Mural of armed Tubman stirs protest

Artists won't change piece for black charity

June 06, 2000|By Jamie Stiehm | Jamie Stiehm,SUN STAFF

A white artist refused last night to remove a musket from a portrait of Harriet Tubman. Associated Black Charities, whose headquarters was to be graced by the tile mosaic, claims that an armed depiction of the freedom fighter is inappropriate for its building.

The charitable group, while praising the power of the image, fears that the mural could be construed as condoning violence, ought not be displayed on its walls at a time when guns are taking a massive toll on the black community.

"It's art, not a political program," Mike Alewitz, 49, told the group as he presented slides of other murals he has painted in Chicago, Chernobyl and Baghdad to a group gathered to discuss the issue at the McKim Center on Aisquith Street.

"I will not disarm Harriet Tubman," said Alewitz.

Strong convictions surfaced over the larger-than-life ceramic mural planned for display this month at Associated's downtown headquarters at Cathedral and Chase Streets.

It has raised questions of historical truth versus contemporary perceptions, issues that separated some whites and blacks at last night's meeting.

Alewitz's dreamlike design shows Tubman with a lantern in one hand, a musket in the other as she leads slaves to freedom through a symbolic parting of the Red Sea. In the piece, whites are tossed into the sea.

"I like the artwork, musket and all," said Donna Jones Stanley, executive director of Associated. "But I'm not sure it's appropriate at this point in history."

Stanley said Associated's board will meet in a week to vote on the issue. The mural will face the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall.

Some have urged Alewitz - chosen in a national competition sponsored jointly by the White House Millennium Council and the National Endowment for the Arts - to substitute a peaceful staff for the musket.

He refused. "There was nothing safe about Harriet Tubman," he said. "Murals do not cause violence."

The community coordinator of the statewide Harriet Tubman mural project defended the artist's choice. "She did not lead a revolution with a feather," said Blaise DePaolo.

A Maryland native who led slaves to freedom over forbidding terrain and served as a Union spy and nurse during the Civil War, Tubman is the subject of five new murals by Alewitz to be installed around the state this summer, including one in Cambridge, her birthplace.

Through a national Millennial Treasures program launched by Hillary Rodham Clinton, Baltimore Clayworks won a $25,000 grant to develop the Harriet Tubman motif. The Mount Washington ceramics center chose Alewitz, who lives in New Jersey, from hundreds of artists.

If the Associated refuses to take the mural as Alewitz conceived it, Baltimore Clayworks will find another site for it in the city, said Deborah Bedwell,the executive director.

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