FELLOWS & OTHERS
by Olivia Gude & Juan Angel Chávez
Enlivening the entire façade of Fellowship House, a Chicago Youth Center in the neighborhood of Bridgeport, this mural addresses issues of racism and explores the question of how people decide whom they consider an “other” and whom they consider a “fellow.” Although the mural deals with serious “adult” issues, only paintings of children are included because the artists wanted to create a wall that welcomed neighborhood youth to the center for fun and education.
There were many wonderful, energetic, and hardworking youth artists on the project. from the Fellowship House groups and from surrounding communities. On the many rainy days that summer, the artists conducted discussions and written exercises exploring the social construction of racist attitudes with the youths. When not able to paint, the youth artists also interviewed neighborhood residents and created silhouettes of them to use in the design of the mural.
There is no single place from which one needs to begin to “read” the mural. The mural deisgn alternates between photorealistic images, diagrams, text, children’s drawings, silhouettes, and comic-book-like imagery in its exploration of the creation of “fellows” and “others” in culture.
In the mural tradition, there are many works about the bridging of difference; this mural is about the creation of difference. This is a hopeful idea--if one assumes that difference is natural then one starts from the assumption that much effort must be spent to overcome natural divisions. If many of these differences are social constructions then racism itself is a social construction, which has taken and continues to take, a great deal of human effort to construct and maintain. One way to make change is to see how racism is constructed and to withdraw our human energies as far as possible from the social energies that create it.
A twenty-foot tall figure of a young woman holding a sign that reads, “Erase the Hate. We pledge to fight against racism in our community.”dominates the space just to the left of center in the mural. This image is based on a photograph taken at the anti-racism press conference held by Fellowship House youth in the spring.
Another photo inspired image is of four cute children, giggling for the camera. This picture of Black, Latino, and White children playing together is based on candid photos at the Bridgeport Homes playground--children were not posed to fake interracial play groups for the mural. All the mural images of multi-racial groups are based on the many, actual cross-racial friendships at the Center and the surrounding Bridgeport Homes community. Also in this section, an arrow originating near the Black children point to upward and downward arrows connected to images of buildings, referring to concern about property values as a form of racism and as the justification for “benign” racist attitudes.
Silhouettes of many community people, youth artists, Fellowship House staff, and passersby are a unifying motif in the mural. The silhouettes are grouped in various ways to suggest the kinds of categorization that we impose on unique individuals.
A vertical column of smiling young women visually dominates the right side of the mural. Nearby, a linear diagram of the girls substitutes generic letters for their individual faces. In another chart, a numbered value scale of flesh tones reminds viewers of the social practice of racism in which people are labeled and described by their skin color. The selection of silhouettes in this area references the social categorization of people by their hair and the social problem of young men of color being persistently seen and represented as a potential danger.
Toward the left side of the mural one finds the “Culture Machine,” made up of objects that disperse information (such as televisions, books, encyclopedias, trademarks, surveillance cameras) and parts of the machinery of industrial production (conveyor belts, cranes, presses). The Culture Machine produces blocks of racial stereotypes and stores them for future use in “ appropriate” situations. Adults, teens, and children from the Fellowship House community designed the racial stereotype blocks.
The Stereotype Blocks show contrasting examples of how we are trained to constantly categorize people without really thinking. Examples included “Those people are stinky; these people are clean. Those people are bad drivers; these people are good drivers. Those people eat nasty food; these people eat tasty food. These people are social drinkers; those people are drunks.”
The Stereotype Blocks are carried along a conveyor belt and inserted into a projection machine (a human head). Now instead seeing with its own eyes, the head merely projects the images it has been programmed with onto the outlines of people. It is now predetermined if you are a “friendly fellow” or a “threatening other.”
A tall wall perpendicular to the main face of the mural can be seen from Halsted a block away. It contains a vivid yellow diamond shaped “street sign” of generic signage style figures showing an immigrant family (man, pregnant woman, baby, child) crossing into the neighborhood. This sign is surrounded by many tiny figures with packs and suitcases, walking hither and fro, reminding us that Bridgeport has always been a neighborhood of immigrants and that these immigrants have often been viewed with alarm by the now settled earlier immigrants who were themselves once labeled as “others.”
Further to the east, perplexed space aliens view the puzzling behavior of two youthful earthlings. The boys seen by the aliens as a white outline against a dark ground, are alternately confronting and ignoring each other. The aliens cannot understand the behavior; we, however, see the image of the boys repeated in black and white and regrettably our cultural heritage has taught us to understand that their anger and divisiveness is based on color of skin or gang allegiances represented by the color of clothing.
In the east alcove, a dramatically oversized portrait of a young girl stares back at a corresponding boy on the opposite end of the mural. The girl is depicted twice, once in black and white and once in color, referring again to the various value scales in the mural, which suggest the “fine” discriminations of a racially troubled society.
These cute kids wear clothes that say “Fellow or Other?”
What kind of a culture teaches people to ask that question about innocent children?
Title: Fellows & Others
Site: Fellowship House
844 W. 32nd Street
Artists: Olivia Gude and Juan Angel Chávez
Assistant: Mary Carla Carr
Community Participants: Teen Painters: Randy Crockett, Noel “Rocky” Cruz, Basilio Flores, Christian Hernandez, Yan Juan Li, Jose Lopez, Maria Flor Moreno, Song Qing Liang, Crystal Navarrete, Terrence Ready, and Yesenia Rubio.
Adult volunteer painters: Harry Osario, Nelson Massallo, Joe Matunis, Jon Pounds, Brian Richardson, Jason Sheperis, Julia Sowles, and Tracy Van Duinen.
Adult design participants: Andrew Hart, Elizabeth Chentis, Deanna Durica, Silvia Farfan, Brooke Gorham, Olga Jaramillo, Tine Klermund, Bertha Martinez, Kristen Murphy, Josephine Richardson, Sam Rivera, Gail Sheperis, Judith Shumate, and Erma Watson.
Design contributions by the youth activity groups: BLITZ and CATS (Changing Attitudes Together).
Sponsors: Chicago Public Art Group, Chicago Youth Center Fellowship House, and Gallery 37
Scale: 20 x 120 feet
Materials: Acrylic paint on masonry