The wall, we have been told, will be big and beautiful. It will stand at the southern border and stop people and keep us safe. It will be, we have been told, a great, great wall – even the greatest.
Whether that wall will indeed be and do what has been promised – or whether it will even be built at all – is not something we know today. That wall does not exist. But there is a wall that does, and it's worth considering as so much talk about that other wall continues to swirl around us. This wall, too, stands at a southern border, though it's only the one belonging to the University of Texas, separating the Forty Acres from the rest of Austin. And while it's nowhere near the length of the wall proposed between our country and Mexico, this one is, I daresay, big and beautiful – "big" in that it's 25 feet tall and spans 160 feet of the grand entrance to the Zlotnik Family Ballroom in Robert B. Rowling Hall, the new graduate education building for UT's McCombs School of Business, "beautiful" in that internationally renowned artist José Parlá has covered all 4,000 square feet of it with art.
Walls matter to Parlá. They have since his childhood days, when he would travel to different cities and pay attention to the walls he found there. What he came to see was that their significance has less to do with being barriers, with keeping these people out of a space or those people in, than with serving as tablets, canvases, message boards. Walls are places where we make marks, and over time the marks accumulate and accrete, telling a story of who we have been and who we have become. Walls are repositories of history, of experience. So in his work, Parlá creates layers of marks, textures, and colors, as might collect on a wall over time. Sometimes this work is made on canvases, and sometimes it's made on actual walls – as with the murals he made for the One World Trade Center and the Brooklyn Academy of Music. When Landmarks, UT's public art program responsible for such works as Ann Hamilton's O N E E V E R Y O N E, James Turrell's Skyspace, and Michael Ray Charles' (Forever Free) Ideas, Languages and Conversations, commissioned Parlá to create something for its campus collection, it gave him a real wall to play with – the biggest he's ever been asked to paint, in fact, and that's saying something for an artist well-known for working on a large scale.
In tackling this "everything is bigger in Texas" commission, Parlá was especially sensitive to the environment. In his artist statement, he mentions being "inspired by the natural and cultural landscape of Texas and the Americas." Though the work is decidedly abstract, Landmarks Director Andrée Bober notes that it "renders Austin through [Parlá's] eyes, with a palette that evokes its vast skies, abundant nature, and pulsing urban core. The painting suggests a continental map and routes that connect Austin to a much larger ecology." The artist has incorporated engraved lines like those in street grids, and he's even integrated three words into the mural that elaborate on the geographic sensibility: King, Guadalupe, and Austin. In one sense, that makes the work as literal as a street sign: Rowland Hall sits at the intersection of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and Guadalupe Street in Austin. But the words themselves are also weighted with history: one the name of an African-American civil rights leader; another a Spanish name linked with rivers, mountains, and towns across the Western Hemisphere, as well as with a vision of the Virgin Mary in Mexico; and another with an Anglo colonizer who brought slavery to Texas along with other whites. With that in mind, the work also draws associations with, in Parlá's words, "the rich and turbulent cultural history of the Americas."
And yet, despite "our civilization's continual struggle with migratory traces, trade, and cultural exchanges that harm the natural world and form a charged political climate," the artist says his painting is not intended as a negative statement. "Art has the power to be a tool for positive change and resistance against injustice in a world where no condition is permanent," Parlá notes. "In painting, I seek abstraction and feeling as a form of communication to provoke open diplomatic conversation."
Far from using his wall as a barrier, Parlá is making it a catalyst for interaction, for dialogue. And again, he knows where he is. The title that he's chosen for his wall is Amistad América – "amistad" as in Spanish for "friendship." Given that it will live in the heart of a state that prides itself on the concept, that takes its very name from a Native American term for "friends," Amistad América is a wall that reminds us of our deepest values and points us to a way forward that is open and cooperative rather than adversarial and closed. If you have to tie your future to a big, beautiful wall, which one would you choose?
Landmarks will unveil Amistad América Fri., Jan. 26, in Robert B. Rowling Hall, 300 W. MLK. A Q&A with José Parlá and curator Carlo McCormick will start at 5:30pm and a celebratory reception will follow at 6:30pm. The event is free and open to the public. For more information, visit www.landmarks.utexas.edu.
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