by Tim Gilmore, 12/30/2017
“I didn’t want to be in the mural,” says Connell Crooms. “I didn’t want the artist to do it. I didn’t want—I don’t believe in idol worship.”
But Guido Van Helten, the 29 year old Australian artist, told Connell how much it meant to hear him speak at a rally earlier in the day. Most of the talk of Connell, standing 150 feet tall on one cement silo, and Sara Mahmoud, standing back to back with him on the silo adjoining, concerns unity and solidarity, but Connell mentions the “power of irony.”
“That’s what convinced me to be part of it,” he says, remembering last December. “It’s ironic for an image of me, a deaf man, to give voice to people.”
Though his activism has brought attention to police violence, to unfair labor practices, to the unequal treatment of minority neighborhoods, it’s being deaf that he describes as his “natural environment,” and says, “Deaf people lack empowerment because we’re unseen. We’re unseen because we’re unheard.”
Van Helten’s mural makes the most famous deaf person in Jacksonville visible to the 51,000 drivers who cross the Hart Bridge daily.
Lafarge North America’s concrete cement silos have stood bleak and industrious along this arc of the St. Johns River, northward just east of downtown, called Commodore Point, since 1962. Its silos stand 37,000 tons of dry cement straight into the bleak December sky.
If these silos aren’t William Blake’s “dark satanic mills,” they do make vertical the industrial wasteland underneath where the largely black Victorian neighborhood of Fairfield once stood.
These and the next-door Lehigh Cement Company silos, which hold an additional 32,000 tons of cement, stand on ground first developed for the Commodore Point Terminal Company in 1915.
Van Helten turned these concrete ciphers into pillars of unity and community. The mural festival that brought him to town, ArtRepublic, alienated and angered much of the city’s art community, but Van Helten successfully soaked up the city and gave it back.
Historically, Jacksonville hasn’t told its story well. It chased the early motion picture industry out of town shortly after running James Weldon and J. Rosamond Johnson off. It forgot its great historic architect, Henry John Klutho, before he was even dead, left him bitter, and tore down his buildings. It’s barely acknowledged its poets, its artists, its thinkers. Even now, outsider art masterworks like the Jax-indigenous Whetstonian and Coquina Gates are on the verge of oblivion.
In his week in Jacksonville, Guido Van Helten looked into the marrow of the city and found his subject matter. Sara Mahmoud remembers the artist approaching her and her little sister as they marched back to Hemming Park after a post-election anti-Trump rally. Sara has helped found the Jacksonville Community Action Committee, the Jacksonville Police Accountability Council, and the Jacksonville Palestine Solidarity Network.
She feels humbled by the mural. “Palestinian women don’t get representation often, so knowing that people see the mural and recognize me as a local organizer who’s Palestinian and Arab gives me hope, especially in this time of rampant xenophobia.”
“Historically,” Sara says, “Palestinian intellectuals like Edward Said have said that a primary goal in the liberation of our land and people is education in Western nations due to the complacency there.”
Sara’s mentions of Edward Said, the Palestinian American writer and theorist, author of the groundbreaking 1978 cultural study Orientalism, reminds me, since we’re talking about 150 foot tall representations of Sara and Connell, of Connell’s “power of irony.”
It’s ironic because Said questioned the basis of any representation in the first place. He was one of the founders of postcolonial studies, but he also understood what poststructuralism offered.
“[T]he real issue,” he writes in Orientalism, “is whether indeed there can be a true representation of anything, or whether any and all representations, because they are representations, are embedded first in the language and then in the culture, institutions, and political ambience of the representer.”
Representations are misrepresentations. Formations of truth are deformations.
“What it means,” says Connell, “is that we the people get to select and create our own narrative. There’s not some essential narrative somebody else has for us. We get to decide.”
So there’s at least one more irony in the fact that concrete towers full of cement could embody messages so fluid, so volatile, so dynamic. These tall vaults of cement have become silos of hope and action.