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Fists are raised. Masks are on. Defiance, hope and determination fill the faces — accompanied by notable touches of weariness.
With people of all ages and races arranged in a ring shape (aka a corona), the new photo-montage mural fronts the facade of the Municipal Services Building. Called “Crown,” the piece by artist Russell Craig is meant to be a testament to the Black Lives Matter movement and the added struggles of the pandemic, according to Mural Arts, which commissioned the project.
Set to be dedicated on Wednesday by Mayor Jim Kenney, the new artwork re-envisions “Liberty Leading the People,” Eugène Delacroix’s 1830 masterpiece that hangs in the Louvre.
At the very center of Philadelphia, the colorful, 5½-ft. window decal is very noticeable, despite being tucked beneath the overhang of MSB’s brutalist structure. After it caught their eye on Sunday afternoon, a group of passersby wandered closer for a deeper look.
“It’s really beautiful that they did that,” said Judy Lucien, a day-tripper from Long Island, N.Y., visiting Philly for the first time. “It has the names of all the people that died from police shootings — look, Breonna Taylor! I’m glad they put her up there.”
Since Lucien and her friends aren’t from Philadelphia, they weren’t aware that the space in front of the city government building was recently home to a different kind of iconography.
The bronze likeness of former Mayor Frank Rizzo presided over Thomas Paine Plaza until just a few months ago. The statue, for years a subject of debate because of Rizzo’s legacy of brutal policing and openly racist political tactics, was removed by Kenney in June after becoming the target of violent protests.
Even when the Rizzo statue was standing, MSB was often the site of art installations that spoke to social justice.
A 12-foot Afro hair pick called “All Power to All People” by artist Hank Willis Thomas was temporarily installed in the plaza in 2017. A set of giant posters by students at Northeast High School called “Immigrant Alphabet” covered the first-floor windows that same year. The building was most recently wrapped in a Mural Arts series called “Portraits of Justice,” depicting young folks caught in the criminal justice system.
Craig, the artist selected to create “Crown,” worked on the portrait project as one of Mural Arts’ Reimaging Reentry fellows and was himself one of those young folks caught in the system.
Jane Golden, Mural Arts founder and executive director, said she’d been talking to Craig about doing a new installation this fall. “But when the protests were at their height locally and nationally,” she said, “Philadelphia was challenged to think about our particular response to the times,” and the timeline was moved up.
She’s thrilled with the result by Craig, a Philly native currently living and working in Brooklyn.
“This is a mural of people, not talking or passively sitting by,” Golden said. “Instead it is snapshot in time when we asked each other to appeal to our better angels and fight for a more just and humane world.”
Eventually expanded to cover the east and west facades of MSB as well as the south, “Crown” is made of cling vinyl, according to Mural Arts, and will remain up for an unspecified amount of time.
An image placed at such a prominent location is powerful, noted Lucien, the visitor from New York, but not a solution in and of itself.
“It is nice, but we want our voices heard,” Lucien said Sunday afternoon, gazing up at the mural. “Stop killing Black people, stop using guns as first response — we need to do more.”