George Washington High School in San Francisco, California, is considering the removal of thirteen murals depicting the life of George Washington. The murals cover 1600 square feet of the school’s walls and date to 1936. As they are painted in the buon fresco style, the murals cannot be removed without destroying them. NCAC is strongly urging the district to consider the serious ramifications of the irreversible act of destroying an artwork, as well as the precedent it would set for other works installed in San Francisco public schools that could spark strong emotions in the future. We ask the district to leave the murals in place and provide additional context and programming around them.
Two of the thirteen murals have drawn heavy criticism for their depictions of black slaves and Native Americans.
The murals were painted by Victor Arnautoff, a Russian-born Communist, for the Works Progress Administration (WPA). Arnautoff included critiques of Washington in his murals at a time when Washington’s position as a slave owner and disregard for Native Americans were largely ignored. The murals have long been notable for their accurate depiction of both Washington and the nation he lead.
Complaints about the murals first arose in the 1960s, leading the school to commission murals from artist Dewey Crumpler to offer positive imagery of people of color. It appears that a 2017 proposal to designate George Washington High School as a historical landmark reignited calls for the murals to be removed. Following the recent complaints, the school convened a Reflection and Action Group which ultimately recommended that the murals be removed.
As the nation re-evaluates public visual representations of white supremacy that demonstrate our painful national legacy of racial divisiveness, we must not confuse political artworks like Arnautoff’s with historical monuments intended to send a clear racist message. Arnautoff’s murals do exactly the opposite. They provide a counter-narrative to sanitized versions of American history and progress, a version that covers up the fact that American history is inseparable from the genocide of native populations and the brutality of slavery. Surely, this counter-narrative is disturbing, even painful, but destroying the murals will not change the realities of historical violence, on the contrary, it will continue the tradition of suppressing and whitewashing them.
More details on the murals themselves and the arguments of both critics and supporters are available from the Richmond District Blog here.
Read NCAC’s full letter to George Washington High School below.
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