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The Power of Murals
Murals have long been powerful tools of public engagement and empowerment. Their ability to make political statements, claim space, articulate cultural values, and serve as a source of hope continues to find relevance today. This kind of impact informed the San Antonio Museum of Art’s (SAMA) Learning & Engagement project, which began with their loan from the Art Bridges collection of Bronzeville at Night, 1949, by Archibald John Motley Jr.
Creating Community Through Art
Inspired by the painting’s lively depiction of a bustling Chicago neighborhood, SAMA sought to capture the vibrant crush of the crowd and Black social life through their inaugural “See Yourself in Art: Three Community Murals” program. Recognizing the similarities between the artwork’s depiction of Chicago’s Bronzeville (in the south side) and San Antonio’s east and west sides, SAMA saw an exciting opportunity to expand art access into some of the city’s underserved neighborhoods. Home to predominantly Black and Latine communities respectively, these two areas are home to several important cultural landmarks, which were essential to creating the program. Equally essential, were the partnerships the museum built with the San Antonio artists who designed and created three murals across the city.
Understanding that collaboration and community trust were key to building a successful project, the museum held a call for artists, ultimately working with four who have significant ties and relationships in the city. Listening sessions were then held at the future sites of each mural, which included soliciting subject matter suggestions. Each artist then submitted two mural designs based upon this feedback, which were then widely voted upon. Employing their signature styles, each artist captured different parts of the city’s history and identity – Suzy Gonzalez used painted wooden jigsaw sections at SAMA’s River Pavilion, Sandra Gonzalez used polytab at Tony G’s Soul Food on the eastside, and Victor Zarazua and friend and artist Cesar Garcia used spray paint at Wicho’s Mexican Deli on the westside. On her mural at the River Pavilion, Suzy Gonzalez reflected:
“The Community Mural Project was a great opportunity to work with the San Antonio Museum of Art and to act as the bridge that brings together the community with an art museum. I wanted to focus on highlighting local artists, activists, healers, musicians, and culture workers who are doing important work on this land, and many participated in painting the central Yanaguana river element. It was an honor to have the mural blessed by members of the TapPilam Coahuiltecan Nation, and it brought me joy to see the proud reactions of those represented in the mural when revealing their portraits. It’s important that we continue to work intentionally with local artists and members of our community so that art institutions can grow in providing a space for everyone. I’m grateful that Art Bridges saw value in this project that was able to bring so many people together during a time when community support is so vital.”
Channeling Bronzeville at Night’s celebration of place and togetherness, each artist hosted a day where community members of all ages were invited to paint, build, and construct the murals. Providing a shared space proved to be fun, joyful, and especially therapeutic after months of pandemic isolation. SAMA not only conceptualized the project as an opportunity to create meaningful public art, but also one that prioritized sustained and integrated input and collaboration.
SAMA also partnered with San Anto Cultural Arts, a local organization that works closely with mural artists. The project was so successful, they will partner with the organization again in 2022 to contract a new artist to paint a community mural on the southside of the city.
Towards the end of the project, the artists participated in an online panel conversation where they reflected upon their inspirations and impact of their work. Recognizing the community importance of murals, Sandra Gonzalez’s work references San Antonio’s rich history and artistic legacy:
“Murals have the power to cultivate pride while showcasing different cultures and beautifying neighborhoods…I especially enjoyed the community painting day where many people joined us in the creation of the mural. Malachy McKinney and I honored two great musicians: Miles Davis and Etta James. Ms. James used to sing in clubs all around the Eastside”. To listen to more of the artists’ insights on the project, click here.
Why We Love This Project
We love that the San Antonio Museum of Art conceptualized and executed a program that centered around building more bridges between themselves and the Black and Latine communities in San Antonio it currently underserves. We also love that SAMA’s mural project highlights iconic urban landmarks that are vital to the vibrant communities in the city, while creating public art that is of, for, and by the people who live there.
Published December 23, 2021