28 Paintings Highlight Famous – And Less Familiar – Figures In Black History

Artist Maggie Keane works on a mural of musical icons Whitney Houston, Diana Ross and Aretha Franklin. Keane says it took about five days to complete. Artists: Maggie Keane and CeLyn Evens. (Photo by Victoria Hill/Cronkite News)

By Victoria Hill

PHOENIX – Leaders who fought for equity and justice. Entertainers who shifted the sound of music. Inventors who brought water toys and traffic lights to America.

Arizona artists have painted the sweep of Black history at 28 businesses and organizations in downtown and central Phoenix. Malcolm XAretha FranklinAngela Davis and Percy Julian are showcased among many African Americans – some iconic, others less celebrated but all with an impact on American life.

The art tribute represents each day of February’s Black History Month, but the project’s organizer, Gizette Knight, looks to the longevity of inclusion.

“A mural needs to happen because our babies need to see it,” said Knight, the chief executive of Reality Dreams LLC. “They need to see themselves out there. They need to see their culture out there.”

Cecil Abitan drove to central Phoenix just so he could experience the paintings.

“These works of art are aesthetically pleasing, but also have a massive message,” he said. “I think it’s something that young people should really know about, as well as old people like myself. There’s no age to have an appreciation for not only art, but history, especially Black history.”

Highlighting Black accomplishments and leadership dates back to 1926, when historian Carter G. Woodson set aside one week in February as Negro History Week, but it has since expanded to all of February. In Arizona and elsewhere, the celebration of Black life in politics, society, education, entertainment and industry has become an annual rite.

The Black achievers art project grew out of Knight’s determination to remain undeterred by rejection.

“Last year, in the summer, I was working with a couple (Phoenix City) council members to bring forth a Black Lives Matter street mural, and unfortunately, the City Council decided to go in another direction.”

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City Manager Ed Zuercher cited city and federal regulations and safety concerns in denying the BLM mural proposal.

Knight said community members still wanted to see Black representation in public art.

“We went to local businesses and we told them what we wanted to do,” Knight said. “They just love the concept and the idea to participate in celebrating Black History Month.”

Barrio CafeLoLo’s Chicken and Waffles , Carly’s Bistro and the Nash are among the businesses showcasing the paintings, with some murals on walls and some erected on those properties.

Knight conceived the project, but she credits the artists, who volunteered their time and talents, with making it a reality.

“We have a diverse group of artists from all walks of life and all races,” she said. “People came together and united to make this project happen.”

Painter and illustrator Maggie Keane, whose previous work includes a Prince mural two years ago, pays tribute to music legends in her history mural. She took about five days, using a projector at night and other techniques, to draw music legends Whitney Houston, Diana Ross and Aretha Franklin on the wall of the Loc’d Art Hair Lounge at Central Avenue and Portland Street.

“I am always thrilled to be part of projects like this,” she said, adding that Black Americans need to be celebrated for their contribution to society.

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Knight said she wanted to make sure the art showcased the depth of contributions. She was taught about Martin Luther King Jr., Harriet Tubman, Rosa Parks and other influential Black leaders when she was growing up. But something was missing.

“We didn’t talk about the people that make life a little bit more comfortable,” Knight said. “I want to give those people recognition and highlight their contributions to society.”

The paintings depict less familiar faces, such as Lonnie Johnson, inventor of the Super Soaker, and Garrett Morgan, who invented the nation’s three-position traffic signal.

“You get to see people that you may not have known contributed to certain things or may not have gotten the accolades that they deserve,” Knight said.

Abitan said he’s glad the paintings provide Arizona residents and visitors with more culture – and representation – to enjoy.

“I think we each have our own little pieces of our identity, and we can’t forget about it,” he said. “That’s what makes America great. It’s not the melting or going away of where you’re from – it’s identifying how you got here.”

Knight said she’s grateful for the support for and appreciation of the project, pointing to a run that Black Men Run Phoenix organized earlier this month to view the paintings.

“What I’m hoping is it’s thought provoking,” Knight said. “I’m hoping that it motivates people to do a little bit more for Black History Month to highlight those figures that paved the way.”

(Data visualization by Luis Torres/Cronkite News)
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