Gresham Art: The faces of history
On a hot afternoon in July, an artist was painting an important pair of pupils belonging to a woman called "the first lady of civil rights" by the U.S. Congress.
Munta Eric Mpwo was hard at work in downtown Gresham creating the image of Rosa Parks' face — a woman who refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Alabama, bus to a white man. Parks would go on to back the bus boycotts and remain a strong supporter of the Black Power movement and push for equality.
Mpwo had already laid down a base of spray paint for Parks' face, and mocked out her shoulders and hair. The last piece was those eyes, which now look over Gresham as part of a mural celebrating Black leaders across multiple disciplines who inspire future generations.
"This is the biggest face mural I have ever done," Mpwo said. "I was nervous about how everything was going to be — afraid of not capturing it right. But after a few layers it started coming together."
The mural was commissioned by Tanesha Harris, owner and stylist at Hair Haven, 90 N.W. Second Avenue in downtown Gresham.
The mural is called "Hairitage" and will link famous Black leaders and activists through flowing hair. The piece will showcase what unites all the individuals while paying homage to the hair salon that commissioned the piece.
Alongside Parks, the mural will showcase police victims George Floyd and Breonna Taylor; abolitionist Harriet Tubman; civil rights leaders Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X; President Barack and First Lady Michelle Obama; Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gigi; rappers Tupac Shakur and The Notorious B.I.G; Trail Blazer stars Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum; and Madam C.J. Walker — who holds a special place in Harris' heart. Walker was a Black American entrepreneur and philanthropist who made her fortune developing a line of cosmetics and hair care products for Black women.
The mural will also include names with each of the portraits so viewers will know who they are looking at. It will stretch for almost a block along Second Avenue.
Capturing Black history
The new mural comes at a time when many across the nation and in Gresham are pushing for real changes in support of Black community members.
There are calls to stop systemic racism in the workplace, create more opportunities for Black youths, and enact reformation in law enforcement that will prevent people from being killed for allegedly trying to spend a counterfeit $20 bill, selling cigarettes on the street corner, or sleeping in their bed.
The new mural coincides with Gresham City leadership's vocal stand in solidarity with protestors and commitment to find ways to improve. Council voted 5-1 during a meeting Tuesday, July 21, to extend the flying of the Black Lives Matter flag at Gresham City Hall through the month of August.
All of this played a part in Harris' mind as she commissioned the mural.
"The mural ties together influential people that allowed people like me to own businesses," said Harris, who has been a Black business owner in downtown Gresham for seven years. "We have more to come, but have made good strides as a community."
Harris commissioned the piece as a replacement for a previous mural that was much smaller, showing her doing a customer's hair. But that art had started to fade, and the wood siding it was painted on was falling apart. So she brought in Mpwo to paint the new piece.
Mpwo is a Portland-based artist who moved to the United States from the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 1989. This is his first mural in Gresham. He has done a few regionally, including an Afro-version of Alice in Wonderland in St. Johns.
He fell in love with art while watching Saturday morning cartoons, inspired by the likes of Scooby-Doo, The Flintstones and X-Men: The Animated Series.
His mural should be completed sometime in August.
"I don't want people to forget where things started from," Mpwo said. "It took a lot of downfall for us to rise up, and we can't forget about our history."
Munta Eric Mpwo's unfolding mural can be seen outside
Hair Haven at 90 N.W. Second Ave.
Follow the work of artist Munta Eric Mpwo on Instagram @empwo.
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