Philadelphia’s newest mural by artist Amy Sherald is insta-iconic.
On June 20th, hundreds of people gathered in Midtown Village to witness the dedication of artist Amy Sherald’s massive six-story-tall mural portrait of Najee Spencer-Young, a local teen participant in Mural Arts Philadelphia’s Art Education program. Amy Sherald, who made headlines around the world in 2018 with her now-famous official portrait of former First Lady Michelle Obama, has continued the theme of her overall work by challenging ideas about identity and the public gaze.
“For years we have admired her painting; there is such strength in her composition, her color. And the way she captures a gaze,” remarked Jane Golden, Executive Director of Mural Arts Philadelphia (MAP). “Her exploration of identity is actually the perfect match for us at Mural Arts. Because our work is a rich visual testament to Philadelphia and its people: telling their stories; articulating the histories; shining a light on the struggles, triumphs, hopes, and dreams. Truly, the work in this city is the autobiography of the city of Philadelphia. When artists ask people what is important to them, and make inquiries to mine their experiences, we demonstrate — and Amy has done this brilliantly — our faith and the authenticity of their voice and our deep belief and their right to be seen and heard because that right belongs to everyone.”
Sherald’s project with MAP is a continuation of her socially committed creative initiatives. Including teaching art in prisons and art projects with teenagers, such as the subject of her latest work.
During the dedication Spencer-Young, 19, was confident and composed as she stood beneath the imposing 2,400-square foot portrait of herself. She says the mural has helped in her battle against bullying and low self-esteem.
“When I first saw this mural, I started crying,” the teen recalled. “Then I ran to Miss Amy and hugged her. I was like, ‘It’s really me. I know I look beautiful.'”
Sherald’s project with Mural Arts Philadelphia is a continuation of the work made in her studio practice that reflects her Black heritage with unexpected narratives that challenge race and representation.
Born in 1973 in Columbus, GA, Sherald documents contemporary African-American experience in the United States through arresting, otherworldly paintings. The individuals in her paintings expressiveness and the variations in their gestures, clothing, and emotional auras reinforce the complex multiplicities of African-American existence. The persistent sense of privacy and mystery maintained in Sherald’s work requires viewers to ponder the thoughts and dreams of those depicted.
“Because of Philadelphia’s cultural landscape, I think it’s important to also have that diversity represented within its visual history,” Sherald said. “My hope is that this mural inspires girls like Najee, and everyone who don’t get to see themselves represented in this way. Beautiful, empowered, and to realize that the most powerful thing that she can be is herself. Being seen accurately is imperative because we see the world and each other in pictures. And they become a part of our mind and our memory and can affect how we perceive each other.”
In a statement, Amy Sherald shared: “The idea was to capture a disadvantaged youth from the city of Philadelphia and make them larger than life. Many youths from disenfranchised neighborhoods do not get the opportunity to imagine themselves in ways that extend beyond their environment. This mural is for the community of Philadelphia. But it is also a signpost writ large for what is possible. A mirror and resting place for so many people that need to see a reflection of themselves that returns an affirmative gaze.”
Artist Amy Sherald’s 40-foot high mural portrait of Najee Spencer-Young is located on the side of the Target store at 1108 Sansom St. in Center City Philadelphia.