Some 300 people gathered in Liberty City Saturday to watch racism and the harsh realities of urban life unveiled in the form of art on the side of the OneUnited Bank building.
Traffic might be a bit slowed on 79th Street near the 3200 block for the next few days. The mural along the side of the branch of the nation’s largest black-owned bank, painted by noted Liberty City-based artist Addonis Parker, doesn’t make for quick digestion.
Among the depictions were:
▪ The Statue of Liberty holding a microphone instead of a torch;
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▪ A heavyset African-American woman with a rose in her hair as 1930s Hattie McDaniel wore the night she became the first Academy Award winner of color, washing a Confederacy battle flag on a washer board tagged Truth in the manner of the servant characters McDaniel often was limited to playing;
▪ An eagle symbolizing liberation and victory flying off the shoulder of a saluting, teary soldier with the number of American military killed in Iraq;
▪ A church with nine doves symbolizing the Charleston church killings.
The mural came from a partnership between the bank and Miami Children’s Initiative, a nonprofit organization that works with Liberty City’s youth.
The large colorful murals that brought people and nightlife to Wynwood neighborhoods once avoided even in the daytime ignited OneUnited Bank CEO and owner Teri Williams’ desire to see something similar done in Liberty City.
“As I look at Miami, I see wonderful beauty and art except here in Liberty City — I see gray,” Williams said in an interview earlier this week. “Our hope as an institution is to spark a creative, artistic renaissance here in Liberty City.”
She wanted a mural with the themes “Freedom and Hope,” but also to reflect the inner city community. Saturday’s crowd greeted “Thunder and Enlightening” with appreciative hums and knowing grins.
“It’s a good representation of the community,” said Liberty City’s Kevinr Jean. “I wasn’t sure what I was expecting. They kept saying it was going to be controversial. I don’t think it is. I think it’s a true representation of what’s going on.”
Parker offered to answer questions, then poured forth with an explanation of each image, such as a large muscular man with the Liberty Bell around his neck as a yoke says, “It’s no more for us to beg, to crawl, [Liberty] is something we demand now and we will take it, if necessary.”
Williams’ affection for the banking industry and solving customers’ financial puzzles — a product of her childhood puzzle love — doesn’t create myopia toward what she feels is the banking industry’s disconnect from OneUnited’s customer base. To her, the low- and middle-income communities remain underrepresented as customers because financial institutions try to communicate in banker jargon.
“Part of this project is to speak in our authentic voice,” Williams said. “As the largest black-owned bank in the country — with all of us having come from Liberty City-type communities — to really speak authentically about who we are as a way to allow the community to better relate to us as an institution.”
Along with commissioning the mural from Parker, OneUnited Bank worked with the Miami Children’s Initiative to bring in 21 students from Miami’s inner city as Parker’s apprentices. Over four months, Parker exchanged ideas with the students, took them to museums and gave art instruction.
OneUnited gave each student $250, opened an account for each and took them through a financial literacy class.
“Today, some of the people who have come into the bank have never been in a bank before in their lives. And they’re adults, in some cases senior citizens. We do feel like what we’re doing is working and we’re hoping some other institutions will spread the word.”
Williams chose Parker for his visuals — professional and personal.
Working out of his Liberty City studio, the Ohio native has painted everything from portraits that hang in ultra high-end furniture stores to murals on affordable housing buildings. He’s been named “Artist of the Year” by groups in Atlanta and Miami as well as been honored with a Community Icon Award from then-Miami Mayor Manny Diaz.
Parker also happens to be an enormous man, just short of 6-8 with great breadth and the thickness of a former athlete still quicker and stronger than anybody else in the room. His art, creative process, life and inspirations can turn him so animated and deeply excited, his words stream out like a pack of enthusiastic Labradors pulling a dog walker down the street.
Williams liked that Parker is a role model for students, illustrating that having a powerful physical presence doesn’t preclude being sensitive and artistic.
“I enjoy small things, simple things. I enjoy taking care of kids, teaching children,” Parker said. “I listened to the kids and I was sensitive about their feelings. But, then, there was the truth. I had to look at myself. Can I be an artist and be happy, go lucky? Unite all the community together and ignore reality. I can do that all day. But am I that type of artist? No, I’m not.”
Yet, despite all the events portrayed in the mural, don’t interpret the lack of smiles as across-the-board anger from Parker for all he sees. In fact, quite the opposite.
“My style is to have people caught in their emotion. Most people say, ‘He’s mean, Addonis, all your people are mad!’ No, no, let me explain. It could be the sun hitting them and they’re (squinting). Whatever element they’re in, they’re not angry. That’s my style,” Parker said. “If you break all my pictures down, you see nobody’s (smiling), but they’re actually in the moment. They are happy with themselves in their little world.”