The San Francisco Board of Education unanimously voted Tuesday to paint over a mural series depicting the life of first U.S. President George Washington at a high school named after him following complaints that the Depression-era artwork “traumatizes students” and “glorifies slavery, genocide, colonization, manifest destiny, white supremacy, oppression.”
Board commissioner Mark Sanchez dismissed concerns about the possible $600,000 price tag saying that “this is reparations,”
What’s the background?
Russian-American painter Victor Arnautoff created the mural series on the walls of George Washington High School before it opened in 1936, and at the time it was the “largest WPA-funded, single-artist mural suite on the Pacific Coast,” the Richmond District Blog noted.
But some of the mural’s images came under fire during the civil rights movement over its depictions of slavery and Native Americans, the outlet said.
Image source: YouTube screenshot
In one mural, entitled “Mount Vernon”, George Washington appears to be in conversation with another Caucasian man who gestures towards a seated African-American man holding corn, presumably a slave. In other parts of the mural, African-Americans are engaged in acts of manual labor like hauling large bales of hay and picking cotton in the fields, while Caucasian men are also laboring at other tasks with tools. Washington’s servant, who is pictured holding his horse, is also African-American. The mural is a clear depiction of slavery in the United States, and of George Washington as a slave owner.
The second panel, entitled ‘Westward Vision”, depicts Benjamin Franklin and other founding fathers looking at George Washington as he points off in the distance, while he points with his other hand to a map. On the right side of the mural, as if carrying out Washington’s call for westward expansion, frontiersmen, depicted in greyscale unlike other figures in the mural, stand over the dead body of a Native American man, signifying the genocide of Native American life and culture.
In the bottom right of the “Westward Vision” panel, a frontiersman and Native American chief sit at a campfire smoking a peace pipe. On the ground at the chief’s feet is a tomahawk, symbolizing the disarming of Native tribes. Directly above the Chief’s headdress is a broken tree limb representing broken treaties made by the U.S. government with Native Americans, and broken promises made by settlers.
The school district created a “Reflection and Action Group” to determine what to do about the mural series after a proposal to designate the high school as a historic landmark, the outlet said, adding that the group eventually recommended it should be removed — i.e., painted over as the mural panels are directly upon the school’s plaster walls, the Richmond District Blog said.
The following is the group’s statement on the matter, according to the outlet:
We come to these recommendations due to the continued historical and current trauma of Native Americans and African Americans with these depictions in the mural that glorifies slavery, genocide, colonization, manifest destiny, white supremacy, oppression, etc. This mural doesn’t represent SFUSD values of social justice, diversity, united, student-centered. It’s not student-centered if it’s focused on the legacy of artists, rather than the experience of the students. If we consider the SFUSD equity definition, the “low” mural glorifies oppression instead of eliminating it. It also perpetuates bias through stereotypes rather than ending bias. It has nothing to do with equity or inclusion at all. The impact of this mural is greater than its intent ever was. It’s not a counter-narrative if [the mural] traumatizes students and community members.
It could take more than a year to paint over all 13 panels, and the school board may opt to cover them temporarily with paneling in the event of a delay, KQED reported.
Views seemed quite different just a few years back
In 2010, the San Francisco Arts Commission posted a video on restoring the school’s artwork — including the controversial George Washington mural panels — and officials in the clip seemed to be in favor of preserving history rather than destroying it.
Former Principal Ericka Lovrin said “the grandeur of these murals” is “fantastic,” and that many students are “very, very proud” of them and “so happy that they’re being preserved.”
Mural Restoration at Geo. Washington H.S.