EAST GARFIELD PARK — A new West Side mural shows the community as a thriving garden exuding love despite the centuries of struggle Black people have endured.
The mural, called “Sowing Seeds of Change,” was unveiled Wednesday at the Westside Justice Center, 601 S. California Ave. A garden is a place of creativity and love, said artist B’Rael Thunder, and the mural is a reminder that in neighborhoods like North Lawndale, “together we are the garden.”
In Thunder’s painted garden, Black women dance together, their skirts resembling a sunflower. A gravity-defying crown of dreadlocks grows from a woman’s head and stretches out like branches of a tree.
Another tree in the mural is formed by the bodies of people reaching towards the sky. The deep brown skin of their arms comes together to form the trunk of the tree overlooking the rest of the garden. Floating above is a group of children wearing green, which Thunder said represents how Black communities must uplift children as seeds being sown for the future.
The plants made up of the bodies of many Black people symbolize the intertwined destinies of those living in neglected areas, Thunder said. People must join together to envision new futures and build collective power to address injustice, fight for change and revitalize under-resourced communities, he said.
“In order to put them in better situations, in order to provide the resources that they need, it’s a collective effort. We all stand on each other’s shoulders; we all uplift each other,” Thunder said.
The mural reflects the work being done at the West Side Justice Center, a holistic legal aid clinic that offers pro-bono counsel, legal education and criminal rights advocacy to empower those who typically don’t get a fair shake in court. Thunder uses the plants and trees in his art to speak to the tenacity that the community manifests in the fight for Black liberation.
“A tree will go through a lot of struggle. It will go through impossible feats in order to find that light. I wanted to show how even in a darkest times, there’s still an opportunity to navigate your way to success and to freedom,” Thunder said.
Thunder initially got involved with the Westside Justice Center through the Movement and Justice Gallery based out of the legal aid clinic’s building. Thunder contributed to the Black Summer exhibit at the gallery in 2019, which brought together art that affirms Black joy and resilience.
At the unveiling of the mural, Renaldo Hudson said he saw his own experience reflected in the faces of the people in the painting. Hudson interprets the people in the tree reaching their arms upward as a community freeing their loved ones from incarceration and welcoming them home.
“This looks like brothers in prison being pulled out,” Hudson said. “It is an extension of the breaking the bars. And I see the hope and smiling faces of people being released from prison.”
Hudson spent 37 years in prison and was released just weeks before seeing the mural. He now works with the Illinois Prison Project to advocate for criminal justice reform.
“My story is from death row to the front door,” he said. “And so it’s really amazing: When I look at the picture, I see myself.”
Ray Robinson sees the people in the mural as using the power of communal love to find joy in the face of generations of oppression directed against Black people.
“It’s a systemic struggle and intentional disparity that we’re fighting against,” he said.
Robinson appreciates that at the top of the mural is a Sankofa, a bird with its feet planted in the ground and its body facing forward while its head looks backward. The Sankofa is a symbol of the Akan people of West Africa, and it is meant as a reminder to draw on the wisdom of the past in order to craft a better future.
“Sankofa means ‘to go back and fetch.’ To go back and fetch the teachings of our ancestors, the teachings of our people and bring it to today, so we can enhance our tomorrow,” Robinson said.
Pascal Sabino is a Report for America corps member covering Austin, North Lawndale and Garfield Park for Block Club Chicago.
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