On paper, Bill Walker and Dapper Bruce Lafitte, the subjects of separate, free, and ongoing art exhibits, don’t have much in common. Walker, who died in 2011, was based in Chicago and known primarily for his murals, in particular the Wall of Respect, which Reader contributor Jeff Huebner called “one of the most significant, if unsung, artistic events of the turbulent 60s.” Lafitte, 46, lives in New Orleans, where he makes elaborate drawings with markers and ink. But despite their having worked in different time periods and locations, I was nevertheless struck by how much Walker’s pieces reminded me of Lafitte’s, and vice versa.
The most obvious similarity between Walker and Lafitte is that they’re both black male outsider artists. What’s far more interesting are the similarities between their aesthetics and creative decisions. Part of that is attributable to the medium: “Bill Walker: Urban Griot,” which runs at the Hyde Park Art Center through April, and “Dapper Bruce Lafitte: Kingpin of the Antpin,” which is on display at Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art through December 11, are focused almost exclusively on drawings. The artwork is equally vibrant and rich in detail; both Walker and Lafitte incorporate significant amounts of text in their pieces as well. Yet what stands out most of all are the ways in which Walker and Lafitte use anger as an artistic device, something that enriches and distinguishes their work.
Though larger and more wide-ranging in scale than “Kingpin of the Antpin,” “Urban Griot” concentrates on a specific time period in Walker’s life (1979-’85) and three series: “For Blacks Only,” “Reaganomics,” and “Red, White and Blue I Love You.” Some of Walker’s murals are represented at the start of the exhibit by photographs and explanatory text, but for the most part curator Juarez Hawkins favors drawings, paintings, and collages taken from the archives of the Chicago Public Art Group and private collections.
You can see glimpses of Walker’s murals in these works. In For Blacks Only 4 (1979), figures are rendered as all-black shadows: a man pointing his finger at a woman on a stoop, gentlemen in broad-brimmed hats walking into a shoeshine parlor, congregants filing into a church. It’s a busy scene, with the storefronts and people all packed in together, just as Walker’s murals tend to feature crowded, kinetic tableaus. It’s also one of the few primarily celebratory pieces in the show.
For the most part, “Urban Griot” is informed by raw indignation. Reaganomics 6 (1981) makes an explicit connection between the economic policies of the 40th president and white supremacy and racial violence: a giant Ku Klux Klan member personally lynches a black man, both of them facing a Nazi soldier who’s squeezing a sickly man wearing a crown with a Jewish star on it. Red, White and Blue 3 (1982) shows a pitch-black mother holding a pitch-black baby, both with narrowed eyes and downturned red mouths, standing in front of a sign that reads we no longer accept milk stamps; according to the program these figures represent the Madonna and child, perhaps symbolizing how America’s Christian ideals are at odds with its actions.
Where Walker’s anger is directed at the various aspects of 1980s capitalism, Lafitte’s is focused on a specific event: Hurricane Katrina. For T.D.B.C X Marks a Spot (all the work in “Kingpin of the Antpin” was created in 2017), Lafitte draws cars and boats floating on a brown surface, likely the dirty water that flooded the streets of New Orleans in the aftermath of the hurricane. Lafitte seems to make specific associations between the hurricane and its effects on New Orleans culture: in black marker he writes on the water “RIP good Shit,” “RIP justice,” and “RIP sanity.” Yet he also writes “make good art,” an indication that expression might be a way to overcome the harshness of the storm. Like Walker, Lafitte calls out political leaders—T.D.B.C. Presents Got Love From Ray Nagin features trees, draped in the wires of felled power lines, with text written on the leaves (“no love from gov blanco” on one, “no love from g. bush” on another).
As heartbreaking as these works may seem, they don’t register that way. In both Walker and Lafitte’s pieces, tragedy doesn’t have the effect of depressing the viewer. Yes, the pieces are often rendered in vibrant colors, but another thing that Walker and Lafitte’s work has in common is that they’re filled with people, a means of showing the humanity and liveliness at the core of urban communities, even those faced with injustice and loss. On the trunk of one of the trees in T.D.B.C. Presents Got Love From Ray Nagin, Lafitte writes, “I hope my art shows a good thing from Katrina.” These exhibitions demonstrate that viewing anger only as an emotion is misguided; anger is a necessity, and a powerful resource for artistic expression. v