A new mural at the San Luis Obispo Museum of Art wrapped around all four walls of the building shines a light on a fictional black warrior queen and the unrecorded histories of black Americans in the West.
The mural, titled “Calafia Was Here,” by Erin LeAnn Mitchell, is the second in a planned annual series of murals by the museum, which selects emerging artists of diverse backgrounds from across the country.
Mitchell and a group of Cuesta College students completed the mural Feb. 24 after beginning the project Feb. 3.
The museum funded it with a $10,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts Challenge America program.
The SLO museum was among 168 projects across America selected to receive a grant from a funding pool totaling $1.68 million.
“Even in my profession, black female artists are not represented at the level that we should be,” Mitchell told The Tribune. “I saw the mural as an opportunity to take space and reclaim a story that had been dismissed as fiction.”
Cuesta students Melayna Smith, Halden Willard and Jessica Alcazar participated in the project by helping with the painting.
The work includes themes from black history, warrior queen
Mitchell, a Birmingham, Alabama native, earned a bachelor’s degree from the School of Art Institute in Chicago and a master’s degree in art education from Columbia College.
“Calafia Was Here” references the fictional black warrior queen and unrecorded histories of black Americans in the West, the museum said in a press release: “The design is a nod to existing textile practice from Erin and uses quilting patterns and ornate designs.”
Mitchell said, “The Calafia story resonates with me because of the lack of visibility and recognition given to black women for their contributions to this country.”
Mitchell said in a taped lecture at the museum in February that she had extensive knowledge of civil rights in the South, but “I had no knowledge of black history in the West other than the riots. of Los Angeles”.
“Other than that, I didn’t have a record of black history in this area and wanted something that would connect to the area, but it was hard to find here and I ended up having to think more broadly,” Mitchell said. “When my friend Tori brought this story (of Calafia) to my attention, I thought it was amazing. I didn’t know it and chances are many others don’t either. .
“Calafia Was Here” is based on a 16th-century novel about an Amazon goddess named Calafia who ruled over her tribe of Amazon women, according to SLO Art Museum director Leann Standish.
“The piece has a lot of movement and strength,” Standish said. “I love that she really took over the whole building. Everything in the building has also changed on the outside and this has made this area so vibrant.
Some believe that the name of the state of California is derived from the history of Calafia, although the subject remains in debate.
Standish said the project was a valuable experience not only for the visual outcome, but also for the shared experience during the painting process.
“It really evolved when she was here and getting to know the community and where the building lives and the community lives and all that,” Standish said. “I think it’s a very dynamic piece. It just blew my mind and we got such great feedback on it.
The SLO Museum adds dynamism to the walls
Standish said the museum building had no visual elements on the exterior until its annual mural program was implemented.
The first mural, “Pacificaribbean” by Juan Alberto Negroni, covered the building last year.
This work was inspired by Negroni’s upbringing in the town of Bayamón near San Juan in Puerto Rico.
“We were really intentional about wanting to represent our included artists who weren’t the artists that were shown in the museum for decades,” Standish said. “So we invited (Negroni), who spoke Spanish to our visitors, and that really meant a lot and it was kind of the same with Erin.”