Melissa Aytenfisu Transformed the Midtown Houston
7/7/2022, 11:34 a.m.
Last month, local artist Melissa Aytenfisu transformed the Midtown Houston letters with artwork that tells the story of Houston’s Black history while honoring the Third, Fourth and Fifth Wards. The captivating art installation is a celebration of life and liberty and will be on display until July 15.
Midtown, which is the neighbor of Freedmen’s Town, and the First, Third, Fourth and Fifth Wards of Houston commissioned the artist to create a piece that speaks to the rich cultural communities in the city and the people who made them possible.
By Melissa Aytenfisu
My design speaks to the past, present and future importance of Juneteenth Day in Houston. It recognizes that Texas was the cradle of Juneteenth celebrations and, for 156 years, Houstonians have kept history alive, celebrated freedom and promoted a National Independence Day. My creation profiles events that colored Houston’s juneteenth history, and evokes respect and admiration for those who built the community and united in the continuing struggle for freedom and justice.Central to my design are the rays of sunlight which stream outwards, symbolizing the overarching hope for prosperity and peace which have galvanized African Americans in Houston since the freedom proclamation of 1865. Vivid reds, yellow and green hark back to Africa, where they represent common
blood, resistance to oppression, wealth and nature. Names of prominent activists, politicians, writers, are emblazoned on bold backgrounds, and viewers are reminded of Martin Luther King’s powerful I Have a Dream speech, and Malcolm X’s message about the importance of African American education. Lest the viewer assume that Juneteenth Day speaks only of advancement and harmony, the design reveals that the post-1865 journey has been far from smooth. Embedded in the work are reminders of the
continuing fight against systemic racism, poverty and injustice. Contrasts between hope/despair and suffering/resilience are highlighted. The torch of liberty beckons brightly in the letter “M” but around it are shadowy images and superimposed prints which suggest the pain, uncertainty and impediments that are also part of the juneteenth experience. And, as much as red represents energy, and progress, it also symbolizes the fiery destruction of neighborhoods on the eve of Juneteenth events. Even the strands of
DNA which spiral around the letter “D” have contrasting meaning. On one level, they represent the connectedness of Houstonians, first with their African ancestors and later with fellow Americans. On another level, they speak to the violent, debilitating disruption of familial connections through slavery. The rows of “x” next to the DNA stand simultaneously for myriad unmarked graves, bodies piled in rows on transatlantic voyage and the erasure of personal slave identities. While tensions and suffering are indisputable motifs, the predominating, vibrant themes of hope, light and strength shine through in the design. Images of butterflies point to the positive metamorphoses which individuals and communities have undergone since the first Juneteenth. Other Juneteenth images,
created by fusing prints from found or repurposed items, suggest that there is beauty and value in people and objects previously cast aside as unworthy. Photos of historic shotgun houses are reminders of the vibrant, energetic culture which emerged in African American communities soon after the Juneteenth proclamation. Behind the worn facades are countless fascinating stories of the families who gave juneteenth its meaning.
Finally, in the images of roots and blooms, the design suggests that,, despite having been brought to America forcibly,the African American community has blossomed since Juneteenth, 1865. Hopefully, the viewer of this work will imbibe theJuneteenth spirit of vitality, goodwill and pride and choose to join in the celebrations.