Since April’s uprising, Baltimore has not only been ground zero for social justice reform, but also has seen a groundswell of artistic response. Lately, there have been a growing amount of murals and artistic shows seeking to change the perception of the city.
Ernest Shaw Jr. is just one of the many artists that have contributed to the response spreading throughout Station North and Sandtown over the past couple of months. This is not the first time his artwork is being shown around the city, but his latest mural, which will be unveiled on the side of The Arch Social Club on Nov. 8, is a direct response to the events of April.
In an interview with The AFRO, Shaw described his creative process and ideas behind the mural.
“What I noticed is that the older people wanted some representation. The younger folks wanted something in some shape or form to express the temperament of the children of today,” he said “Then I wanted to put something in there to represent the future and what we should be moving towards.”
The huge mural depicts greats like Billie Holiday, The Met Theatre, an iconic Baltimore gathering place, Ta-Nehisi Coates, the author, with his son, alongside representations of Africa. The idea behind all of these idols together was simple; Shaw wanted to show greatness before, then and now.
From left to right on the mural, Shaw described the reasons behind the imagery.
“[At] The very beginning of it is a yellow silhouette of an African Mask, it is a profile of an African headdress. It’s Nemba, there are several different ways to spell it, it is a mask of the Baga people from coastal Guinea,” he said “It represents the essence of feminine energy and that is a very healing energy. People in [Penn North] and really throughout Baltimore need healing energy at this time.”
“I wanted a silhouette because not all African American people identify with Africa in that way. If it’s not something you are familiar with, you don’t see it. If it something that you are familiar with, you will know it immediately.”
The mural’s themes of the past, present and future are universal.
Shaw put an image of his daughter, Asya when she was 12 years old, in the mural. “Women have always been a part of the movement and at the head of them,” he said.
“In the background is the MET Theatre, which existed right there almost exactly on Penn North. That and Billie Holiday are a representation of the past.”
The last section of the mural features a young Ta-Nehisi Coates holding his son, which to Ernest represents the future of Black consciousness.
“I think Ta-Nehisi is a wonderful amalgamation of intelligence and consciousness.”
While the majority of the planning and execution of the mural is credited to Shaw, the street artist Nether and Shaw’s apprentice Erick Hendricks Jr also lent a hand. Nether is known throughout Baltimore for his large murals depicting people of color and their plight in today’s world. Both Nether and Shaw have worked together in the past on art projects around the city.
“Nether was a very instrumental assistant, [he] and I are co-curating a mural project in Sandtown-Winchester and we’ve been putting that together since the summer,” he said “The mural I painted for Penn and North is actually a part of Baltimore Office of Promotion and the Arts’ Art@Work that they started in the summer.”
Art@Work is a part of Baltimore Office for Promotion and The Arts and Jubilee Arts joint effort to employ 80 young people through Youthworks as apprentices under working artists to create murals in neighborhoods such as Sandtown-Winchester.
By day Shaw is a teacher at Coppin State University. Though he has not taught this semester, he usually teaches a “combined theatre and visual arts class.”
“Being a school teacher and an adjunct has allowed me to keep my nose to the ground,” he said “[I get to] stay in touch with what’s going on and not get lost in my own studio or my own work.”