Friday, October 1, 2021

The Dangers of Settler Colonial Art

This past summer, the Hill Rag informed readers that they could "Volunteer to Restore Mondrian-Style Murals Saturday." The murals are located in the underpass below the Southeast Freeway at 6th Street, SE, and originally joined a 30-foot high mural across the street, on the side of a public housing building in the Ellen Wilson Dwellings (see image). The chair of the ANC 6B had decided to organize the re-painting and restoration of the murals. I am mentioned in the article as providing some basic information about the murals, that they were painted between 1988 and 1992. When I learned about this restoration project, I knew that I had to say something about the history of the murals.

I had done years of research about the person who commissioned the murals, his connection with Piet Mondrian, and the philosophical ideas of Mondrian himself. My research article "The Aesthetics of Gentrification: Modern Art, Settler Colonialism, and Anti-Colonialism in Washington, DC" came out in August, just as the group was finishing the restoration, and you can read my article here or access it on my faculty webpage. The international urban journal that published my article tweeted this about it: 

argues that The Mondrian Gate—series of murals on/near a public housing project in Washington DC just before its demolition— enabled Black erasure, dispersal, dispossession, and displacement

Yes, the murals enabled the permanent displacement of hundreds of African American residents of the Ellen Wilson Dwellings. My article is a scholarly article and difficult to read, but this is because I am forging new historical knowledge based on a wide range of archival sources. The article is worth reading, especially because it has some amazing pictures and it explores DC and Capitol Hill history in the late 1980s and early 1990s. I also seek to understand what Mondrian sought to do in his art and what it meant for the city:

Mondrian’s artworks were cartographical fantasies of a vast, segregated, white European city pushing colonial subjects to marginalized areas, and the destruction this would necessitate. [See the many white boxes at the center of the image above crowding out the colored boxes at the edges of the painting.] The late 1980s and 1990s opened up possibilities for new forms of displacement and revanchism on a global scale. [The commissioner of the murals] Robbins brought Mondrian’s maps of a future segregated, imperial world to 1980s Washington, DC. Within this revanchist context, Robbins used the Mondrian images as a fortress gate, a racial map of the future, and as a gallery for public education...The Mondrian Gate signaled both the defense of Capitol Hill and its purification as a space of pure white, pure black lines and distant pure colors, and also motivated a white empowerment to take new land––a settler colonial globalization.

There are many criticisms of the corporate uses of counter-cultural murals. These murals were in no way counter-cultural. The commissioner of these murals planted a settler colonial flag at what was considered the southern edge of Capitol Hill as a statement about the future of this part of DC. 

Is the desire to repaint the murals some kind of expression of the settler colonial subconscious? Complicity with colonialism? Maybe the murals should have been left alone or even painted over? Or maybe another kind of mural should have been put in its place? Maybe the one in front of the Ellen Wilson Community Center (see it in the article)? What kind of murals would you want to have there?