I was planning on reviewing A Panoramic View, the Texas Sculpture Group’s mammoth exhibition at Lawndale, but I left it for the second time feeling bored and disheartened, with little other takeaway than, “yep, that’s a lot of sculpture.” So instead I averted my attention to a mural I’ve glanced at maybe a hundred or so times and previously have not given much thought, The People’s Plate (2014) by Otabenga Jones and Associates, on the outside of Lawndale’s Main St. building.
Otabenga Jones is an artist collective consisting of Jamal Cyrus, Robert Pruitt, Kenya Evans, and Dawolu Jabari Anderson. Based in Houston’s Third Ward, Jones and Associates is less interested in presenting blackness as a singular commodity and more as a complex, even contradictory, organic entity. Their work has manifested as happenings, writings, and installations and now, with The People’s Plate, social sculpture.
In addition to the mural, The People’s Plate project includes foraging, gardening, and cooking workshops as well as printed lunch boxes. The idea is to counter the obesity epidemic by raising awareness. The websites and articles about the project are vague and open-ended, basically saying the project is meant to promote a general awareness about obesity within various communities and the food deserts therein. But with The People’s Plate mural the writing is quite literally on the wall, and it is highly specific. Given its imagery, drawn from Emory Douglas‘ graphic for the Black Panther Party, and the row houses on the right side of the mural, painted stark Project Row House white, the mural is specifically a call to the black community of Houston’s Third Ward. Why the tiptoeing? I think it comes from the fact that Jones and Associates would then have to acknowledge that The People’s Plate makes little sense plastered on Lawndale’s wall. Regardless of how close or far Lawndale is to the Third Ward, it still reads as a billboard running on Main St., where its meaning is watered down. It belongs in the heart of the Third Ward neighborhood.
It may not be getting a Whole Foods in the near future, but to depict the Third Ward as a food desert is misleading. While it may be easy to chalk the neighborhood’s relationship to food up to Frenchy’s, the Third Ward once again defies the singular, homogenizing stereotypes that many of us like to place upon it. It is instead an oasis, easily the most innovative and health-conscious part of town inside the loop.
The Marcus Garvey Liberation and Alabama Gardens are just two examples of several urban gardening initiatives in the Third Ward. Recent Idea Fund recipient Cavanaugh Nweze just this year established The Living Grocery Store, an urban gardening initiative. And we now have Otabenga Jones on board, fostering self-sufficiency and control over one’s health.
Compared with the lardtastic Tex Mex and barbeque that pervades the rest of our city, the neighborhood is populated with several raw vegan, vegan, vegetarian, and other restaurants offering a cornucopia of healthy options. Doshi House, Conscious Café, Green Seed Vegan, Sunshine Vegan Deli (Sunshine is not technically in the Third Ward but it’s close), and formerly the Vegan Café are just some examples of health-conscious restaurants in the area, and there are probably several more I’m unaware of. Most if not all of these restaurants have reasonable prices, and are not interested in catering to the trendy. Some of them (like Sunshine) are family owned restaurants that have been in business for decades, which actively engage with and care deeply about their community.
In fact, the idea of promoting a vegetarian diet is nothing new within the black community. Its historical roots lie in the backlash of the soul food movement of the 60s and 70s, where meat, dairy, and other high fat content foods became the center of the dish rather than a meager side, skyrocketing health problems like diabetes and heart disease. Vegetarianism within the African American community is largely thought to have two major leaders: Elijah Muhammad of the Nation of Islam, and comedian Dick Gregory. Both considered abstaining from meat a tool of self-empowerment and sustainability and control over one’s health.
Propagating awareness is fine, but this isn’t the Ice Bucket Challenge. The need for self-sufficiency in the Third Ward is more critical than ever, as the survival of the lower-income, historically black neighborhood is increasingly threatened by gentrification. If the mural’s purpose is to promote individual responsibility and self-sufficiency for the black people of the Third Ward, why isn’t it painted there? The sign mis-educates people driving by on Main St. on the Third Ward’s status as a food desert—reading only as a sound bite—reinforcing poisonous stereotypes about the neighborhood without paying proper credit to the countless residents that have worked tirelessly to keep it from being one.
As a piece of propaganda, The People’s Plate works well. With bold contour lines and flat eye-popping colors, it feels authoritative. Its direct reference to the Black Panther Party makes it feel revolutionary, like a genuine call to action. So how could it be that I haven’t—until now—paid much attention to it? Because out of context, the mural simply loses its power: it becomes an illustration of a political act, rather than the reality.
The People’s Plate will remain on Lawndale’s mural wall until January 2015.