Bronzeville. Whaddya know about it? That it was Milwaukee's African-American cultural and artistic district during the first half of the 20th Century—a vibrant and happenin' area of the city where those of African descent, largely migrating from the South, could feel welcome and get busy building a life. That it was wrenched apart by the highway/freeway building craze of the 1950s. That it endured the harsh and violent backlash of systematic racism during the Civil Rights Era. That it was left to fend for itself and nearly crumble away—as many neighborhoods in many cities were—during the recession and stagflation of the 1970s, lasting well into the '80s. That it experienced the full force of continued systematic racism and economic depression, bolstered by draconian "tough on crime" and mean-spirited welfare "reform" legislation that punishes the most vulnerable among us, in the 1990s and stubbornly persists today.
Phew! So, yeah, it's been a long, hard haul for Bronzeville and the folks who call it home. Good work has been done and continues to be done by many, lest we forget, but no one would deny that if you cannot gain the attentions and pry open the wallets of the powerful and influential—no matter how vigorously you wave your arms and shout, "Over here!"—progress will be slow and sometimes painfully so.
Over the past few years, talk of the revitalization of Bronzeville has come to the fore. There have been proposals made by developers, public meetings held and discussions had on the Interwebs™, but hard evidence of movement has been a bit lacking.
Now, however, something exuding real beauty and strength is beginning to take shape in one of the district's city-owned vacant lots, right next to 628 West North Avenue: A public art sculpture by one of Miltown's most prolific artisans, Ras Ammar Nsoroma.
Entitled Mama Bronzeville, Nsoroma's piece was conceived and submitted for entry during the first Bronzeville Public Art Contest this past summer, winning the votes of a discerning panel of judges, including Rhonda Manuel, Department of City Development (DCD) Bronzeville District Manager; Jayme Montgomery Baker, Friends Of Bronzeville; Christopher McIntyre, Bronzeville Advisory Committee/local artist; Della Wells, local artist; Alderwoman Milele A. Coggs, 6th District/Bronzeville; and Tina Klose, DCD Community Outreach.
The competition was stiff, with the artsy likes of Reginald Baylor, Symphony Swan/Kierston Ghaznavi, Mikal Floyd-Pruitt, and Nsoroma all vying as finalists for the chance to make a solid artistic impact on a district so significant to the city's past yet so in need of a better present.
In recent communiques, Nsoroma described his winning bronze-colored, fiberglass sculpture in powerfully poetic terms:
"A woman of African descent seated on a West African stool, with arms raised in front and her hands above her head, clutching a bird with open wings. Clothed in a loose fitting white garment that contours her slightly pregnant belly. In her garment are etched symbols in a recurring pattern representing attributes of Bronzeville's past, some being its economic independence, vibrant nightlife, strong families and community.
The pregnant woman herself represents Bronzeville's past being the womb the gives birth to Milwaukee's present African American community, the matrix of its beginnings. To me it brings to mind the earliest mother and child figures that precede the christian Madonna, that of Auset & Heru or Isis & Horus. The bird signifies Bronzeville although being somewhat confined, still expressed its freedom. The West African stool calls to our foundation of African values."
Indeed, it would be difficult to imagine a more accurately metaphoric representation of the perseverance and tenacity of the neighborhood and its residents than that which combines a true reverence for history with an unwavering belief in hope for the future. The fact that the figure is a woman just adds an extra oomph!
While Mama Bronzeville will not be the first public artwork in the district made by an artist of African descent—many murals have been painted by African-Americans in the neighborhood, as Nsoroma fairly pointed out during our conversation—but the piece will be the first outdoor sculpture to be created by an African-American. When I asked him what that meant to him personally, his answer reflected the mixed feelings that honestly and often come with being The First in anything:
"Being the first of hopefully many to come, I'm honored but it also tells me that the piece must be flawless because of what it could represent for future commissions for people of color, and that's added pressure."
This pragmatism, however, did not and could stop Nsoroma's aspiration for the effect he would like his work to have on the neighborhood at large:
"I would like the piece to be an inspiration for the community, youth and elders. A place of contemplation and reflection, a mojo for the hood. A muse to incite future artists and acts of creation."
Translation: Aim high, kids, aim high!
In a nod to the virtue of unflagging persistence—to keep on keepin' on, no matter how much your waving arms hurt or how hoarse your voice becomes—this public artwork has been commissioned by the City of Milwaukee and, according to Rhonda Manuel, DCD Bronzeville District Manager, supported by City/Vacant Lot and Tax Incremental District (TID) funds. Well pour me a drink and call me tipsy 'cause I can hardly believe it! In addition, all copyrights will remain with the artist, to which we say, "Whoot and Hooray!"
Installation of Nsoroma's Mama Bronzeville began on September 12 in the vacant lot next to 628 West North Avenue, and the finished work will remain on display there for a minimum of 18 months. After that, the sculpture will be moved to another location yet to be determined within the Bronzeville district.
For those interested in knowing whether or not there will be more Bronzeville Public Art Contests in future, Rhonda Manuel says, "Yes, we are looking have more…" so let's all make sure that happens, 'kay? 'Kay.
(Thanks Ammar & Rhonda!)