ARTS & CULTURE

The Folk Art Paintings Keeping Obama’s Legacy Alive In Urban Neighborhoods

Photographer Camilo José Vergara has documented murals celebrating the first black president in cities around the country.

01/10/2017 10:46 am ET
Camilo José Vergara
Mural depicting Obama and Martin Luther King Jr. by Lee "Bird" Walker, East 7 Mile Road at Hamburg Avenue, Detroit, 2015.

In black neighborhoods around the country, it’s easy to see what President Barack Obama means to residents: just look for the nearest mural, where he often appears, painted alongside figures such as Martin Luther King Jr. or Jesus.

Photographer Camilo José Vergara spent Obama’s two terms seeking out and documenting folk art paintings of the president in urban neighborhoods ― usually in areas that were poor, suffering from disinvestment and typically majority African-American. He found countless murals depicting Obama alongside civil rights icons, local heroes and other powerful figures. The art graces the sides of liquor stores, auto repair shops, barbershops, community centers, storefront churches and abandoned buildings.

Camilo José Vergara
Mural by Rahmaan, Kut-Zone Barbershop, 407 Kedzie Ave., Chicago, 2012.

To Vergara, the paintings show hope, patriotism and “the feeling that Obama is the product of the African-American experience and African-American history,” sentiments he said have endured over the years.

“There’s also a little bit of fear mixed with it. He’s out there, he’s vulnerable,” Vergara said, explaining that Obama is often painted alongside protective figures.  

Camilo José Vergara
Mural depicting Barack and Michelle Obama with eagle by Sam Phillips, Fair Party Store, 6541 Gratiot Ave., Detroit, 2013.

Vergara, a recipient of the National Humanities Medal and a MacArthur fellowship, has spent four decades taking photographs in neighborhoods grappling with decline. He’s returned to the same sites over and over to see how areas ― in cities including New York, Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles and Newark, New Jersey ― have changed.

Along the way, the Chilean-born photographer has paid particular attention to the local art that rarely makes it into museums. 

Camilo José Vergara
A woman with a statue of Obama in front of furniture store Le Moda, 81 Market Street, Newark, New Jersey, 2016.

Vergara has managed to track down the artists who painted some of the Obama murals, but other times their names aren’t known. Some pieces are painted over or demolished. Still, he sees himself as an “evangelist” for the work, documenting the individual pieces and showing their significance as part of the larger, ongoing collection. 

“You don’t think of all of the stuff that was ephemeral, that came out on the walls and then disappeared, but it’s testimony to the way people saw the world,” he said. “This stuff gets left out of the picture, and that’s what I’m proud of, calling attention to it over and over and over again.”

  • Camilo José Vergara
    253 West 125th Street, Harlem, New York City, 2009.
  • Camilo José Vergara
    Mural by Ron, Frank Tires #1, 4270 East 7 Mile Road, Detroit, 2009.
  • Camilo José Vergara
    Tabernacle of Deliverance for All People, Frederick Douglass Boulevard at West 154th Street, Harlem, New York City, 2009.
  • Camilo José Vergara
    Martin Luther King Jr., Obama and Malcolm X mural by Shyaan Khufu, Master Burger, 4423 S. Western Ave., Los Angeles, 2010.
  • Camilo José Vergara
    Mural by EVOL, 1124 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., Los Angeles, 2010.
  • Camilo José Vergara
    "Obama es el Presidente, Obama es para todos" by Chuy Vasquez, Louis Market, 42nd Place at South Vermont Avenue, Los Angeles, 2013.
  • Camilo José Vergara
    Mural by Bird at Gratiot Avenue, Detroit, 2010.
  • Camilo José Vergara
    Detail of mural by Wardell McClain and sponsored by Sims Barbershop, Champlain Avenue at 47th Street, Chicago, 2016.
  • Camilo José Vergara
    "Obama, Man of Peace," The Avon School, Chadwick Avenue at Rose Terrace, Newark, New Jersey, 2014.
  • Camilo José Vergara
    Always Market, 3551 S. Western Ave., Los Angeles, 2012.
  • Camilo José Vergara
    Sims Barbershop, 47th Street at South Champlain Avenue, Chicago, 2012.
  • Camilo José Vergara
    PS 140, Eagle Avenue at East 163rd Street, South Bronx, New York City, 2013.
  • Camilo José Vergara
    Abandoned A and J Tires store, 9154 Livernois Ave., Detroit, 2014.
  • Camilo José Vergara
    Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X and Obama mural at Faith in Christ Ministries, 46th Street at South Western Avenue, Los Angeles, 2010.
  • Camilo José Vergara
    Ace's Place, 63rd Street at South Vernon Avenue, Chicago, 2014.
  • Camilo José Vergara
    Mural at West Montana Street and Woodward Avenue, Highland Park, Michigan, 2009. A local artist said the mural was about "three powerful men, three men that changed the world."

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