Bill Walker: Urban Griot
November 5, 2017 – April 8, 2018
Kanter McCormick Gallery
Hyde Park Art Center, Chicago, IL
Juarez Hawkins, Curator of Urban Griot, is a member of Diasporal Rhythms
The exhibition Bill Walker: Urban Griot revives the powerful paintings and drawings by celebrated muralist William “Bill” Walker during the 50th Anniversary of one of his best known public art works in Chicago, the Wall of Respect. The artworks, on loan from Chicago State University’s collection, demonstrate the artistic evolution of a true street artist with a profound love of Chicago. Walker’s zeal for the city turned increasingly strident as the fervor of the 1970s and the Black Arts Movement gave way to harsher economic realities of the 1980s. Urban Griot presents a focused selection of work enhanced by never before seen works on newsprint, paper and collage from the archives of Chicago Public Art Group and private collections to expand awareness and understanding of Bill Walker’s remarkable body of work beyond the wall.
Walker’s perspective on creating socially-motivated art, particularly in his later years, may have been seen as divergent from the goals of groups like AfriCOBRA, which focused on presenting positive, colorful, images of Black life with messages of uplift. Walker’s work does not shy away from the harsh realities of urban street life; after all, this is Walker’s America, the world in which he lived and worked. If the images are uncomfortable for the viewer, it is because they depict real, lived violence and despair, experienced firsthand. Walker often faced the threat of violence while working on his murals, and would negotiate with gang members to protect the work and his tools. In spite of the dangers, Walker believed that presenting truth—the good, the bad, and the raw—was essential to educating people and motivating change. “The artist and his art,” states Walker in his manifesto, “are warning man of the dangers ahead. If man fails to understand this, total destruction may surely come.” His work arises not from anger, but from an enduring concern for the plight of the underserved. Decades later, the state of current affairs—violence (both police- and gang-related), poverty, widespread opioid abuse, the recent resurgence of white supremacists—makes Walker’s work eerily prescient and relevant in this time of mounting protest.
The works consist primarily of three series: For Blacks Only (1979-1982), a cautionary tale about the evils of drugs, violence and those who prey upon the community; Reaganomics (1980-1982), an assessment the impact of 1980s “supply side” economic policies on the urban poor; and Red, White and Blue We Love You (1982-1984), a call to action juxtaposing urban ills with the promise of America as embodied in the red, white and blue palette of these works. It must be noted that the title For Blacks Only does not imply discrimination. Rather, it speaks to a message that, while directed to the black community, is open to all.
The exhibition opens with two works on paper. These works show Walker’s agility as a draftsman. A veteran muralist, Walker brings his storytelling and compositional mastery to his easel works. In an untitled ballpoint piece from 1972, loose, graceful lines compress to form a stone-like cutaway of three grimacing faces. One points across the composition, lips parted to speak.
In For Blacks Only 4, Walker uses simple, readily available tools—ink, colored pencils and markers—to create a vibrant city scene. The male-dominated shoeshine parlor is juxtaposed with the female-populated church. Heavy black ink lines create an irregular grid across the work, dividing it into multiple facets and scenes. Walker employs this visual device in other works throughout this exhibition. Perhaps the grid reflects the way Walker compartmentalized some of his murals, allowing for revisions as current events unfolded.
An array of black-and-white ink drawings from For Blacks Only transition from tranquil domestic scenes to utter chaos. Acts of extreme violence play out before a seemingly mute audience in the absence of any police. Often, children are present, bearing witness to the carnage. In one, a street painter, presumably Walker himself, paints an anti-drug message while perched precariously above a street fight.
Men in big hats and even bigger cars are prevalent in For Blacks Only 8 and 14. Both white and black dealers do business, denoting wide accountability for the influx of heroin and other drugs. Suited gangsters lurk in tenement vestibules, while bodyguards stand watch over drugs and money, warily reaching for their pistols. These deals take place where children, represented by an abandoned hopscotch and jump rope, gather to play. In For Blacks Only 12, Walker’s “grid” becomes curtain and camouflage; deftly hiding and exposing the gang beatings and carnal acts. The viewer bears witness with the silhouetted figures in the foreground, including two children.
In the Red, White and Blue series, Walker returns to the same drug- and crime-infested tenements we see in For Blacks Only. The heavy black grid is replaced by colored pencil lines. Delicate tints of red and blue, punctuated by Walker’s nimble use of negative space, belie the multi-story cutaway tableaux of drugs and violence. In Red, White and Blue 14 and Red, White and Blue A, the viewer is introduced to “punctured” heroin addicts. Hinged like marionettes, they drink, dance and shoot up until they waste away from the addiction or HIV.
Portraits are a strong component of Red, White and Blue. Walker portrays heroes and gangsters, Muslims and mothers with geometric faces rendered in India ink black. Red, White and Blue 6 depicts Richard Thomas, a beloved math teacher who, like an alchemist, combined multiple disciplines in his teaching practice. Walker also experimented with portraits on Plexiglas repurposed from lighting fixtures. Gangster Larry, War Zone, and Church of God evoke both stained glass and graffiti. Walker uses tape to mask off both his figures and his text. Other details are painted in, like the articles on gang-related violence cited in Gangster Larry. It is important to note that Gangster Larry neither glamorizes gangsters nor their lifestyle. Though courageous in his willingness to interact with gang members (even utilizing them for labor and security), Walker was a perennial critic of their dangerous and parasitic presence in the black community.
