Public art leaders are examining ways for their programs to be more inclusive, honest and representative of their surrounding communities. Around the country, we’ve seen efforts to confront problematic monuments and make space for the voices of women, non-binary artists and artists of color, including civically sanctioned racial justice-focused street art projects; a record number of Women’s Suffrage sculptures; and monument commissions designed to, in part, increase representation of undertold and suppressed narratives. It feels like the art world collectively decided that mistakes were made and reckoning is due. But does this progress truly benefit women-identified, non-binary and BIPOC artists working in public space who have been told that, finally, your work, your story, your value to arts and culture will be recognized and supported? Further, how easy is it for a single property holder with a limited appreciation of this much-needed progress to singlehandedly obstruct work that was commissioned by a national coalition? It turns out that it’s very easy, and similar behavior happens all the time.
Public art is dependent on cooperation, transparency and good faith with neighbors. When all parties come together peacefully and passionately to support a new work of art, the world feels more aligned and just. That has been our experience since we founded the Chicago Womxn’s Suffrage Tribute Committee in 2020 to commission and install murals that commemorate and celebrate women’s fight to secure voting rights in Illinois. The committee obtained two prominent walls, supportive and enthusiastic property owners, a skilled production team, national funders, and best of all, two of the most talented Chicago-based muralists: Diosa (Jasmina Cazacu) and Dorian Sylvain. Everyone was excited to be a part of the first large-scale public art project to honor Chicago-area suffrage leaders. In October, Diosa’s mural was being installed and Sylvain’s team was gearing up to begin. Everything was going to plan, until suddenly, two days before Sylvain’s installation was to begin, it wasn’t. It all fell apart when one person who originally agreed to rent parking spots, which were essential to accessing Sylvain’s mural wall, decided he would no longer rent the spots because he didn’t approve of the text-based design featuring “I’m Speaking.” Attributed to our country’s first female and Black vice president, Kamala Harris, the phrase was chosen as a nod to the long struggle for women to have their voices heard over men who have historically interrupted and silenced them. The lot owner not only obstructed VP Harris’ empowering assertion to her right to be heard, but also the work of another Black woman, artist Dorian Sylvain, regardless of the fact that this mural is a project he did not commission for property he does not own. All parties involved, including the Committee, the commissioning bodies, producers and most vitally, the group that owns the property where the mural was to be placed, attempted to reason with him, yet he refused to let the project move forward.
To many, this story is not surprising when considering the long history of white people and men silencing Black women. Michelle Duster, the great-granddaughter of Ida B. Wells who spearheaded the formation of our committee, argues in her Ms. magazine article, “Obstruction of Black Women’s Voices as a Form of Race-Based Violence,” that this account is “reminiscent of the centuries-long dynamic of white men wielding power over Black women’s ability to be heard and respected as equals… [believing] they have a right to determine when and where a Black woman can speak and need to approve of what she says.”
This recent action falls neatly in line with our country’s patriarchal legacy, where artists who lack the benefits of white male privilege endure real threats—to their autonomy, physical safety, livelihood—when making art in public spaces. Ask a female/non-binary public artist if they ever felt threatened on the job. She will share that while she was painting a mural several stories up, a man tried to climb up her bucket lift, demanding attention after she rebuked his catcalling. She will say that based on racist stereotypes she was accused of being in a gang, adding “gang tags” to a wall specifically to incite violence, while she had actually painted the word “Love.” They will recount how a local resident pulled her car over to bark orders about cleaning up the alley of city debris because she assumed this person of color who was sorting through their art supplies had no right to be there unless they were cleaning. She will recall being confronted repeatedly, while leading a huge production, “Where’s your boss?” and “Did your husband okay this?” She will explain how a group of drunk tailgaters told her that the motor on her lift was making too much noise for their parking lot party and when she refused to stop working, they attempted to turn it off which would have trapped her high up in the air. This last story took place within the last month, and the other stories were generously shared with me by my colleagues so we may together advocate for reform in public art policies.
When these artists come to work, they hope that their greatest inconvenience will be bad weather, not harassment and threats of violence. Instead they have to worry about how assumptions about their gender identity or race will threaten their very right to make art in public. Beyond all artists’ needs for adequate funding and artistic support, many also need around-the-clock security, colleagues with cultural sensitivity training, and a team of people who prevent threats to artists’ physical safety and livelihood. We should all be grateful to artists who are willing to make an impact on our public landscape and transform our engagement in these spaces, while never really knowing if they and their work will be protected. Meanwhile, they’re not even getting compensated equally, being paid eighty-one cents on the dollar that their male counterparts receive.
The Chicago Womxn’s Suffrage Tribute Committee and our allies have worked together for almost two years, through the pandemic and plenty of obstacles, to have these large-scale, nationally significant works become a reality. We are not giving up: women and non-binary artists, especially those who identify as BIPOC, need us to support them in a field where they are unjustly disadvantaged. They need artistic freedom to create their work; physical safety; unyielding support and fair compensation. They deserve to enjoy the same opportunities and be treated with the same respect as men. One person attempting to wield power cannot silence them just because he has an erroneous belief that his opinion matters more. Instead of silencing women artists, listen up, they’re speaking. (Neysa Page-Lieberman)
Find a joint statement about the obstruction of the mural, authored by the Committee, the artist and the partnering institutions here. Neysa Page-Lieberman is a curator, writer, educator and activist. She is the co-founder and co-artistic director of Monuments to Movements in the House of Radical Feminist Practices and the former chief curator of the Wabash Arts Corridor.