Art that makes sense : Africatown Omotunde Mural by Jeki Esso

Art that makes sense : Africatown Omotunde Mural by Jeki Esso

This fresco is named OMOTUNDE. It is the sixth I have produced--there are three in France, indoors, and two in Benin, outdoors. To date, this is the largest one I have painted.  

You may wonder why a mural? It began with an idea from the Africatown Community Development Corporation (ACDC), located in Africatown, Plateau, Alabama.  They wanted images of Africa that would welcome people to Africatown.  The mural is the first thing people see as they turn onto the road that leads into the community.

As an artist, I believe murals take the place of speech and serve to visually challenge passers-by and provide them with information that they might not have ordinarily seek out; admit it, when we are driving or evening walk,most of us are caught up in our daily preoccupations. Art stops us! It demands that we pause, slow down our brain, and makes us think—what do those images mean, what do those symbols represent?

Omotunde is a Yoruba word that translates into “the child who returns home. In making this the name of the Africatown mural, I wanted to symbolically reconnect the people of Africatown with their African roots.  The symbols, words, and images that I have used in the Omotunde mural serve to reconnect and reunite Africatown and its people with Africa and her people.   

I am an African woman born in Cameroon and currently living in Benin. In addition to being an artist, author, and iillustrator, I am also a singer, and have traveled to Europe and also the United States, but never in a capacity where I could connect with the people—with Black people.

Over this last year, I have had the opportunity to observe and participate in the culture and history of Africatown. What I have learned is that our African American family came from several parts of the continent, though we do not know exactly where. Given the lack of specificity about the ancestral origins of most African Americans, I wanted to create art that would give words, images, and patterns and connect the African American diaspora with all of their possible African roots.

I envisioned this mural, as a journey through 35,000 years of African history. The images, symbols, colors, writings are intended to remind the people of Africatown and other Americans of African descent who their ancestors really were. I wanted them to SEE Africa, which for most are just images from books and movies, and take pride in the enormous impact that Africa and African descended people have had all over the planet.

 Most people don’t know that Africa contributed the first mathematical formulas, designed and built some of the most magnificent monumental structures, developed a powerful scientific spirituality that has resulted in the computer science that we use daily, had its own African philosophy before Plato and Aristotle, held an African vision of the world, and practiced African ways of life that promoted the sustainability of cultural transmission. I was confident that showing  strong symbols and mathematical equations in the mural, would be more telling than simply drawing the human forms. This mural is filled with the diversity of African cultures—for it is a continent, not a single nation, but many different countries and cultures.

The mural is also an expression of community participation. As I designed the images and painted them, I was accompanied by the expertise of a wonderful team of men, Africatown residents, women and youth, who were accustomed to doing community work. Their support of me and my work reflects the African proverb—it takes a village.

Most of the time, the process of designing and painting the mural moved smoothly and went like clockwork. Other times, there were a hiccups and few challenges. The major one was the weather! This was my first time in Mobile, and I did not know what to expect—it was the unpredictability of Mobile’s weather that gave me the hardest time. I have never watched the weather so much in my life! Sometimes, it was necessary to repack my art supplies quickly as gusts of wind and rain abruptly interrupted me. And then, the wetness was followed by a sudden furnace. Beyond the challenges that the Mobile weather presented, another difficulty was geography and the position of the wall on a sloping ground.

Despite these barriers, it was the support of the Africatown community with their helping hands and strong backs and their sincere investment in my being able to finish the mural that saved me precious time, found me the necessary art supplies, and motivated me to persevere through the discomfort of the wind, rain and the heat.

Right now, I can say gracefully, that I am proud to have had this very beautiful art adventure.  I am especially proud that I have contributed in my own way to the vast enterprise of rehabilitation and the rebirth of Africatown. My mural will welcome people to the emergence of the future Africatown and link the Africa past to the Africatown present and future.

I create Art that makes sense; it is a principle that I also have applied over the last few years in my other art form of music.  Just as I chose to weave history into the mural, I sing songs with historical themes in order to bring History to those who are not looking for it, but who will nevertheless retain aspect of it (a character, a date) as they recall the melody. Yes, we all need Art that makes sense!

©2023 Jeki Esso




See Video of Jeki painting the Omotunde Mural


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