The future of a historic mural at George Washington High School sparked contention over its depiction of slavery and Native American genocide, which some argue is offensive and others consider important.
In 1936, Public Works of Art Project artist Victor Arnautoff painted a mural made up of 13 panels known as the “Life of Washington.” Two of the paintings depict George Washington’s involvement in slavery and the killing of Native Americans.
One of the paintings, known as “Mount Vernon,” portrays the enslavement of African-Americans forced into physical labor and depicts George Washington as a slave owner.
Another painting named “Westward Vision” shows George Washington holding a map and pointing in a direction to invade Native American land. The painting includes a dead body of an indigenous man and a broken tree limb that symbolizes broken treaties between settlers and Native Americans.
Arnautoff’s goal was to create murals that interpret “humanist themes” by presenting art that relates to issues of power and class.
Some local artists advocated relocating the murals because students should not be forced to look at upsetting images while attending school.
“[The mural] should be in a museum or a history book. Not on a wall of a high school where they are trying to figure out who they want to become and [how to] get inspired every day,” Bay Area artist Nick Wummel said.
He said school is meant to be a safe space where students can develop their minds instead of being hindered by the past.
“[The point of school] is to spark kids imaginations, their creativity and their drive, yet [they] are showing them a picture of slaves—African and Native Americans who were wiped out,” Wummel said. “It doesn’t belong in a high school. There [are] a thousand different things that could have been conceptualized into an appealing mural.”
San Francisco Unified School District composed a “Reflection and Action Working Group” in 2018, consisting of students, school district representatives, local Native Americans, artists and historians, in an effort to determine the future of the murals, according to the SFUSD spokesperson Laura Dudnick.
Dudnick said SFUSD held four public meetings between December 2018 and February where the group evaluated the paintings and considered future alternatives.
The meetings concluded that a vast number of people were not in favor of keeping a mural that resembles a harsh history and voted against it.
“At [the meeting’s] conclusion, the group voted and the majority recommended that the “Life of Washington” mural be archived and removed because the mural does not represent SFUSD values,” Dudnick said.
She added that the main reason some argued to keep the mural is centered around maintaining the “legacy of the artist.”
Arnautoff was a left-wing artist who painted murals to provoke thought and to challenge the naked eye. He used his art as a platform to promote unpopular themes and as a way for others to connect with the harsh, deep-rooted history on which America was founded.
In 1933, the New Deal provided federal funds for public art. PWAP allocated Arnautoff and 24 other artists to create a mural on Coit Tower that represented the city during its economic crisis. He is also known for painting a large mural at the Protestant Chapel that depicts the catastrophic activities that occured where the Army and the Civilian Conservation Corps were stationed.
Some students from George Washington High School disagreed with the calls to remove the mural and said it is an uncensored representation of history.
“It’s not really racist,” 17-year-old Amvinder Chauhan said. “It’s showing the actual history of George Washington when he first came here and colonized America—the Native Americans were getting killed so that we had more lands and he did have slaves on his farm.”
Fellow student Pavel Preyomyshev, 16, said the controversy is linked to the naive mythology of who Washington was when the mural was painted.
“One of the main reasons why it is controversial is because back in the [1930s] when it was painted, George Washington was the saint of the people,” he said. “I’ve talked to a bunch of students here and I honestly think that they agree it is the true depiction of history and that we all have to know who George Washington really was.”