Amber Hansen and Reyna Hernandez live in Vermillion, South Dakota, a small city of about 10,000 people in the American Mid-West. Both women came to here to study at the University, where Amber is now Professor of Fine Art and Reyna works in the administration. They share a passion for murals, especially when they are created with, by and for communities. The creation of visual symbols in public space is a statement of presence and a claim of legitimacy for marginalised ideas and identities. This affirmation of voice and visibility is a form of democratic engagement. It is also a statement of respect for democracy, as the means for negotiating between competing visions of life.
It was exciting to discover Amber and Reyna’s work, partly because such work has fallen out of fashion in Britain since I trained as a community muralist in London, 40 years ago, but also because of its exceptional quality. These photos could make it seem easy to do and to look at, but don’t be fooled. It takes great skill to design a composition that works on this scale within its surroundings. It needs to be immediately legible and attractive – after all, public space belongs to and must welcome everyone – yet still contain layers of visual richness and cultural meaning that will reward repeated viewing. Magic happens when a piece drops into place, allowing someone to really see something that they’ve looked through a hundred times. References to Lakota symbols or Beyoncé’s Lemonade, might be transparent to one person but reveal new horizons to another.
That is the artistic challenge. In Reyna and Amber’s work, there is also a social challenge, to find acceptance for the representation of indigenous women and cultures in a colonised land. Negotiations over the design of a community mural are as important as the collective effort involved in painting it. This is the real process of cultural democracy – not a state but a way of living together.
You can hear Reyna and Amber talking about their work in the second episode of ‘A Culture of Possibility’, the podcast I’m doing with Arlene Goldbard. Click on the link below, or subscribe via your podcatcher of preference – and do let us know what you think. This is a new medium, and were keen to get better at it.
Many thanks to Amber Hanson and Reyna Hernandez for sharing the images used in this post.