Mural at 16th & W Streets SE Commemorates Frederick Douglass’ 200th Birthday

By Phil Hutinet on April 10, 2018
Artist Rebeka Ryvola in front of Spread Southside Love. Image courtesy Jose Pons.

Titled Spread Southside Love, the new mural at the corner of 16th & W Streets SE in historic Anacostia draws from the past while celebrating the present.  Initiated by journalist and “Douglassonian” historian John Muller, the project commemorates Frederick Douglass’ 200th birthday while responding to the community’s request for a beautification project on a once-neglected corner.  Muller worked with corner store owner Ephrame Kassaye to realize the project.  Kassaye owns both the market at 16th and W Streets SE where Spread Southside Love was painted as well as the corner store at Mellon Street and MLK Avenue SE in Congress Heights. At the Congress Heights location, Kassaye collaborated with a community advocacy group to produce the highly visible March on Washington Mural commemorating Martin Luther King’s famous 1963 “I have a Dream” speech.

Overall view of the mural at the corner of 16th & W Streets SE using collaged photos. Image courtesy Rebeka Ryvola.

To find the right artist for the Anacostia project, Muller contacted the Anacostia Watershed Society who in turn put out a call to artists via its member list.  Within minutes of receiving the artist call in her inbox, Rebeka Ryvola responded.  The artist explains that, “I must have emailed him [Muller] back within 5 minutes. Frederick Douglass is one of the most important historical figures in leading us towards freedom for all, for the oppressed and for the oppressors. He continues to inspire so many, irrespective of race, age, or background, to this day. And the location of the mural, Anacostia in DC’s southeast, grapples more visibly than most places with the challenges Douglass worked so hard to address.” Muller funded the Spread Southside Love mural privately through a crowd-sourcing campaign.

Richard Wright High School Senior Germany Ray and one of the neighborhood cats. Image courtesy Rebeka Ryvola.

Ryvola elicited the help of the community to paint the mural. Ryvola says that, “The community played a role in painting on the last day, using color and creativity to fill in the animals, plants, and books along the base of the mural. ”  In particular, Germany Ray, a senior at Richard Wright Public Charter School, worked closely alongside Ryvola to complete the project.

The mural itself weaves the past and the present together in a visual narrative that incorporates elements from the neighborhood found in Frederick Douglass’ time as well as in contemporary Anacostia. Frederic Douglass takes center stage in Spread Southside Love as he sits on a lawn chair, reading at his beloved home which he called Cedar Hill.  Cedar Hill is now an historic site run by the National Park Service and both the grounds and the home are open to the public for visits.

Close-up view of Spread Southside Love. Image courtesy Rebeka Ryvola.

In the mural, Douglass is surrounded by both friends and contemporaries like abolitionist John Brown, the first Black graduate of Harvard Richard Greener, Civil Rights leader Ida Wells, the first Black Senator Blanch Bruce, abolitionist Wendell Phillips and Poet Grace Greenwood.  Muller likens this setting to “reading salons” held by Douglass at his home where he and his peers discussed women’s suffrage, civil rights and other contemporary social issues.  Greener, Wells, Bruce, Phillips and Greenwood visited Douglass and would have, according to Muller, participated in these salons at Cedar Hill. In the background, Douglass’ grandson plays the violin as children from present-day Anacostia run across the lawn amid the backdrop of DC’s iconic monuments.

Descendants of Frederick Douglass—Kenneth B. Morris, Jr. (left), Douglass’ great, great, great grandson and Nettie Washington Douglass (right), Douglass’ great, great granddaughter—attended the inaugural of the mural. Image courtesy Rebeka Ryvola.

Ryvola and Ray also chose to include a number of cats in the mural to pay homage to the local felines who reside nearby and are cared for by the community. The cats visited the artists often during the mural-making process.

The following are a brief series of questions posed to muralist Rebeka Ryvola about this project:

Tell us a bit about yourself and your process
I paint and draw what I’m passionate about: humanity, the interconnectivity between living beings, social movements, and love. My ultimate dream is for people to feel when they interact with a piece I created or helped create: feel love, feel wonder, feel compassion, or curiosity. Color and movement play a big role in my creative process. I usually move fast, with a lot of flow, and try a lot of things at once. There’s usually a lot of layering, some contemplation, and then more layering. Currently, I’m moving my style in a simple and abstract direction, trying to strip away the non essentials, allowing the soul of the work to speak.

Discuss the impetus for painting a mural about Frederick Douglass
When I was little my family fled from the Czechoslovakia—where the iron curtain had just been lifted—to Austria, and then to Canada. When I asked which place was home, my dad would say that he considered himself a cosmopolitan—belonging to no borders and seeing no borders around others. Doing my best to also live by this tenet, I too strive to disregard and dissolve borders we draw that keep us organized into social, class, economic, national, etc. etc. boxes. The work I’m most proud of has centered on using art as a tool for challenging assumptions, bringing people together, and bridging gaps that cause us seeing people as “others”. I saw that the Frederick Douglass mural had the opportunity to help do just that. From the start, it was meant to be a celebration of this wonderful man and how his legacy runs like a current through Anacostia and through all people who strive to move beyond our history of oppressors and the oppressed.

Rebeka Ryvola painting. Image courtesy Nicky Sundt.
Describe the mural and the elements you incorporated
Pictured is Frederick Douglass on the lawn of his Cedar Hill house, the Anacostia river, DC Capitol and Washington monument in the background. He is with his friends and contemporaries, including abolitionist John Brown, activist and first black graduate of Harvard Richard Greener, journalist, Civil Rights leader and suffragette Ida Wells, first African American senator Blanche Bruce, abolitionist Wendell Phillips, and author and poet Grace Greenwood, plus a number of modern day Anacostia neighborhood kids. The lawn party scene connect the history Frederick Douglass helped shape with young people in Anacostia and beyond, who are shaping the next chapters of that story.