Rachel Cohen

Vidura Jang Bahadur On Photography

Jang Bahadur

Photograph, Vidura Jang Bahadur, 2016. Installation at the Muffler Shop, Chicago, 2017. Detail photos Rachel Cohen.

In the spring of 2017, Vidura Jang Bahadur installed a series of photographs he had taken at the Muffler Shop at 359 E. Garfield Blvd near Washington Park on the South Side. The building is owned by the University of Chicago and is a part of its art initiatives. Bahadur’s photographs were street photographs – of people at the lake shore and in the parks on the south side, of storefronts and prairie grasses, some portraits of an individual or a small group, some larger crowd gatherings.

In the photographs there was stillness and composure, and I also felt the photographs raised the issue of arbitrariness, how these people came to be in this place. The images are de-saturated, which gives a sense of incompleteness. The photographs had mostly been taken in 2016 and were untitled.

This is a different detail of the same photograph:

Bahadur is interested in urban planning, and in the catalogue for the show, he wrote of how the city of Chicago has been “carved” into “distinct racial geographies,” by policy, through the built environment. The show was a part of the Department of Visual Arts MFA presentations for the year, and in the space there were also works by another artist, Kyle Hossli; I did not take any photographs of Hossli's work. The ensemble of works for the spring was called “And…and…and,” the group of works by Bahadur did not have a specific title.

The spring of 2017 was my first spring in Chicago, and the end of Vidura Jang Bahadur’s second year in the city, and in the MFA program. Before Chicago, Bahadur had worked as a photographer for many years in India, China, and Tibet, and had particular interests in photographing people who had migrated or been forced to migrate. At the University of Chicago, he had enrolled in the first course I taught there, on the essay and moving through landscape. In the years since, he and I have collaborated on several projects – working together to edit and design a community anthology and a set of chapbooks, both are of writing and images by other people having to do with migration. He also recently took the photograph I use as my author photo. At the time I saw the show, though, we knew each other less well. It is also the only show of his work that I have seen.

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Bahadur has not shown these photographs in commercial galleries, and it was important to him to install the show in a way that recognized that the images were of the neighborhood, taken of the neighborhood and in some way belonging in and to the neighborhood. Some were also installed outside the Muffler Shop building on a nearby wall and storefront.

He printed the images on regular bond paper and pasted them to the walls of the Muffler Shop using wall adhesive and to the nearby exterior spaces using wheat paste. When the show was over, he washed the interior walls down, the photographs disintegrated and the images receded into the digital archive; some vestiges of the exterior images remained until last year. I went to the show close to the end of its time, and was very aware of how transitory the images were, that they were soon to be washed away.

It made me see more acutely how much I assume, and invest in, the permanence of photographs. I take them to be a record that will outlast me, and to be in some way both immaterial and valuable, almost as if the point of the living were to achieve itself in the image. This show made them material — wrinkled and faded and pasted and less the point. This man on the horse did not achieve his meaning in being photographed (though he knows how to pose for a photograph) – he had his meaning, and has it still, somewhere else, when this photograph is washed away.

One thing that is striking to me now, going back through the photographs, is how much the show affected my own photographs of the show. I began to veer to the sides, taking pictures of the pictures with the sockets and bricks that were near to them. My photographs of the Vidura Jang Bahadur photographs look a bit like Vidura Jang Bahadur photographs. This seems a complex wit on the part of the artist, to have created this effect, or the opportunity for this effect.

When I saw the show, I began from the inside of the space, and the images I have concentrated on were mostly mounted in the interior. Vidura Jang Bahadur was there on the day I saw the show, and he told me that he later thought he would have liked to install more of the images outside. I also spent quite a bit of time with the outside images and I found them, and their installation, trustworthy and clarifying. When I write on Monday, I would like to try to think about why.

William Walker Public Art

William Walker Public Art

William Walker, Childhood is Without Prejudice, 1977. 56th Street Metra Underpass, Chicago. Photos by Rachel Cohen.

Today I want to think about public art. Art that I can still go visit, that anyone can still go visit, even though all the museums are closed. Often vulnerable and often unprotected, and also, beautifully, always there. Even in the dark of night, in snow, in a pandemic.

In our neighborhood of Hyde Park in Chicago, there is a masterwork at the 56th Street Metra Underpass. It is called Childhood is Without Prejudice, and it is one of the few surviving murals by William Walker, who was a foundational figure in mural art. Painted in 1977.

I learned about it from a student of mine not long after we moved here in 2016, and now I look at it several days a week. Glance, really, through a car window as I drive to pick up our two children from their school which is nearby. Sometimes, on foot, I pause for a bit.

The overlapping faces are moving. I feel one child leading to another.

I love this join

And these

The texture of the paint on the wall is wonderful.

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William Walker was born in Birmingham, Alabama in 1927. He fought in the Korean War, studied fine arts at the Columbus College of Art and Design, was influenced by mural painters from the Mexican tradition, and helped to create the Organization for Black American Culture (OBAC) and the public art movement more generally in Chicago in the 1960s. He was one of the central painters for the Wall of Respect, which was a public testament of respect, with large-scale portraits of significant African-American figures on a wall at 43rd and Langley on the South Side of Chicago. It had a tremendous influence, leading to similar murals in cities across the country, some estimate as many as many as 1,500 community murals.

In a book called Walls of Heritage / Walls of Pride: African-American Murals by James Prigoff and Robin J. Dunitz, I read a beautiful passage of William Walker reflecting on the Wall of Respect, preserved in an interview with Victor Sorell in the Smithsonian Archives of American Art, 1991.

People had a great attachment to that wall. I suppose maybe it was because they didn’t have anything. We came in the spirit of love and respect and giving. We didn’t ask anything other than their cooperation, and once we got into it, we could even (safely) leave our paint on the scaffold…

That wall meant many things to many people. I saw a young man sitting in front of the wall. His back was just resting on the wall. So I said, ‘How are you doing, brother?’ He said, ‘I’m gaining my strength.’ I saw people cry. I suppose the people in that community realized they had something that other people wanted to share and deal with. I don’t think we, the artists, fully realized what we had created in relation to how people would attach themselves to it. As far as doing anything to the wall, that was unheard of. When the wall was first executed, the people would come all hours of the night. It was a truly wonderful thing.

I often think of that man sitting against the mural, gaining his strength.

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Walker painted Childhood is Without Prejudice on this particular wall on 56th Street and Stony Island Avenue because it is across the street from Bret Harte Elementary, where his children went to school. Many of his murals were self-sponsored. There are three panels, the other two are in a somewhat different style, also of children, but without the overlapping faces. The other two are more under the bridge, and less weathered. All three have been conserved through heroic efforts of restorers, particularly Olivia Gude, who is a muralist herself and has a mural on the other side of the underpass. Walkers’ panels are about nine feet high.

Last December, I took our son’s class of four-year-olds to visit the painting. I showed them slides of the painting first. There was a beautiful moment when we saw the mural and the children took off running for it. I wrote about this in a piece for the New Yorker online, published today. They tried to leap into the painting. In a lifetime of looking at art in museums, I have never had a feeling for a painting so jubilant, shared, and free.

The other day, I went by Childhood is Without Prejudice with our two children, to look at it, and to measure its height. Some homeless people had pots and pans and sleeping bags distributed under the underpass and in front of the painting. The people were not there, but their things were. Since then I have been thinking about the people who have slept in front of that painting over the years, their childhoods, their thoughts about paint.