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Fellows and Others
by Olivia Gude and Juan Juan Chávez, 1997

This 2500-square-foot mural for Fellowship House in Chicago literally and symbolically reshaped the urban environment in which it is located. We used a collage approach for the piece in order to fit the design onto the complicated, multi-windowed walls and to have the flexibility to deal with complex subject matter. The mural alternates photorealistic images of children, diagrams, text, children’s drawings, silhouettes, and comicbook-like imagery in its exploration of the creation of "fellows" and "others" in our culture. One of the interesting contradictions of the mural is its positive and playful visual ambiance, even as it deals with serious issues of prejudice and racism.

The project was sponsored by Fellowship House, a Chicago Youth Center and Chicago Public Art Group with support from Gallery 37, the Mayor’s Office of Employment and Training, the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs, Home Depot, and many area businesses.

In the mural tradition, there are many works about the bridging of differences; this work is about the creation of difference. We worked with adults, teens, and children in the community to explore how everyday language encourages people to create dichotomies between "those people" and "us." The mural’s hopeful message is that racism is socially constructed and thus can be undermined by withdrawing our human energies as far as possible from the social systems and discourses that create it.

The west end of the mural is dominated by a Culture Machine that is made up of objects that generate and disperse information (such as televisions, encyclopedias, and surveillance cameras) and fragments of the machinery of mass production. The Culture Machine produces blocks of racial stereotypes and stores them for future use in "appropriate" situations. The racial stereotype blocks show contrasting examples of how we are trained to constantly categorize people without really thinking. Examples included, "Those people are stinky; these people are clean. Those people drink too much; these people just drink socially."

The Stereotype Blocks are carried along a conveyor belt and inserted into a projection machine (a human head). Instead of seeing with its own eyes, the head merely projects the images it has been programmed with onto the outlines of people. The stereotypes predetermine if one is seen as a "friendly fellow" or a "threatening other."

The east side of the mural is dominated visually by a vertical column of smiling young women. Nearby a linear diagram of the girls’ forms substitutes generic letters for their individual faces. In another nearby chart, a numbered value scale of flesh tones reminds viewers of the social practice of racism in which people are labeled and described by their skin color. The two groupings of silhouettes in this area suggest the social categorization of people by hair type and the social problem of young men of color being persistently viewed and represented as potential dangers to the community.

A tall narrow wall perpendicular to the main face of the mural can be seen from Halsted Street, a full block away. It contains a vivid yellow diamond shaped sign of international style figures showing an immigrant family (man, pregnant woman, baby, child) crossing into the neighborhood. This sign is surrounded by many tiny figures with packs and suitcases, walking hither and fro, reminding us that Bridgeport has always been a neighborhood of immigrants and that these immigrants have often been labeled as "others."

Interspersed throughout the mural are texts drawn from discussions with community members and the youth artists. These include questions that encourage the viewer to interrogate his or her own perceptions. Mural texts include such sentences as: "I feel like an Other when I don’t have a say." "People treat you like an ‘other’ if you live in public housing." "At this young age, why would those negative feelings be there?" "ARE YOU THE FELLOW OR THE OTHER?"

Further to the east, perplexed one-eyed aliens view the puzzling behavior of two youthful earthlings. The boys, seen by the aliens as line drawings, are alternately confronting and ignoring each other. The aliens cannot understand the hostile behavior of creatures who are so similar to each other. We, however, also see the image of the boys painted in black and white and regrettably our cultural heritage has taught us to understand divisiveness based on color of skin or on allegiances represented by the color of one’s clothing.

Fellows & Others, acrylic paint on brick, by Olivia Gude and Juan Chávez, 1997
(click on image to see larger view)

Fellows & Others,
acrylic paint on brick, by Olivia Gude and Juan Chávez, 1997
(click on image to see larger view)
 
Fellows & Others, acrylic paint on brick,
by Olivia Gude and Juan Chávez, 1997
(click on image to see larger view)
Fellows & Others,
acrylic paint on brick, by Olivia Gude and Juan Chávez, 1997
(click on image to see larger view)
Fellows & Others, acrylic paint on brick, by Olivia Gude and Juan Chávez, 1997
(click on image to see larger view)
Fellows & Others, acrylic paint on brick, by Olivia Gude and Juan Chávez, 1997
(click on image to see larger view)