Milwaukee Art Museum mural depicts black Americans in search of happiness

A lot of photos Derrick Adams incorporated into his huge new fresco inside the Milwaukee Art Museum are conspicuously ordinary:

  • A 12-year-old girl skips rope on a playground.
  • A woman receives a loan from a new credit union.
  • Pedestrians crossing a normally busy street during a windy winter storm with no car in sight.

In creating “Our Time Together” Adams was guided by “respect and admiration for the persistence of black Americans in their quest for happiness,” he wrote in his artist statement. About 93 feet wide and 15 feet tall, “Our Time Together” will be on view for about three years, said Lisa Sutcliffe, curator of photography and media arts at MAM.

Born in Baltimore and now working in Brooklyn, multidisciplinary artist Adams is particularly interested in the representation of blacks at leisure and intergenerational community spaces such as barber shops, cafes and churches.

Historical photographs are combined with artistic collages of black daily life and hobbies as part of the "Our time together" mural at the Milwaukee Art Museum.

His starting points for the mural commissioned by MAM include “The Negro Motorist Travel Guide” by Victor Hugo Green, also known as “The Green Book” (published 1936-1966), a directory of hotels, restaurants, and sites that are safe and welcoming for black travelers. Adams pastes pages from “The Green Book,” including advertisements, into “Our Time Together,” including a Milwaukee page that lists the Ambassador Motor Hotel, the Chicken Shack Restaurant, and the Pastell Lampkins Rooming House.

While conducting research for this mural, Adams connected with contemporary spaces in Milwaukee, including Gee’s mowers hair salon, 2200 N. King Drive; Coffee Makes You Black, 2803 N. Teutonia Ave .; and the Wisconsin Black Historical Society / Museum, 2620 W. Center St. Each site is depicted along the lower portion of the mural.

Adams also pastes over 30 historic black and white photos into “Our Time Together,” all taken by Milwaukee Journal and Milwaukee Sentinel photographers from 1951 to 1989. Some refer to activism or political events, such as the image of two supportive men carrying civil rights leader Lloyd A. Barbee on their shoulders as they walked out of a meeting of the school board committee on equal educational opportunity.

Artist Derrick Adams stands in his Brooklyn studio.  He created a huge new mural for the Milwaukee Art Museum.

But Adams is generally more interested in showing people fulfillment in their daily lives. The photo he chose of the famous Vel Phillips is not of his political activity; it is a family portrait with her husband and young son.

It also incorporates four church fans with pictorial images, such as that of a boy and a girl in pajamas, kneeling by a bed with their hands folded in prayer.

There is a lot to take in here. Fortunately, MAM has created a brochure with detailed information captioned on the photographs. It can be read online at mam.org/pdfs/exhibition-brochures/exh_derrick-adams_closer-look.pdf. MAM plans to plan related programming.

The mural faces Lake Michigan, so it will receive lots of sunlight. Sutcliffe noted that it’s printed on a form of vinyl which should keep it from fading while on display.

Contact Jim Higgins at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter at @jhiggy.


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