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I was planning on reviewing A Panoramic View, the Texas Sculpture Group’s mammoth exhibition at Lawndale, but I left it for the second time feeling bored and disheartened, with little other takeaway than, “yep, that’s a lot of sculpture.” So instead I averted my attention to a mural I’ve glanced at maybe a hundred or so times and previously have not given much thought, The People’s Plate (2014) by Otabenga Jones and Associates, on the outside of Lawndale’s Main St. building.

Otabenga Jones is an artist collective consisting of Jamal Cyrus, Robert Pruitt, Kenya Evans, and Dawolu Jabari Anderson. Based in Houston’s Third Ward, Jones and Associates is less interested in presenting blackness as a singular commodity and more as a complex, even contradictory, organic entity. Their work has manifested as happenings, writings, and installations and now, with The People’s Plate, social sculpture.

Otabenga Jones and Associates, The People’s Plate, 2014, Mural, from blog.creative-capital.org

Otabenga Jones and Associates, The People’s Plate, 2014, Mural, from blog.creative-capital.org

In addition to the mural, The People’s Plate project includes foraging, gardening, and cooking workshops as well as printed lunch boxes. The idea is to counter the obesity epidemic by raising awareness. The websites and articles about the project are vague and open-ended, basically saying the project is meant to promote a general awareness about obesity within various communities and the food deserts therein. But with The People’s Plate mural the writing is quite literally on the wall, and it is highly specific. Given its imagery, drawn from Emory Douglas‘ graphic for the Black Panther Party, and the row houses on the right side of the mural, painted stark Project Row House white, the mural is specifically a call to the black community of Houston’s Third Ward. Why the tiptoeing? I think it comes from the fact that Jones and Associates would then have to acknowledge that The People’s Plate makes little sense plastered on Lawndale’s wall. Regardless of how close or far Lawndale is to the Third Ward, it still reads as a billboard running on Main St., where its meaning is watered down. It belongs in the heart of the Third Ward neighborhood.

Emory Douglas, official artist of the Black Panther Party, from blackpowermixtapeaugust28.wordpress.com

Emory Douglas, official artist of the Black Panther Party

It may not be getting a Whole Foods in the near future, but to depict the Third Ward as a food desert is misleading. While it may be easy to chalk the neighborhood’s relationship to food up to Frenchy’s, the Third Ward once again defies the singular, homogenizing stereotypes that many of us like to place upon it. It is instead an oasis, easily the most innovative and health-conscious part of town inside the loop.

The Marcus Garvey Liberation and Alabama Gardens are just two examples of several urban gardening initiatives in the Third Ward. Recent Idea Fund recipient Cavanaugh Nweze just this year established The Living Grocery Store, an urban gardening initiative. And we now have Otabenga Jones on board, fostering self-sufficiency and control over one’s health.

Compared with the lardtastic Tex Mex and barbeque that pervades the rest of our city, the neighborhood is populated with several raw vegan, vegan, vegetarian, and other restaurants offering a cornucopia of healthy options. Doshi House, Conscious Café, Green Seed Vegan, Sunshine Vegan Deli (Sunshine is not technically in the Third Ward but it’s close), and formerly the Vegan Café are just some examples of health-conscious restaurants in the area, and there are probably several more I’m unaware of. Most if not all of these restaurants have reasonable prices, and are not interested in catering to the trendy. Some of them (like Sunshine) are family owned restaurants that have been in business for decades, which actively engage with and care deeply about their community.

In fact, the idea of promoting a vegetarian diet is nothing new within the black community. Its historical roots lie in the backlash of the soul food movement of the 60s and 70s, where meat, dairy, and other high fat content foods became the center of the dish rather than a meager side, skyrocketing health problems like diabetes and heart disease. Vegetarianism within the African American community is largely thought to have two major leaders: Elijah Muhammad of the Nation of Islam, and comedian Dick Gregory. Both considered abstaining from meat a tool of self-empowerment and sustainability and control over one’s health.

