Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Painting a Legacy

Last Saturday, the youth at Rensarie Secondary School and I completed the last designs of my mural. As I stand at the wall, I am amazed that the project has come to fruition after so much struggle and betrayal. This project was inspired by my experience working on a mural in Harlem, New York with a group of eleven teenagers from the neighborhood, all of whom came from low-income families and attended schools where arts programs are vanishing. However, as enthralled as I am just to have been a part of that project, this new mural was special in the way that I was the primary planner and designer, unlike the Harlem mural, which was designed by a teaching artist.

            I remember creating PowerPoints about art history for the youth at my school so they could choose their favorite artists and art traditions from different cultures and how enamored they were with the paintings and sculptures they viewed. After the lesson, they chose their favorite artists and art traditions so I could create a design based on their preferences. I remember, just after the Training of Teachers on Santo, coming to Wilco to procure price quotes on paint, chalkline, buckets, rollers, and other supplies, then sitting at my computer stressed over budget calculations for the Peace Corps Partnership Program, then vexing about whether or not the funds would be raised during my vacation in China. I also remember how frustrating it became to find people who knew sand-drawings so they could be integrated into the design—the one component of it I couldn't design myself. However, I never expected that the primary setback to the project would come from my own school and the same people who signed off on it in the first place.
            Even though my school approved the schematic for the design, they recanted their approval after we began painting and demanded a world map instead. It wasn't about a lack of consensus over the design. My project was being exploited for my headmaster's power play. When I tried to explain to him that he already gave me approval and that the youth chose and enjoyed these designs, I would be accused of extortion and fabrication. In fact, when I asked the school headmaster why he approved my design, his answer was, “I was tired when I said that.” Disillusioned, I struggled to find a way to cultivate the project's integrity. I felt capitulating to their demands would be unscrupulous and unreasonable, and working with them would prove arduous. Then, a volunteer friend offered a perspective I had not considered, “Paz, if [your headmaster is] too difficult to work with, just take your paint and go somewhere else.”
            Finally, after several meetings and negotiations, I convinced both the staff at Peace Corps and at Rensarie Secondary School to allow me to take the project there. Suddenly, I was being treated completely differently. Teachers were lauding and applauding me and my design. They were suggesting palpable images they would like to be included, all of which were easily accommodated. The youth took full responsibility for the project and painted until sunset. We completed the mural in five days, which I never dreamed would happen. And, while I hesitate to use the word “resplendent” for my own work, I don't think the staff at Rensarie would be as reluctant based on their reactions. Besides, the work is not just mine. It is also that of the youth who contributed to it and took ownership of it. In fact, they have invited me back to paint a tamtam image in the remaining white space in August. Of course I accepted.
            The theme of the mural is “Solidarity Between the City and the Village.” The right side represents the city, and the left side, the village. It was inspired by the fact that I came to Vanuatu from New York City, and no two places on the planet could be more different. Still, we can collaborate together, and this mural stands as a testament to that. The winged being at the zenith is an Ethiopian angel design watching over the school. Just below the angel is the bird of paradise, a poignant symbol for people from Papua New Guinea, as one of the teachers at Rensarie came from there. It is flying over Rensarie's symbol, the canoe and star. The green valley and tree trunks are inspired by the abstract British landscape painter David Hockney. (Hockney is also known for his homoerotic paintings, but I didn't need to mention that!) The triangular, tailed symbol is one of the adinkra symbols from the Ashanti culture in West Africa. It is two connected crocodiles that must work together to find food and is a symbol of community mobilization and synergy. Next to the Vanuatu map is an image inspired by contemporary African American painter Faith Ringgold of young people soaring over a cityscape. One of the buildings is labeled “Art Students League,” the school in New York where I received my arts training, whose stellar teachers helped me to enhance my skills tremendously. Beside that are two sand-drawings: seven pigeons and a heart. Below the cityscape is the Eiffel Tower and the Forbidden City in Beijing. The Chinese character above the puzzle pieces can be translated as “community” or “fellowship among men.” The black wave line, puzzle pieces, and stick figures are reminiscent of the German artist Paul Klee. The four-armed woman in the center is Kali, a Hindu Goddess of Rebirth and a symbol of mobilization and gender equality for feminists around the world. (While in India, I was blessed by the swamis at one of her temples, which is among my favorite memories of my travels there.) On the bottom left corner are two more sand-drawings: a fish and a turtle in front of a backdrop inspired by my artist friend, Deqa Abshir, a Somali artist from Kenya. Above that are divers performing the nangol, which I had recently seen. They are diving above a Giverny bridge and water lilies inspired by Claude Monet. The kangaroo represents Australia, where one teacher received her education. There are also two more sand-drawings: a gecko and a breadfruit leaf. Next to the land-divers is another adinkra symbol: a sun hovering over a moon, a symbol of harmony. The word “interbeing,” bamboo image, and circle are inspired by the Japanese art of Zen brushstroke. Interbeing is the Buddhist teaching that we are not separate from one another; we can see all other beings within us and ourselves within all other beings. The quote at the bottom comes from my favorite playwright, Tennessee Williams, from his play Camino Real: “Make voyages! Attempt them! There's nothing else!”

1 comment:

  1. Laura Taylor, friend of Bart & FaithJune 30, 2013 at 5:14 PM

    The interweaving of cultures and art styles is impressive. The colors stand out from the white background, making strongly defined images. The most impressive thing, though, is that your students could reach agreement on what and how to paint the mural. What an accomplishment, Paz. So glad you could share the photos with us!