“Like bringing the galleries and museums to your neighborhood”: Three artists east of Anacostia River promote important messages in D.C.’s oldest neighborhood
By Cate Burgan and Ayah Mahana
Washington, D.C. became known as the “Chocolate City” because of The District’s large Black population, with it being recognized in 1957 as the first major U.S. city to be primarily made up of Black residents. Nearly 65 years later, Washingtonians in the still-majority Black historical neighborhood of Anacostia are trying to preserve the memory of Chocolate City.
Today, bright colors illuminate once blank, brick walls throughout Anacostia. As a form of upholding what has become one of the last standing bits of Chocolate City, young artists East of the Anacostia River are recreating The District’s iconic history through vibrant murals on display; depicting the people, places and events that are the heart of the neighborhood.
The Crown Act was painted on July 3, 2021 by Candice Taylor to celebrate the first state law being passed regarding discrimination against women of color’s hair. Photo by Cate Burgan
Three Black women sit behind an aerosol spray painted bright pink wall attached to Busboys and Poets that sits on downtown Anacostia’s main street –– Martin Luther King Jr Ave SE –– with crowns spray painted atop their heads, signifying the anniversary of The Crown Act. (A California law which prohibits discrimination based on hair style and hair texture).
Candice Taylor, a lifelong resident of Washington, became an artist to build stronger people, communities and culture through her work. She has two murals in Anacostia that promote positive messages centering around Black women.
The artist was greeted warmly as she approached her most recent and largest mural in Anacostia –– “The Crown Act” –– which is now coming up on its one year anniversary. Community members passing on the street called her by name, and made quick remarks about how grateful they were for her work and the message it depicted.
Candice Taylor poses in front of her mural commissioned by Anacostia BID. Photo by Jeremy “Mix-I-Am” Reaves for the Anacostia BID
Taylor said she believes Anacostia is the best place to showcase her pieces because it is a space that is familiar and feels like home. It’s in the city but at a community level, she said.
“It’s just been my honor to really get to work in thriving neighborhoods that I’ve lived in and grew up in and have had my life experiences in,” Taylor said.
Directly across the street from The Crown Act, Taylor painted “Onwards and Upwards We Go!” –– a mural commemorating the 100th anniversary of some women’s right to vote. Three generations of Black women are depicted in purple and gold hues, holding hands as they fight alongside others in the suffrage movement.
“Onward and Upward We Go!” is one of three installments commissioned by D.C.’s Mayor Bowser to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the women’s suffrage movement. Photo by Ayah Mahana
“Having art anywhere is important. In Anacostia, and really when you think about D.C.’s communities east of the [Anacostia] River, I just think it’s important because these are the generally marginalized communities,” Taylor said.
With just under 78,000 residents, the District’s Ward 8 has the highest concentration of Black Americans, 92%, compared to other wards in Washington. Anacostia is the oldest neighborhood in the ward.
Taylor believes that her art is “beautification” for the historic neighborhood, but her work brings more to the community members than just perfectly shaped faces and eye-catching pops of color.
“It brings something culturally,” she said. “It enhances the experience in the space . . . that helps in terms of thriving and in terms of just feeling proud of the space that you live in.”
But it also starts important conversations among the viewers.
Taylor mixes art and activism in her work, because from her perspective it offers more to Anacostia than just a bright and colorful slab of paint on the wall.
“If an artist chooses to engage with activism, I think that the relationship is beautiful. There’s tons of synergy,” she said. “My artwork is . . . a way to kind of promote [important] messages and elevate them.”
Another artist who is creating social commentary through transformative pieces in Anacostia is life-long Washingtonian: Aniekan Udofia.
Udofia poses in front of one of his many murals in Adams Morgan, D.C. Photo by Ayah Mahana
Just blocks away from Taylor’s work, Udofia painted the words “The Lion of Anacostia” in bold letters on yellow ribbon beside Fredrick Douglass’ portrait. The large-scale mural, “One People, One Community, Building Together,” was created as a tribute to the American abolitionist and his dedication to the community east of the Anacostia.
Udofia said he feels that one of the most important aspects of his art is the piece’s ability to reflect the neighborhood in which it is located.
In the middle of Udofia speaking about his art, he looked up to see a sign that read “We love Aniekan” in the window of a white townhouse. He stopped to wave to the residents who were praising the mural that resided right outside of their Washington home.
Fans praised Udofia for his work during the interview. They shouted thanks at him through the second story window and made hearts with their hands. Photo by Ayah Mahana
“I’m going to create the piece, and I’m going to leave, but these people have to live there and they have to see it every day,” he said. “And if it doesn’t resonate with them, then it’s just another pretty painting painted on a wall that nobody cares about.”
Udofia said he knew that he wanted to preserve the neighborhood’s rich history, so that’s why he made the decision to appoint Frederick Douglass as the focal point of his art. With Douglass’ former home –– Cedar Hill –– as a national historic site in Anacostia, the muralist felt that making the famous leader the center of his work in the neighborhood was fitting.
Udofia’s large-scale mural in Anacostia pays tribute to Frederick Douglass. He was commissioned by MuralsDC to paint the mural in 2011, but updated it in 2016. Photo by Emilee Kessler
“It was my idea to pull in Frederick Douglass because his house is literally right up the street on the next block … It helps preserve history,” he said.
Udofia is passionate about the importance of making art accessible. Noting that in areas such as Anacostia, the lack of art establishments as well as the residents’ availability to attend them hinders exposure to the work.
“It’s important to have art in communities, especially like communities like Anacostia,” he said.
“Not everybody can go to the galleries and museums. So this is more like bringing the galleries and museums to your neighborhood. It’s something to be proud of.”
Upon entering downtown Anacostia from across the Anacostia River, a 300 foot long mural with a baby blue background displays bolded, white and yellow words that read “We are Anacostia.” The other side says “We are the heart of DC.”
“We are Anacostia” is one of Luis Del Valle’s favorite pieces. It pays tribute to the community in Anacostia, and was commissioned by Anacostia BID. Photo by Emilee Kessler
“The people that surround Anacostia, my neighbors, and the people that I encounter every day are really the main inspiration for my artwork,” he said. “Most of my inspiration comes from the city, the concrete and the people that I meet.”
Del Valle’s love for Anacostia parallels his love for being an artist. He said that the culture the community has fosters everyone’s creativity. When he walks up and down the block, he can see “poets, artists, people that love theater.” Anacostia is a neighborhood that is full of artistic people that understand and help each other out, he said.
Del Valle poses in front of one of his many canvas pieces in the Anacostia Arts Center. Photo by Ayah Mahana
“We always have a very tight knit community,” the muralist said.
Del Valle said he doesn’t consider himself an activist. As a community member, he is affected by the same things that Anacostia residents experience and reflects in his art. He said that he loves when residents can feel equally connected with his work.
“When you have a stranger tell you that [your art is beautiful] and you get them to bring tears to their eyes, that’s really what matters the most,” he said. “When a child sees one of my big portraits up on the wall, and they can see themselves in it, that’s one of the most fulfilling things.”