The interior of Green Seed Vegan

The interior of Green Seed Vegan

Propagating awareness is fine, but this isn’t the Ice Bucket Challenge. The need for self-sufficiency in the Third Ward is more critical than ever, as the survival of the lower-income, historically black neighborhood is increasingly threatened by gentrification. If the mural’s purpose is to promote individual responsibility and self-sufficiency for the black people of the Third Ward, why isn’t it painted there? The sign mis-educates people driving by on Main St. on the Third Ward’s status as a food desert—reading only as a sound bite—reinforcing poisonous stereotypes about the neighborhood without paying proper credit to the countless residents that have worked tirelessly to keep it from being one.

As a piece of propaganda, The People’s Plate works well. With bold contour lines and flat eye-popping colors, it feels authoritative. Its direct reference to the Black Panther Party makes it feel revolutionary, like a genuine call to action. So how could it be that I haven’t—until now—paid much attention to it? Because out of context, the mural simply loses its power: it becomes an illustration of a political act, rather than the reality.

The People’s Plate will remain on Lawndale’s mural wall until January 2015.

 

 

also by Betsy Huete
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7 Responses

  1. Brad "Bushwick" Willie

    Rhymes From Emancipation Park
    This mural goes 1 for the money.
    2 for Houston zone.
    3 for historic neighborhoods with food deserts unknown.
    3rd, 4th, and 5th Ward, Sunnyside, Acres Homes
    Harrisburg, South Union, South Park, Yellowstone
    Kashmere Gard, South Acres, Hiram Clark, Clayton Homes
    Like it’s only one audience for Otabenga Jones.
    What you know about supporting one of Houston’s own?
    But this is a waste of time as far as responses go.
    You should’ve wrote about this a few months ago.
    But you’re mislead
    If I could give Glasstire grades on ignorance, you’ll make honor roll
    and I would place big gold star on your forehead
    Unconscionable
    This that hipster privilege
    You gave this about much thought
    As a rock give thoughts about quantum physics.
    Listen.
    You said a whole lot but you ain’t said a whole lot.
    If whole foods would come around they’d take the whole lot
    High prices where they know folks don’t own a whole lot.
    Whole food shows up with a quickness, when the hipsters
    Mid class ladies and gentsers
    Gentrifed the whole lot
    Of fish and chicken/ ways of living
    Poor people’s property
    Come up missin’ on the stove pot
    But if you know the game / you know it’s an old plot
    A place you may NOW live in
    Visitin’ spaces you don’t know.
    Talking about places without an escort you know you won’t go.
    The mural says power to the peeps/ not promises it can’t keep
    You act like black folks don’t drive down main street.
    You act like other folks and cultures can’t read
    And there’s only one location black folks can be.
    Well, they drive down multiple lanes,
    But your review is singularly ultimate lame.
    You bout as linked to this hood as all the links
    On George W. Bush’s blinged gold chain.
    Give humans some credit, your review needs a re-edit
    And ask yourself exactly What’s a food desert?
    It don’t only mean vegan vegetarian
    It also means the only grocery stores around the area in
    The T-R-E is Fiesta and H-E-B
    Elijah Muhammad said don’t eat pork/ he didn’t say don’t eat beef.
    Too bad you didn’t dig deep and sink your teeth
    Into the book on How To Eat
    To Live not how to live to eat.
    You too busy reading “How to Live by Writing Silly Critiques”
    Dewey, Danto, Greenburg aint chillin’ in these streets,
    Less Art Theory more art being…
    Are all the people in the Tre
    Supposed to go to restaurants every day?
    How much you pay you say?
    You forgetting the economic part, where they won’t loan money
    For businesses to start
    Suck out the resources, remove the schools and courses
    Part by part in tiny morsels and small portions
    Move quick like the metabolism, Betty update your activism
    downgrade your pacifism.
    Change ya rhythm.
    When the influx of white folks start, police begin to patrol the dark
    They restructure the park, and then build super marts
    With multicolored shopping carts
    And you probably saying to yourself
    “Those people” should probably start
    To make a fuss
    We do, you just heard your info from the media but not us
    Plus
    You wrote and I quote
    “reinforcing poisonous sterotypes about the neighborhood without paying proper
    credit to the countless residents that have worked tirelessly to keep it from being one.”
    How do you know?
    You probably went to a school without knowing “those stereotypes”
    Only just “seeing one” at night on B.E.T. and on
    Your video player
    Human beings come in multilayers
    I wished you presented a more thoughtful review
    But you a recruit of the cracktire crew not realizing the tire
    Is running thin on asphalt, glass out, gas out
    And at some point you’re gonna have to retool, remove, redo, and refuel
    Or you be looking like the donkey lost on main street
    Ass out
    indeed….
    https://notthatthis.wordpress.com

  2. Sebastien Boncy

    Easy, easy. It’s not Huete’s fault that I did not answer a couple of Bill’s emails months back. This could have been avoided had I been a responsible glasstirer.

