different events, some artists use public space as a forum for social engagement and empowerment in a time when the identity of Roxbury is at risk of being changed.
This kind of public art is not hard to find in Roxbury, and can be seen in public buildings, on brick walls and even at MBTA stations.
People moving in do not necessarily understand the neighborhood’s culture, said Aziza Robinson-Goodnight, an arts activist and curator who grew up in Roxbury.
“We’ve had people come in and do simple things or try to move in not really in the way that they are now,” she said. “People of color have contributed to the fabric of Roxbury in a major way when no one wanted to live in Roxbury, no one cared about Roxbury.”
Robinson-Goodnight said while the cost of rent is rising fast and Roxbury is being transformed into a different place, the public art will preserve the culture of a Roxbury that she said was once seen as a “dirty ghetto.”
“Public art allows us to stay there,” she said. “If we can’t live there, at least our art is there, at least our images are there.”
L’Merchie Frazier, director of education at the Museum of African American History, said while Roxbury might not be the only hub of Black culture in Boston, it “is a place of galvanizing the spirit of Black people.”
But much of Boston’s black history happened a few miles down the road on Beacon Hill.
While the civil rights movement in Roxbury, often a theme in Roxbury public art, is often characterized by King’s 1965 march through Roxbury, Frazier said the movement towards equal rights in Boston had begun approximately two hundred years earlier, when Black abolitionist Prince Hall directed three Black men to purchase land in Beacon Hill.
The men built the African Meeting House, the “hub of the activity of the Black community,” in Beacon Hill by 1806, Frazier said. It was not until the end of the nineteenth century that the Black population migrated to Roxbury and other nearby neighborhoods looking for work.
“We are talking about a continuum of pressing for civil rights from as early as the middle 1700s,” she said. “And this pressing for civil rights evolved into social movements as this community developed itself.”
Faces of Dudley, a mural by Mike Womble and other artists, was first created in 1995 in collaboration with Boston Art Commission and re-mastered in 2015, it depicts Malcolm X and civil rights activist Ella Baker, among others. Activist Malcolm X, whose real name is Malcolm Little, moved to Dale Street in Roxbury in 1941, where he remained for part of his life.
“We can’t talk about any liberation of the Black community without talking about Malcolm,” Frazier said. “He is a part of the voice of the Black community and the global African community… He points us to loving ourselves.”
But the art does not solely pertain to Roxbury’s Black history, and often reflects the cultural diversity of the neighborhood, and a celebration of Africa and other places where residents came from.
“There are several cultures [in Roxbury]…that are stemming from African, like Puerto Rico, like that of Haiti, Dominican Republic, Jamaica,” she said. “The African presence…is represented in Roxbury. It is a focus of people who are of African descent.”
Murals dedicated to Africa and to Nelson Mandela can be found on Roxbury’s Warren Street. Other public art pieces memorialize those in the community whose lives have been lost. Egleston Peace Garden Murals, by Robert Chao and other artists, was created in remembrance of “the neighborhood’s youngsters who died through street violence,” according to the Boston Art Commission.
While community history is a theme throughout Boston’s public art scene, artists have found inspiration in new themes, such as innovation and the use of technology, Goodfellow said.
“That is something that is very unique to Boston and our identity here…looking at new ways to tell our story as well and new ways to understand our identity that isn’t just about history,” she said. “Boston can be defined through our colonial history, a very particular aspect of our story, and I think more and more the narrative being told extends far beyond that.”
“How do we understand ourselves as a community?” she asked. “It’s more than just one piece, it’s all these pieces understood together and I think that’s really important.”