Passing by The Breakfast Klub last week, I did a double take at Reginald Adams’ newest mural of President Obama. As a community art project, a target of vandalism and a highly visible depiction of the president, this work has been generating a lot of buzz.
Carrie Schneider: Reginald, your murals have been the target of vandalism four times. Give us some background.
Reginald Adams: In August of 2008 I got a last minute request to put up a mural of Senator Obama in time for his visit to Houston for the primaries. Myself and three other street artists came together and threw up Shepard Fairey’s “Hope” design just in time. It was my way, artistically, to support what was going on. People liked it and it was cool for about two years until I got a call from Marcus Davis, the owner of the building, that someone had spray painted the word “puppet” on Obama’s collar. No big deal, right? So we go out, touch it up. Maybe six months later somebody spray painted something else—they put a mustache on it. No big deal, we touched it up. Then, as we were getting ready for the 2012 election I was captivated by this very candid image of Obama pointing that I wanted to paint. As I was looking for a site to paint it on, Marcus texted me a picture of red paint splashed totally across Obama’s face at the existing mural site. He wanted to fix it, but I was into using the new design for the new election cycle and the new campaign. So we put that up in October 2012 with a bunch of volunteers.
RA: That design gets defaced in January 2013, shortly after the inauguration. It was another do-over kind of job. The media was going crazy, local, national, radio and print, all the media and everyone kept asking me, “do you think this is racially motivated?” I was like “I don’t know. I don’t know the intent of the vandal and it wasn’t the same vandal each time. I think it is probably more about his politics than his race—but I know that race is still a factor because there are still some folks who are just not comfortable with a (finger quotes) “African American president.” I say it like that because Obama is as much a white president as a black president because of his upbringing. His mother was white, he was raised by white grandparents, he grew up in Hawaii, attended Columbia, went to Harvard—so these are experiences that very few blacks have—and he is half white. But no one talks about it that way. So when people are like, “but why do you have a black president kissing a white baby?” my question is, “why isn’t it a white president kissing a white baby?” It goes back to slavery and the idea that even one drop of black blood makes you black—and octaroon and quadroon and all this other stuff that you have to understand to see how we get labeled by how much blackness you have in you. I wanted to play with people’s racial insecurities—and it did exactly what I thought—it had people in an uproar. “Why a blue-eyed baby? Why not a black baby? Why not a Chinese baby?” and I think, “what difference does it make?” It’s based on a real picture from a town hall meeting where he picked up some baby. I just changed the color of the baby’s hair, the eye color, cropped out the crowd in the background and put in a flag.
CS: You describe the white baby less as bait and more as a litmus test to see if the vandalism would change if the imagery was changed.
RA: Yes. Now I think I could’ve put up a picture of Obama in the Oval Office with his back turned, or skeet shooting with a shotgun in-hand, and someone still would have vandalized it.
CS: Even if you used the most innocuous image of Obama possible, it’s on a huge wall with high visibility. With this awareness, is your process in selecting each image a gut thing or something you sit with for a long time and think about?
RA: This one is the most considered. I had just completed a portrait of Obama with his family in South Park where people are really protective of it. In this location this mural is in a more diverse community where not everyone shares the same values. It’s at one of the busiest intersections in Houston. It’s highly visible and vulnerable. As a public artist it’s a strategic location. The vandalism is only amplifying the visibility. Someone is so upset with the image that they’re willing to jeopardize their own freedom and safety—that says a lot about how powerful the image is and how powerfully that person feels about the image.
CS: I’m conflicted about critiquing a mural that I now realize has been the target of such abuse, but I can’t help but echo questions about your aesthetic and strategic decisions considering the previous acts of vandalism. If the inclusion of a white baby was a test of the vandals, was it an attempt to kill with kindness? Or a diversion for future vandalism?
RA: I wanted to find out if the vandalism was in fact racially motivated. If you’re throwing paint on him because he’s a black president, would you throw paint on him if he is embracing this white child? The answer I guess would have been yes—if the vandal had gone through with his act. But because he was stopped before he could commit the crime, he wasn’t charged—even though all the evidence was there. I also wanted people to start questioning what their discomfort is seeing a black president hold a white baby, if he is a black president. It’s an opportunity for a dialog and for people to think about their own feelings. What difference does race really have to do with what’s really up on that wall? What difference does it make what color he is or what color the child is? If it’s about his politics then let it be about his politics. Why are we as a society so color-conscious? The mural is asking the question and you have to answer for yourself.
