Houston Honors Texas Legend Barbara Jordan with Monumental Artwork

Jo-Carolyn Goode | 10/29/2021, 4 a.m.
Say the name Barbara Jordan with dignity and respect. As the lady of many firsts including the first African American ...

Say the name Barbara Jordan with dignity and respect. As the lady of many firsts including the first African American woman in Congress, she demands it. Honoring her and the legacy she created is monumental in commemorating the history she made, the work she did, and the example her life still serves people of today, There is a U.S. Post Office named in her honor and a building in the business school at Texas Southern University too. Her photo hangs in the Texas capitol. And now she will receive another first. Her likeliness will be sculpted for the Civic Art Collection for Houston Public Library's African American Library at the Gregory School for Houston's first permanent outdoor artwork.

“Barbara Jordan is a Houston legend and the artwork created by these artists brings present the impact she had in defending the United States Constitution and representing the people of this City,” said Mayor Sylvester Turner. “The City of Houston is proud to honor Congresswoman Barbara Jordan in such a creative way. Jordan was a pioneer – a woman of many firsts and seeing her image and her writing will keep her legacy alive to new generations.”

This sculpture is something that is overdue for someone of Jordan's caliber who contributed so much during her 60 years on this planet. In 2019, Mayor Sylvester Turner issued a national call for artists from all over to submit their qualifications to take the $235,000 project.

“It’s well past time we memorialize our hero Barbara Jordan with inspiring public art, especially since the city’s art collection contains only one outdoor sculpture or monument honoring a woman,” Mayor Turner said at the time.

Debbie McNulty, Director of the Houston's Cultural Affairs Office, told Houston Public Media that Jordan was the ideal candidate for the piece since there are so few women honored in art in Houston. McNulty is eager to see how the public might interact with the exhibit and the conversations it will evoke.

Native Houstonians, Jamal Cyrus and Charisse Weston, were selected to create the artwork. Cyrus has a long-standing career in the art world spanning over 15 years. The former member of the pioneering collective Otabenga Jones & Associates is a professor at Texas Southern University. In addition, blafferartmuseum.org notes that Cyrus is the recipient of the 2020 David C. Driskell Prize, an occasional curator, and steadfast mentor. Cyrus's collaborative partner Weston is well verse in the art world too with master’s degrees from the University of California-Irvine, and the University of Edinburgh. She holds a BA from the University of North Texas, and completed the Whitney Museum of American Art’s Independent Study Program.

Cyrus and Weston were selected by a panel of City department,  community, and art world representatives was assembled by Houston Arts Alliance. Panelists included artist Leamon Green, curators Rebecca Matalon, Kanitra Fletcher, and Danielle Burns Wilson, and Director of Freedmen’s Town Conservancy Zion Escobar thoroughly combed over all the submissions before selecting the team of Cyrus and Weston.

The project is a collaboration of the City of Houston Mayor’s Office of Cultural Affairs' Civic Art Program and the Houston Public Library. In a press release from the city, it describes the commissioned artwork underway, Meditative Space in Reflection of the Life and Work of the late Barbara Jordan, is a dynamic, commemorative space wherein free-standing glass panels situated within a tranquil structure function as vehicles to represent, through an intricate photographic and text-based collage of materials, the life and work of Barbara C. Jordan. Transforming the lawn to the right of the Gregory School Library’s entrance, the Meditative Space invites visitors to enter a place of reflection to consider Jordan’s dedication to public service, racial justice, and the fulfillment of American ideals. The footprint of the commission is informed by the Adinkra symbol sepow, which represents justice and authority.

All aspects of Jordan on the personal and professional level are captured.

“This commission marks a pivotal moment in the timeline of our Civic Art Program. This is but the second public artwork honoring a woman to be featured in our Civic Art Collection – and the first honoring an African American woman – a leader of people whose influence crossed racial barriers and whose voice is very much relevant today,” said Necole Irvin, Director of the Mayor’s Office of Cultural Affairs. “Commissioned at the special request of our Mayor, this artwork firmly demonstrates the City’s commitment to broadening those perspectives represented by the artworks in our collection and our commitment to recognizing the diversity of heroes Houston enjoys.”

“The Houston Public Library is pleased through our partnership with MOCA to elevate civic art in the city in such a powerful way through this commission of the iconic Barbara Jordan. This project underscores The African American Library at the Gregory School’s founding charge to preserve, promote and celebrate the rich history and culture of African Americans in Houston and we are honored to host this dynamic work of art for the community to enjoy and experience.” stated Dr. Rhea Brown Lawson, Director of the Houston Public Library.

Jordan made her debut into Houston in 1936. She was educated at Texas Southern University and Boston University. Before beginning her career in politics, she taught at Tuskegee Institute and then opened a law practice in Houston. In 1966, she became Texas' first African-American senator since 1883. In 1972, Jordan was elected to the United States House of Representatives from Texas’s Eighteenth Congressional District, serving as the district’s first representative. She was also the first African American woman from the South to serve in Congress. She is the first woman and first African-American to give the keynote speech at the Democratic National Convention. The Presidential Medal of Freedom winner died in 1996.

To learn more about the City’s cultural programs visit  www.houstontx.gov/culturalaffairs and follow us on Facebook and Instagram @HoustonMOCA.