In Red, White and Blue 3, an urban Madonna and child show their mutual displeasure over cuts in social services. This sentiment is reflected across the Reaganomics series. Cracked, truncated figures in pointed hats rail in anger and fear in Reaganomics 5. Hungry children, dead and alive, clutch empty plates throughout the series. Walker questions the role of God, and Christianity in particular, in easing his people’s suffering. A Christ figure in Reaganomics 1 is taped over with a picture of a smiling Ronald Reagan. Beneath it, a black woman with blond hair kneels in supplication atop a stack of material goods. A crucifix lies broken and bloody over a black hole in Reaganomics 6, while a grinning Nazi and Ku Klux Klansman salute each other. Behind them stand four people of different races, arms interlocked. Echoing the joined figures from Walker’s earlier murals, these men and women reflect his ongoing hope that unity will prevail over hatred.
With social justice and social practice both important components of contemporary art, and the issues of violence, poverty and racial harmony central to Bill Walker’s work just as relevant in the world today as they were during his career, Urban Griot provides an historical context for contemporary issues in art and society. The exhibition and its companion catalog unify Walker’s mature body of work and bring it to a broader audience in a new context that expands understanding of his practice as a political thinker, social activist, and skilled artist.
Curator of Urban Griot
Born in Birmingham, Alabama, William “Bill” Walker (1927 – 2011) moved to Chicago in 1938. During a stint in the Air Force, he worked with the artist Samella Lewis. Walker attended the Columbus College of Art and Design (OH), graduating in 1954. Moving to Memphis, he painted three indoor murals for a local nightclub. One mural makes reference to Alley B, a poor ghetto neighborhood from Walker’s childhood. This work shows a jumbled array of ramshackle tenements and a sprawl of bodies at work and at leisure. Such rambling city scenes and busy denizens make their way into Walker’s easel paintings from this period, most notably The El and the Alley Cat Club series, as well as his Black Metropolis works on paper (see FBO 2 and FBO 11).
Walker is best known for creating the iconic Wall of Respect on Chicago’s South Side in 1967 in collaboration with the Organization of Black American Culture (OBAC). Other artists on the project included Jeff Donaldson, Wadsworth Jarrell, Barbara Jones-Hogu, Carolyn Lawrence, and later, Eugene “Eda” Wade. The Wall, with its focus on black heroes, inspired community-based public artworks all over the country.
After the Wall of Respect, Walker did a series of murals with Eda in Detroit, including the Harriet Tubman Memorial Wall. The two would return to Chicago to paint the grittier, current event-driven Wall of Truth, directly across the street from the Wall of Respect.
In 1971, Walker and Eda, along with colleagues John Pitman Weber and Mark Rogovin, participated in the Murals for the People exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art. The artists created murals onsite at the museum, along with a manifesto called “The Artists’ Statement”. In it, Walker formally declares his dedication to making public art: “I came to the realization that art must belong to ALL people.” By engaging the people of a community, Walker felt the artist could share the people’s joys and sorrows, and in turn create more socially conscious and relevant art. Walker’s contribution, the Wall of Family Love, was later installed at the South Side Community Art Center.
Through the auspices of the Chicago Mural Group (which he cofounded), as well as his own self-sponsorship, Walker would go on to paint some of his most iconic murals in Chicago; among those still standing are History of the Packinghouse Worker (48th and Wabash, 1975), Childhood is Without Prejudice (56th and Stony Island, 1977), and the Wall of Daydreaming and Man’s Inhumanity to Man (47th and Calumet, a 1975 collaboration with Mitchell Caton and Santi Isrowuthukal). While these three works have enjoyed the benefits of restoration, other Walker works, Peace and Salvation (1970) and All of Mankind (1971-3) have been erased. All of Mankind, consisting of interior and exterior murals at Strangers Home Missionary Baptist Church, was an inner-city Sistine Chapel. Despite local efforts to save them, the murals were covered, the church sold.
Over the next two decades, Walker would continue to paint murals throughout the Midwest, both collaboratively and independently. His mural work was featured in a solo exhibition at the South Side Community Art Center in 1980. In 1984, the Chicago State University Gallery presented Images of Conscience: The Art of Bill Walker, which highlighted the three series For Blacks Only, Reaganomics, and Red, White, and Blue exhibited here and produced the first catalog of Walker’s work. Walker continued a strong studio practice that produced raw and emotional paintings, drawings, and collages well into the 2000s.
Bill Walker: Urban Griot is part of Art Design Chicago, an exploration of Chicago’s art and design legacy, an initiative of the Terra Foundation for American Art with presenting partner The Richard H. Driehaus Foundation. Bill Walker: Urban Griot is funded by the Terra Foundation for American Art and The Richard H. Driehaus Foundation.