  3. Artist

    What power does art, especially murals, have if they are kept within the confines of a single community?

    Do African Americans not use Main Street or frequent art institutions?

    Maybe their message is meant to be in a high traffic area where everyone passing by can take notice and make better choices about food and their communities.

    You are assigning the lens through which this mural must be viewed.

    You need to check yourself.

    Glasstire smh.

  4. Third Ward Riverside Terrace

    This “article” is just one slow motion trainwreck after the other. The writer is at times didactic, at others dismissive – and so off base most of the time it’s almost laughable.

    Not sure how long this woman has been living in Houston, but having personally lived in Third Ward for years, I tend to reject an obvious outsider’s limited view of it as a place.

    The premise here seems to be that Third Ward’s residents are 1) All Black 2) Lower class, which definitely has never been true. In fact, many residents are middle class to upper class and own their own homes. 3) Somehow pescatarianism/veganism/vegetarianism or raw food lifestyles in Third Ward are somehow an ironic anomaly – even in the 1970s my parents belonged to an organic co-op. (LOL) And just to give the writer a head’s up, the area around Lawndale always had a substantial Black population until gentrification crept in. To say the mural belongs in Third Ward and not Main Street – which has ALWAYS seen a large Black population – is both condescending and ignorant. It’s precisely this kind of snarky noblesse oblige that kept the great John Biggers’ murals in Third Ward for many years. And why not review the mural as art parody and appropriation as opposed to simply just as billboard or PSA? Try again. And bring back Hamburgers by Gourmet!

  5. Garry Reece

    Sebastien, you should hold yourself personally responsible for all this Mess!! Proud of yourself I’m sure…

  6. The message is the media

    About 20 years ago, The Art Guys devised an exercise for a workshop. It is a thinking exercise and we have enjoyed doing it with people in many various situations. We call this exercise “The Definition Game.” This is how it goes.
    First, we read the definitions of three words (we always use the same three). The participants are required to write/record these definitions. The words that these definitions define are not revealed. Then the participants are asked to go on a “scavenger hunt” and return within a few minutes with one object for each definition that best defines, best represents, or most closely reveals what that definition describes. These objects from the various participants are then collected and grouped according to their respective definition. This results in three groups of collected objects, one for each definition. Then we observe and discuss the results.
    The objects that are collected vary widely, to the extent that if one was asked what the objects of any group represented (if anything), without knowing the exercise, one would almost certainly surmise that it was just a collection of random things. In all the years that we have conducted this exercise, and within in all the varying situations and people with which this exercise has been conducted, almost never are there any instances where two similar objects are collected for any given definition.
    Without extensive elaboration – difficult here – this exercise reveals that no one sees the world in the same way. Each person has their own interpretation of things.
    Therefore, if you are an artist and you wish for others to see your work as you do, you are in for disappointment. It will be misinterpreted. Furthermore, it will be misinterpreted regardless of how obvious or how clear the messenger thinks their message is. The only variable will be the degree of misinterpretation. Ironically, this happens specifically and most especially with message art, i.e. propaganda.

    Complaining about misinterpretation is misguided, at best.

    This is my message.

  7. A Person

    People should show art where they make the opportunity to show it.

    It seems like the author of this article would like a say where the work should go in order to reach a particular audience. (IMHO, the black community probably has a pretty sharp awareness of food deserts and the politics of food and healthy diet–could it be the message is for a wider community to understand the issues?)

    Also, the words on the side of the main image are written in several languages: Spanish, Vietnamese, Hindi and Arabic. What to make of that?

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