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Mural focusing on Black life breaks down barriers at Milwaukee Art Museum

Posted at 5:29 AM, Nov 08, 2021

MILWAUKEE — The Milwaukee Art Museum launched a new installation at the end of October. It is a piece specifically commissioned for a previously blank space, a long empty wall that now features a mural by Brooklyn-based artist Derrick Adams. The mural blends historic photos with scenes from contemporary Black life in Milwaukee.

Lisa Sutcliffe is the Herzfeld Curator of Photography and Media Arts for the Art Museum. She's had her eye on Adams' work for some time, and hoped he would accept her invitation for the project.

"Derek has long been engaged in the legacy and history of the Green Book, which was a travel guide for African Americans during the Jim Crow era that provided a list of businesses that were safe," Sutcliffe explained. "When he came to Milwaukee, he was interested in doing research into Black-owned businesses. He met with Black artists, but really interested in community sites where people come together."

The sites Adams features include Coffee Makes You Black, Gee's Clippers, and the Wisconsin Black Historical Society. The photographs in the mural include some familiar faces, while others are deliberately ordinary.

"Even when you see figures like Vel Phillips and Clayborn Benson, you're not seeing them in their professional manner," Sutcliffe said. "You're not seeing the pictures you might expect. You're seeing Vel Phillips dancing with a group of youth. You're seeing her with her family. What Derek's really trying to make us look at is sort of ordinary Black life and celebrating and honoring that as much as we might historical trauma, which is what often makes the news."

The mural will be on display for three years. Sutcliffe promises programming aimed at starting conversations. "I think one of the exciting things about having this mural in this space is that it's an invitation, and a platform for conversations. So these are conversations Milwaukee really needs to have, and not just at Wisconsin's Black Historical Society, but in our daily lives."

The Milwaukee Art Museum is now open Thursday-Sunday. For times and ticket information, click here.

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