CS: That statement is confusing to me, because compositionally the mural’s focal point is this baby’s bright freakin blue eyes. It’s not just a white baby, it’s a really emphatically white baby—like ideal symbol of Aryan beauty baby. At the same time you’ve used the Philadelphia mural style of blocking out color areas for the public to participate in filling in. But on this mural it has reduced Obama’s face, which is seen in profile, to just this brown flat area. There’s not much depth or form to him. It does not seem like he’s the one being glorified.
RA: This is great feedback and that is the beauty of art for me—that every single person is going to see it differently. Some people are like, “oh my God that’s such a beautiful portrait of him!” and then some people are like, “the artist should be put in jail!” I’m not really investing a whole lot of emotional baggage into it, I’ve been doing public art for 20 years, over 200 works, and I’ve learned to grow a really thick skin. Some people love it, some people hate it, and I’m OK with that now. My responsibility as a public artist is to create visually thought-provoking work. I could have painted a highly realistic photographic image of Obama alone, but it wouldn’t have created nearly the impact of this really simple four-color process of him kissing this baby. The most powerful art is the art you remember. I think about works I’ve seen that are beautiful but forgotten, and those I did not like but stuck in my mind. It’s that piece that made me think, “why did it make me angry or upset me or make me anxious or fearful?” That’s the powerful piece—that touches you emotionally. And that’s what this piece has done with a lot of people—touched them emotionally. I’m not so concerned about the aesthetics—I do the aesthetics so I can let people who are not artists make it happen. This 15 x 20-foot mural was made by 20 non-artists in four hours. That’s not heard of. We found a way to make it happen, and they buy into it. Now instead of just being Reginald’s work it is 20 other people’s work. There’s power in that to me. Personally, I think it’s’ a great looking mural for four hours of 20 people’s time, but I wasn’t going for a photographic detail; I was really going for a message.
CS: I know you keep saying to take race out of it, but the aesthetic decisions you made seem to make race explicit in this image.
RA: You know, the colors of paint we used were things like mocha, nutmeg, ginger, paprika—right? Four colors are named for spices that come from all around the world that we all enjoy, used to paint a black man and a white person, with the same colors just used in different proportions. In my mind it was really symbolic of how we’re really all one. We create these barriers so we have reasons to treat people differently. Race is a man-made categorical system. If we pull back enough layers, all of our heritage is more complicated than we may have thought at first, but there are very few people walking the earth that are 100% of what they think they are. But because of society we have to check off these boxes.
CS: But if the baby is a symbol of the future, I wonder why the mural seems to imply that the future is so white? And why Obama seems to be fauning over it—like kissing white ass.
RA: White like his grandmother? When you really think that his mom was a white woman from Kansas City—what is foreign about that?
CS: Because again, it doesn’t seem just like a white baby—the exaggeration makes it seem like a symbol of whiteness. My skin color carries around an idea that I’ve been handed a lot of opportunity whether or not I deserve it, and that is a connotation that comes with race. Even though Obama is the first half-white, half-black president a lot of progressives feel like he’s done the same job serving the people who always get served.
RA: And I wouldn’t necessarily agree with that. I’ve seen direct benefits from his administration in communities that are not entitlement communities of educated, affluent white folks. I’ve seen his touch reach in neighborhoods like Fifth Ward and Acres homes and Sunnyside where I know they don’t look like that baby on that wall, and so I have no doubt about that. I don’t need to spend a lot of time defending it.
CS: The previous murals have presented Obama the way that people are used to seeing rock stars, action figures and sex symbols portrayed. The way that we read political imagery is different, often taken with a grain of salt because we know it’s part of a persuasive campaign. So this extremely patriotic, political image of President Obama kissing a baby in front of a flag seems like a departure from the previous Obama murals into very stereotypical and traditional presidential imagery. Whereas the other murals have been very pro-Obama and played up his coolness, likeability and figure of a fresh turn in politics, this mural seems like a snapshot of criticism he receives from all ends of the political spectrum: From the right, that he is a heedless spender who indebts future generations; from the left, that he has drifted further and further from his ideals to assuage political pressures, and generally that he is standoffish and impersonable. These common knowledge criticisms, the very white baby and the big waving American flag background made me wonder if the whole work was sarcastic.
