A review of
If These Walls Could Talk : Community Muralism and the Beauty of Justice
Reviewed by Sam Edgin
In the hurried hustle of city life, a splashed mural on the side of a building demands notice, perhaps second only to the towering skyscrapers. Murals are arresting. They toss their colors out from the monotony of the surrounding buildings and call to passers-by. As visual depictions of the surrounding community, they hold within themselves the struggles, triumphs, and desires of the people who walk beneath them daily. Outsiders look and wonder how in the world a person would paint something quite so large. Often they just shrug their shoulders with a dismissive “hmm” and walk away. The work, beliefs and passions that are painted into a mural within the colors get lost in the rhythms of the city.
If These Walls Could Talk: Community Muralism and the Beauty of Justice is Maureen H. O’Connell’s leap into those things that outsiders shrug away as they turn from a brightly painted building wall. She uses the murals spread throughout the city of Philadelphia to explore how, in the act of painting and in the finished product, these massive community-based works of art address social issues within the community, such as poverty, racism, and violence and help in the healing of these wounds. She does this within the framework of how they, as art, inject theology into the neighborhoods they watch over.
Community murals are voices for neighborhoods that society has denied a voice. Often the product of urban areas that were abandoned by success, they are way to tell the story of a larger space with the physical features that are most prominent within that space. O’Connell considers not just individual murals, but instead looks at each within the larger movement of community muralism – an effort by artists, community members, and governments within cities and across the nation to paint the voices of the disenfranchised onto the walls of the city as a way to incite social change.
In this, O’Connell sees muralism as primarily an exercise in constructive theology. That is, in showing the ways in which people build relationships with each other, murals become what she calls “Theological texts” (8) by which those in and around the communities can see the ways in which God works in the world and then strive to do the same. These massive artworks, she says, force us to do theology in the community in full view of the past, present, and potential future.
As the product of minority communities who flounder beneath the repression of a society that has left them to rot, Murals are filled with theologies of liberation. In Chapter 2, “The Ghetto as Symbol,” O’Connell takes her readers through the social history of American urban areas. She explores the factors that left urban neighborhoods empty and broken, from the surge of jobs that caused the immigration of thousands of blacks in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s to the decline of the industrial revolution and the emptying of urban neighborhoods in the “white flight” of the 1950’s and 1960’s, to the disenfranchisement caused by religious groups. This barren and infertile ground was perfect for the seeds of muralism.
Murals are unique in that the collective effort through which they are painted is as important to the community as the finished work. These are created not solely as art for art’s sake, but as instruments of social change. O’Connell uses the second part of the booksto explore how mural painting began and changed over time, and the community-centered initiatives that fueled the projects. Especially in Philadelphia, government and community support created a culture of murals across the city that gave at-risk artists purpose and ignited feelings of cohesion through the community.
The remainder of the book focuses on the murals themselves and the ways in which they are interpreted by the community and speak to the society around them. O’Connell considers in Part 3 what she calls the “code of the streets” (the adverse societal posturing youth within urban neighborhoods adopt as an answer to the systems that have rejected them) and the “code of whiteness” (white privilege and “white” middle-and-upper-class culture as the basis for aspirations) as obstacles for urban neighborhoods which muralism and a “code of creativity” (the way in which art highlights humanity, encourages self-worth, instills curiosity and questioning, and ignites hope) help to overcome. Then in Part 4 she calls notice to how the prison system plays a major part in the cycles of poverty. The majority of inmates in American prisons are minorities, and a majority of those are African American. Black males comprise 37 percent of the U.S. prison population, but only 7 percent of the overall population (pg. 137). Prison routes the urban population and sets individuals onto spiraling paths it is increasingly difficult to get off of. There is such a stigma for felons within our culture that they get sent into spirals of shame and degradation. Murals give to opportunity to express healing and welcome. They encourage reintegration and wholeness of the community.
The life of If These Walls Could Talk is found in the ways O’Connell establishes the theological grounding of murals throughout our cities. When it explores the sociological impacts of poverty on communities and even the ways in which art can address them, this book finds it difficult to distinguish itself from others. Yet when it develops its ideas of murals as a way for theology to bleed into urban streets, If These Walls is a fascinating study. It breaths with new hope, refined by the colorful treatises of its subjects.
O’Connell takes the last two Parts of the book to delve into the ways murals convey truth and encourage theological reflection and action. This is the heart of the book, and while the rest has social significance, it builds towards this. While murals can encourage communities simply through their artistry, the theological content trapped within their designs could be the real reason why they have such an impact. Making a mural is an act which follows a belief and is something based in a desire for justice and empowerment Therefore murals, from their genesis to what they speak daily into the lives of those who walk beneath them, require reflection on how people live. It is from this that these murals insist on the constructive theology O’Connell outlines at the beginning of the book.
If These Walls Could Talk meanders through muralism with a thorough complexity that shows its readers the strengths that painting on buildings can breed within a community. O’Connell doesn’t just present muralism as a life-filled part of the wholistic revitalization of urban communities, but she explores it in a way that is wholistic in and of itself. Her writing is clean, and her ideas bold and encouraging. Murals are so much more than paint over brick. They are theological and social texts sourced by the community and for the community. Hope drips down from their colors as they encourage action out of the reflection they incite.
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