The Potluck

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potluck-mural

Transcript under the cut.

1: Early morning.
2: A grisly crew gathers.

> Huh. When we’re in black and white, even I’ve forgotten what colour I was supposed to be.
> Now ain’t that interesting! I thought colours were the whole point of a diversity mural.
> Shouldn’t there be other cues though? Isn’t half of diversity an emphasis on culture?
> Sure! Sandra behind me is in the gele someone in her tribe might have worn. I’m not sure. She’s not entirely sure, either, but what counts for now is that she’s black and wearing something a black person would traditionally wear.

> And you’re wearing a serape …but you’re terribly white.
> I’m appreciating other cultures.
> The US has a weird obsession with proving how diverse we are! All! The! Time!
> Look at how many skin tones are represented here! And yet how little culture or heritage!
> We’re all part of the grand American tradition!
> What, homogenising culture into one unoffensive slurry?

> Yes, that. And garish ostentation, to the effect of hiding the unpleasant reality unde larger-than life uncanny valley.
> High saturation!
> High contrast!
> ULTRA LIFELIKE!
> Wait, what’s so unpleasant about reality?
> One-fifth of this neighbourhood lives in poverty.
> Well, as long as things stay pretty.
> Do you think we’re pretty?

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About Janice

Drop it like it's simultaneously hot and I tripped over the rug.
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One Response to The Potluck

  1. Janice says:

    “The Potluck” is a 22-foot by 100-foot acrylic-on-brick mural next to the rear entrance of the Harvest Co-operative Supermarket in the Area IV neighbourhood of Cambridge, Massachusetts (Fichter, CitySource). It depicts people with a diverse mix of ethnic backgrounds attending an imagined outdoor potluck and was commissioned in 1994 by the neighbourhood coalition to prevent graffiti and to celebrate the area’s ethnic diversity. Per city data, the neighbourhood in 2005 was comprised of 45.9% white, 35.4% black, 15.7% Hispanic origin, 8.2% Asian/Pacific Islander, 0.2% Native American, and 7.3% other. (CDD 2011).

    The largest faces are around thirteen feet tall, and people of all ages and backgrounds are gathered around the meal-laden table. Although the table is central on the wall, there are three other “focal” points where characters look out from the mural and directly engage the viewer by breaking the boundary between brick wall and real space. Two young girls carried by their parents look back over their shoulders and an older lady glances away from her conversation and plate to beam at the viewer. A pair of anonymous hands (that possibly belong to different people) break bread in the foreground to offer a piece to a woman reaching across the table. Van Dyke’s photograph of the mural was taken in the early morning, framing the sunlit wall with the empty parking lot and parking metres and the sky.

    Although street murals are no novel conception in highly-urbanised population centres where they provide free civic art and deter building defacement (WebUrbanist), the subject matter is usually chosen by the artists themselves, with an emphasis on personal style and aesthetic appeal. Explicitly commissioning artists to create diversity-focused murals seems to be an approach unique to the United States, a country that touts itself as being “built by immigrants” and as a “melting pot of diversity” (Gruesz, Taylor). Potluck certainly celebrates diversity, but only as far as skin tone is concerned. With the exception of two women in traditional African garb and the challah bread and Jollof rice on the table, the mural embodies the “melting pot” concept of America. The potluck’s larger-than-life attendees are attired in generic clothing with no nationalistic ties, except perhaps to department stores and an economy of mass production.
    I chose this image because I find it interesting that civic groups in the United States devote so much effort to grossly tout diversity, going so far as to paint it onto walls to daily remind people of the type of society they live in. By visually celebrating a community’s racial diversity, that superficial aspect is presented as the defining point of the neighbourhood rather than its growth, the achievements of its members, or its local culture. Instead of showcasing the artist’s original ideas or providing a canvas to fully express his style, this mural shows normal citizens sharing food and each other’s company. “America,” here, is an overblown racial smorgasbord, much like Gruesz’ suggestion that “America” was an ideal held in people’s minds before the country was even discovered (19).

    A land of equal opportunity and equal reception is a noble aspiration, but the saturated colours of the mural attempt to gloss over systematic inequalities. 22.6% of Area IV’s residents live below the poverty threshold, against the 13% of people in poverty nationwide (City of Cambridge). The function of the neighbourhood group that commissioned the mural is to “identify planning issues in the neighborhood and articulate recommendations to address those issues” (CCD), but they evidently believed that an unpainted wall served a greater threat to the heavily-populated neighbourhood’s cohesiveness than did other problems. I find “The Potluck” and its situation an indicator of some communities’ tendencies to superficially and temporarily enhance a situation rather than address underlying issues that may be more difficult to tackle and solve.

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