RA: I’m surprised at how some very simple things become questioned because of who he is. If that was another president would the same questions come up?
CS: If it were George Bush, people wouldn’t think of it as art at all—it would just be propaganda. His administration is a large reason why the public suspects media portrayals. I guess I was giving more benefit of the doubt because of your reputation as a public artist, because this mural is surrounded by other examples of your work that are not as starkly political and because you’ve sequentially varied your representation of Obama so it seems like a more committed engagement than a straightforward campaign poster.
RA: People tell me all the time that I’m a propagandist. The one where he was pointing, if anything, seemed the most like propaganda to me.
CS: Because it implicated the viewer?
RA: Because it’s a control image. The statement that I was trying to make was, “You! Get involved!” and also a statement to the vandal: “I see you too.”
CS: So while you are sincere about these messages you are also strategizing.
RA: I am a strategist. My whole persona is unconventional—the fact that my wife and I have created our own museum. There’s so many things we’ve done that don’t fall into a category of what an artist should do, so maybe this mural does more of that and doesn’t fit the conventional idea of propaganda.
CS: But it does though, it fits exactly—except that you insist that you’re doing it with a completely pure heart, but are also aware that the image is a cliché…
RA: Hand shakes and baby kisses…
CS: You acknowledge that baby kissing is a joke, a photo-op behavior?
RA: Oh, absolutely.
CS: Simultaneously the title of the mural is Love Conquers All so you earnestly believe that a politician kissing a baby can still represent a genuine expression of love…which is very complicated and interesting.
RA: …and shouldn’t art do that?
CS: Yeah, regardless of the vandalism, just the image itself has been turning my brain around and I appreciate that. Not having met you previously I had no idea where you were coming from. You were the pro-Obama muralist and I felt defensive of Obama.
RA: I appreciate you sharing that. A guy who is a director of international affairs posted a comment saying that this is one of the most important public art images in Houston right now because everybody in City Hall is talking about this mural and all of the conversations are coming from all perspectives. And I’m like, “wow! man! that’s what art should do—not answer the questions but create the dialog. If that’s what this work has done, then I’ve done my role as an artist.
CS: I wonder more broadly about how you see your role as a patriotic image-maker in an age of media as entertainment, when the public is more media literate as well as more media skeptical?
RA: The central message was about love. I genuinely believe that Obama loves his country, that he doesn’t see race the way this country sees race and that he doesn’t see this baby’s race—he just sees the future. A white guy came up to me and said, “first of all you have some huge balls to even be doing this, and second of all I love this image,” then he went off into the night. I have other people telling me, “oh this mural is really about Obama and his love for the country and his love for the future.” Have you looked at my Facebook wall? Read the comments. They say “this is awesome!” and they’re reflecting what I wanted to say. Then I go to KHOU blogs and get the opposite. And I’m cool with that. Some people get it and some people don’t—and that’s what keeps this earth spinning. I cannot convince you of something I believe in. I know where my heart and intent is. My intent was to put a mural out there that reflected love. Some people get it, some people don’t.
CS: The acts of vandalism have occurred at political crossroads—and consequently so have new murals, so they are certainly a pro-Obama voice. You’ve taken each act of vandalism as a chance to present another view of President Obama. Now that the vandal has been deterred, will you continue to alter how you present the president?
RA: I was willing to do a new design even before the first one was vandalised. Now it triggers some things I was raised around—if someone knocks you down you get back up. Now other people are invested, so I feel obligated not to let someone’s ignorance deter my work. I’ve got a lot of paint and a lot of life ahead of me and I think I can outlast the vandal. As crazy as this has all been it hasn’t hurt my brand as an artist. I’ve gotten more PR out of this work than from 150 projects I’ve done. If the vandal wants to keep playing, I’m in it until the end. I support the president, I believe in the rights of private property and I like my work. How many times would you let someone throw paint on your house before saying “fuck it, just let them”?
CS: But they don’t need to strike in order for you to put forth a new image? The vandal is not making the decision for you?
RA: At the end of the day, the vandalism is creating new opportunities for me to think about the imagery, to engage the public in new ways, create new conversations and to meet new amazing people. The GE corporation wants me for a new mural because they saw the Obama story. The vandal is not thinking it—but he’s enriching my art career. I thought about using the pink paint he left for a bow in the baby’s hair, like Bruce Lee would say: “Use the force of your opponent against him.”