Rachel Cohen

Vidura Jang Bahadur Two Photographs Outside

Vidura Jang Bahadur Two Photographs Outside

Photograph and installation, Vidura Jang Bahadur, 2017, E. Garfield Street, Chicago. Under the painted portrait, signature, Devíons. Documentation photograph, Rachel Cohen.

On Friday I wrote about a show of works by photographer Vidura Jang Bahadur that has stayed with me. It was up in the spring of 2017 at the Muffler Shop at 359 E. Garfield in a University of Chicago-owned space here on the South Side. When I looked at the show, I began with the works that had been displayed in the interior space first, and my Friday entry concentrated mostly on those. Two works mounted outside were especially interesting, and I wanted to return to them today.

The Muffler Shop sits in a paved parking area with some green overgrown grasses around it. This is a photo I took of the Muffler Shop that day.

Past the grasses, there is a fence that connects to the next building, which is a set of storefronts in front of which there is a bus stop. When I was looking, there were a couple of people coming and going; one, I’m pretty sure, sitting at the bus stop. This photograph was on the side of the building, so you could see it as you left the Muffler Shop.

Looking at my images of the Bahadur installation over the last week, I’ve been struck by both the message painted within the photograph and the effect of it on this wall. It’s a photograph of a wall near a driveway or alley, very like the wall on which it is mounted. This close doubling makes you pay attention. It's also a photograph of a painted sentence, a photograph of a painting. Someone had spray-painted the stenciled letters “IF YOU WANT THE STORE TO OPEN STOP THE VIOLENCE.” Then the word, in a more italicized font, CONTACT, and a phone number.

Who is the “you” in the sentence? It seems directed at the immediate neighborhood, the people who might pass the wall, but the stenciled letters, the way there seems to be a slight rise in the “YOU” and a space, something odd about the “W” that begins “WANT” to my eye and ear makes a slight disjuncture and into this space floods the possibility of other you’s, the local government officials, the lax gun laws, the prison complex, the people who shuttered the neighborhood schools. It seems to me also about history, the history of redlining in the neighborhood, the history of voracious demand: labor, buy. Not only immediate sharp violence, but slow violence.

Today, a few of the main stories in the news are: coronavirus in the White House, the question of economic reopening, and the murder of Ahmaud Arbery. In this context, the message on the wall – If you want the store to open, stop the violence – seems a more profound analysis. The extreme callousness of the people in our nation’s first, and very white, storefront, the instrumental view of violence and suffering, just a part of the policy arsenal, the idea that you can force a healthy economy by coercing impoverished people into dangerous workplaces, and the delusion that this unnecessary squandering of peoples’ lives is not then a part of your own house, all of our houses – I find all this in the photograph today.

I’m also interested in the material. The desaturated concrete wall in the photograph next to the bricks and mortar on the wall. I see both with real consciousness of the material of which an ordinary day is made.

And even a photograph like this one that I took, which might seem like a formal study – painted wall, photographed, made into photograph on wall, itself photographed – seems less like a set of formal boxes, and more like a question of matter – the little tear in the paper that has been wheat pasted to the wall, the bends in the wire on the fence beneath.

**

Second photograph. On the glass window of the storefront, the green poster for the exhibition of work by MFA students from the University of Chicago in which Vidura Jang Bahadur’s work appeared. [I came to know Vidura Jang Bahadur because both of us came to work at the University of Chicago around the same time – he from many years photographing in India, China, and Tibet, me from New York and Cambridge.] The show was called “and…and…and.” Next to the green poster was Bahadur's photograph, which has, in the years since, become the one from the show that is most important to me. And on the other side of the door, there was a painting on the wall, which looked spray-painted, of a woman, smiling, her upper body. This was signed Devíons.

I suppose there might be different ideas about the way the art is joined together here, and, and, and, but to me it seemed like an attempt to acknowledge that the space being used by the University of Chicago was a part of neighborhood artistic life, already ongoing, that the new additions might intrude, and might also offer, you could decide.

The photograph was taken on the sidelines of the Bud Billiken Parade in 2016. There are the kind of open tents that get set up for selling things, for food. There is a man holding a framed print of a historical painting, which I imagined he might have made or purchased (though I later learned that he intended to sell it). It is a painting of four leaders – Nelson Mandela, Barack Obama, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X. They are in a graceful, illuminated, classical space, seated at a table, drinking coffee or tea together, behind them arches, vines, and a statue that looks like it is a classical sculpture of a woman. It is a history painting, and, as all history paintings are, it is an argument about future understanding. Next to the photograph is a young woman who seems to me clearly aware that she is being photographed.

By looking at my own detail photographs of the Bahadur photograph, I become aware of things I didn’t see originally. I had the impression that the man holding the painting was obscured from the waist up, but I see that you can see the top of his head, even down to the eyebrows, and three fingers of his hand underneath the painting, and that these aspects of his presence give him a bit more agency. I feel more clearly that he wanted his painting photographed. And, behind the young men who are gesturing in the foreground, I see another man facing the camera, in a black shirt, and with a hat with a black band on it, and his looking at the photographer also adds to my sense that all these people made this picture together.

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Both photographs, to me today, are about photographing history painting. The photographer who has mounted these photographs on this wall and in this window is thinking about the way people are making culture as they go. Both are about what can be there to see if you look closely, with what gets called “the big picture” in the back of your mind. Both are about granular matter – spraypaint, mortar, wheat paste, pigment, denim, polyester, visor, paper, canvas, straw, concrete.

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.

*

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.