When Women Pursue Justice, a Brooklyn mural dedicated to American women activists, has more ties to Downtown New York than one.
Brooklyn Mural Surfaces in Manhattan
By Nicole Davis
Remember the Pathfinder? Not the car the mural. Nearly 20 years ago, the controversial painting was unveiled on the side of the Pathfinder Press building, a socialist publisher at 410 West Street. Bearing Fidel Castro’s own words “The truth must not only be the truth, it must be told,” the massive portrait portrayed a sea of revolutionaries and civil rights activists like Che Guevara and Martin Luther King, Jr. and Che Guevara being fed into the Pathfinder’s giant printing press, which in turn churned out reams of their writings and speeches. It took two years and 80 artists from 20 different countries to paint, and just seven years to begin fading. Rather than retouch it, in 1996 the Pathfinder’s owners painted over it when they needed to make much-needed repairs to their wall which itself would be torn down soon after, when Richard Meier erected his upscale towers in its place.
Such is the fate of community murals, massive undertakings by definition that are forever vulnerable to the elements and luxury developments. So, like priced-out Manhattanites, two veteran muralists, inspired by the scale and scope of the Pathfinder, chose a blank wall in Brooklyn for their homage to social activism. Called When Women Pursue Justice, the sprawling, Technicolor mural is a montage of 90 revolutionary women in the heart of Bedford-Stuyvesant many of whose visages should be familiar to Downtown New Yorkers.
Its interesting how many of the women have a connection to New York, explained the murals designer, Janet Braun-Reinitz, a petite firebrand with a husky voice. Standing on the corner of Nostrand and Greene Aves., wearing paint-splattered pants and fashionably dark shades, the 68-year-old activist pointed out the main star of the mural, Shirley Chisholm (1924-2005), the first Black woman elected to the U.S. House of Representatives and a former Bed-Stuy resident. I voted for her in a primary, said Braun-Reinitz, referring to Chisholms bid for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1972. On this 45-foot-high painting, which was completed last fall, Chisholm rides a horse and wields a flag bearing a phrase lifted from her famous insistence that she not be remembered for her firsts, but rather as a catalyst for change.
Her sentiment was the guiding principal for Braun-Reinitzs selection process. (My degree in womens studies finally served me, she said.) A president of Artmakers, Inc., the mural-making organization that commissioned the project, Braun-Reinitz worked with Project Director Jane Weissman of the Battery Park City Parks Conservancy to bring the mural into being. No one is on the wall because they were the first to do something, said Braun-Reinitz. Rather, the point of creating this tribute to American women activists was to reacquaint people with women whose history is forgottenor being forgotten.
Using grants from non-profits like The Sister Fund and individual donations, the two women brought nearly 50 female artists together last year to paint the 3,300 square foot mural, which looks from a distance like a huge demonstration. None of the subjects are arranged by age or era, though a catalogue for the mural groups the women by broad spheres of influence such as Ancestors, Education, Our Bodies and even Defies Categorization, the one place where anarchist Emma Goldman fits.
The idea was to bring a lot of artists together to create a mural that everyones style could fit intowhich is what the best demonstrations look like, said Braun-Reinitz, who attended her first demonstration in 1956 against the civil defense drills that drove New Yorkers into shelters and subways at the sound of air raid warnings.
It was just like toothpaste on planes today, she explained. It was the same level of government control aimed at making us all hysterical.
Just 20 at the time, she sought out someone in the crowd to gravitate to, someone who looked safe. The woman she chose happened to be Dorothy Day (1897-1980), who created 33 houses of hospitality in New York for the urban poor and who appears beside the poet and lesbian activist Audre Lorde, suffragists Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony and the first female stockbroker (along with her sister) Victoria Woodhull New Yorkers all, if not by city, then by state.
Then there is the picture of prison activist and professor Angela Davis. That building is an actual piece of New York history, Braun-Reinitz said, pointing to the Womens House of Detention in the background of Daviss portrait. The prison where Davis was held on false charges for 16 months inspiring both John Lennon and Yoko Ono and the Rolling Stones to write songs calling for her release once sat at the site of Jefferson Market Garden.
When Women Pursue Justice is one of over 50 murals that Braun-Reinitz has painted, and not likely to be her last. I would love to do a timely mural on torture, she said, looking covetously at the blank wall across the street. But no one wants one. Landlords often shy away from political murals, she explained, because of the ire they provoke. Even the Pathfinder, for instance, was vandalized at one point.
But another strong deterrent is the sheer cost involved. The scaffolding for Justice cost $13,000 alone, and while Artmakers managed to raise much of the money needed to create the mural, and even arranged for a community group to secure the $11 million insurance plan they needed before they could begin work, they have yet to pay the professional artists, like graffiti artist Lady Pink, who volunteered their time and talent to the project.
So, last week, Braun-Reinitz and Weissman brought the mural back across the river figuratively speaking and mounted an exhibit at Gallery 1199 in Midtown to help make up the $15,000 difference. On view through mid-October will be photographs of the making of the mural, and various drawings by its many artists, along with a catalogue complete with biographies of all the women pictured, for $5 a piece a small price to pay for justice.
The exhibit at Gallery 1199 runs through October 12. 310 West 43rd St. (212) 767-0025; www.bread-and-roses.com.