Can a mural personify the character of a community? In short, the answer is yes, especially when a community works in unison. Newly inaugurated on October 30, the We Are Anacostia mural runs 200 feet along Good Hope Road SE just below the 11th Bridge and is painted on a series of wooden panels that enclose a vacant lot. Led by the Anacostia Business Improvement District (BID), a coalition of Anacostia residents, local artists, businesses and the DC Government helped realize the project.
Kristina Noell, Executive Director of the Anacostia BID, assembled a group of community stakeholders through the formation of the ACE council. The ACE council, which stands for Arts Cultural Entertainment and Education advisory council, coalesces the skills and expertise of its board members to nurture and grow the Anacostia Arts and Entertainment District. “The Council’s focus is to help develop and promote community involvement in the Anacostia BID through arts, entertainment, education and cultural activities,” explains Noell.
Noell raised funds with the help of the ACE council to finance the mural. For Noell, who also lives east of the river, the project represents a means by which people who travel into Anacostia can instantly understand the neighborhood. Visually, the mural represents the neighborhood’s past, present and future. “What is touching for me,” says Noell “is that this mural is called the passage project. A ‘passage’ describes what we’ve gone through but our future looks bright though we are not are not there yet. The mural shows the history of Anacostia Indians, Marion Barry and the struggles that are going on now. Overall, the mural demonstrates the togetherness of this community.”
ANC 8A06 Commissioner Tyon Jones, a member of the ACE council, remembers that, “it [the vacant lot] looked really bad. I cross the bridge every morning and evening to go to work. It’s the first thing you see as soon as you come over the bridge. Now we can see something that I, the other commissioners and, especially the residents, will enjoy.”
Carol Rhodes Dyson is DC-based restaurant chain Busboys and Poets’ Chief Curator and also a member of the ACE council. She worked in partnership with the Anacostia BID to provide curatorial support for the project. “Our interest was in illustrating the richness of the arts in the community.” While working at the Anacostia Busboys and Poets, Dyson had the opportunity to collaborate with a number of local artists from Wards 7 & 8.
Ernest Chrappah, Director of DC Regulatory Agency (DCRA), a DC government agency generally associated with providing permits rather than partnering on public art projects, explained the unique partnership the DC government formed with the Anacostia BID. Chrappah describes it as “a contemporary partnership,” adding that, “No one wants to see blighted buildings. We have over 4000 vacant buildings in DC.” Just as DCRA’s Abatement Team boards up doors and windows of vacant properties, for this mural, the same team supplied and installed the wood panels used to create the canvas upon which the mural would be painted, hiding the vacant lot. When asked about the mural’s subject matter, Chapprah replied, “Personally, when I brought my daughter, she could see herself in the little girl in the mural. When other children go by they can see themselves as well.”
Bevadine Zoma Terrell, a resident member of the ACE council, has lived in Anacostia for ten years and in DC for the last 45. She explains that, “When I saw it first go up I was smiling and today it’s a smile I’ll be wearing forever. I love Anacostia. I love what’s happening! [The mural] is a kaleidoscope of many things here—people, places, businesses, organizations, and my first love, children, who seem to get left out all too often. The girl with the microscope [in the mural and pictured above] reminded me of myself when I was a little girl; I was inquisitive and looking for new things.”
Luis Peralta Del Valle, an Anacostia resident and an artist known for his portraiture, played the lead role in completing the mural. Set against a sky-blue backdrop with the words “We Are Anacostia” spelled out in large letters in the foreground, Peralta interspersed the mural with several large figures. The three-quarter portraits include a Native American woman of the Nacotchtank tribe, the indigenous people who lived in the Anacostia river basin, and Abolitionist Frederick Douglass, one of the neighborhood’s most famous residents. Both represent Anacostia’s past. Representing the not-so-distant past and transition into the present is the late Marion Barry, Jr., DC Mayor and Ward 8 councilmember. Lastly, portraits of several youth represent Anacostia’s present and its future. Peralta worked with Professor Gabrielle Tayac, Associate Professor of History at George Mason University, to ensure that he accurately depicted the Nancotchtank woman. Peralta has often painted Douglass and Barry so he used past works as references for their portraits. For the youth depicted in the mural, Peralta used a series of creative common images which he retouched to create images of people who may remind the viewer of someone they know but in fact does not exist. Peralta wanted the youth to “reflect the community.” Other images embedded in the mural’s background include Anacostia landmarks like the Big Chair, the Anacostia Playhouse and the Anacostia Arts Center.
A mural that spans a length of over 200 feet requires many hands to complete it. To this end, Peralta enlisted the help of volunteers Lindsey Hand, Mckenna Stahl and Mark T. Ventura. He also hired street artist Absurdly Well and Germany, who both worked on the stenciling of the letters and the background. Joshua Minar and CROOK, whose acronym stands for “Creativity Rises Out Of Kings”, were also part of the paid artist crew.
Artist and Anacostia native CROOK hopes to convey the following to audiences who visit the mural: “Anacostia is more than just what you hear and what you see—Anacostia is a place that you feel. I put a lot of feeling into this because I was born and raised in Anacostia.” CROOK believes that through this type of project, “We can let art preserve the culture.”