A WPA-era mural by Victor Arnautoff depicting slave ownership and Native American genocide is part of a new controversy at George Washington High School in San Francisco. (George Washington High School Alumni Association)
The San Francisco Board of Education voted Tuesday to paint over a mural series showing George Washington as a slave owner and promoter of the United States’ genocidal westward expansion, acknowledging decades of complaints about the depiction of a dead Native American and enslaved African Americans inside George Washington High School.
The unanimous vote instructed district staff to develop a plan to paint over all 13 panels of Victor Arnautoff's "Life of Washington" mural, which is expected to cost some $600,000 and take more than a year to implement. In the event of "undue delay," according to the amended motion by commissioner Mark Sanchez, the school board retains the option of covering the mural temporarily with paneling.
"This is reparations," Sanchez said, dismissing concerns about estimated costs.
It was a decisive moment in a protracted debate, one propelled by the nationwide referendum on public monuments to racism, that found the school board going above and beyond district staff's recommendation to obscure the mural with fabric or paneling, and instead heeding community members' demands to "paint it down."
Paloma Flores, program coordinator for the school district’s Indian Education Program, joined with local high school students, recent George Washington graduates and Native American parents to oppose the mural during public comment Tuesday. “It’s not a matter of offense, it’s a matter of the right to learn without a hostile environment,” Flores said. “Intent does not negate lived experience.”
The plan is still contingent on an environmental impact report, and appeals or legal challenges are expected: Lope Yap Jr., vice president of the high school’s alumni association and an outspoken mural supporter, said the group will sue to halt the mural destruction.
“We’ll use every tactic available,” Yap Jr. said, adding that there are “several grounds” for litigation.
Arnautoff, a Russian-born social realist, painted the 1,600 square-foot “Life of Washington” mural in 1936, showing the nation’s first president in various periods of his life. Two of the 13 panels are primarily at issue: One shows Washington among his slaves at Mount Vernon, while in another he directs white men with guns westward, over the body of an apparently slain Native American.
Asked if the board's decision would apply to all or only parts of the mural, district spokesperson Laura Dudnick on Tuesday said "the options to cover the mural are for the entire mural."
According to Arnautoff’s biographer Robert Cherny, the artist intended the mural as a “counter narrative,” or a corrective rebuke to the nation’s founding mythology. Supporters of the Works Progress Administration-funded frescoes cite the communist artist’s progressive motivations, decrying efforts to remove the artworks as censorship and a betrayal of history stemming from a lack of understanding and interpretative context.
“Political artworks like Arnautoff's must not be confused with historic monuments such as Confederate statues, which are intended to send a clear racist message,” reads a recent statement from the National Coalition Against Censorship, echoing sentiments from New Deal scholars and Russian American organizations as well as local arts figures polled by the San Francisco Chronicle.
However, critics of the artwork, a camp including many students and Native American parents, have recently, as well as in decades past, argued that the depictions of slain and enslaved people of color have no place in a school lobby. They believe the artist’s intentions are irrelevant in light of the harm to young people of color daily confronted by images of their ancestors debased.
“Kids don’t see these images as helpful or powerful, they see them as insulting and demeaning,” George Washington High School student Kai Anderson-Lawson, who is Native American, said at a June 18 school board meeting. The notion that young indigenous people are at risk of forgetting their own history, Anderson-Lawson added, is offensive: “Generational trauma follows us."
Barbara Mumby-Huerta, a San Francisco Arts Commission staffer who is Native American, pointed out at the same meeting that, for all the talk of historical accuracy, the mural actually shows ignorance of indigenous cultures. “To portray a Native person face down, dead, you are trapping their soul so that they can not move on,” she said.
(The San Francisco Arts Commission has not officially taken a position on the mural's removal.)
The demographics of the opposing camps seemed to influence the board’s decision to paint over the mural. School board member Gabriela López noted at the June 18 meeting that the mural supporters offering public comment skewed older and white, saying they generally weren’t “representative of the people affected.”
Although the controversy dates back to the 1960s, it escalated beginning in 2017 amid a nationwide referendum on public monuments, in particular Confederate statues, to racism and exploitation. That year a preservationist nonprofit recommended George Washington High School for landmark status, a process the school board scuttled out of reluctance to enshrine the mural.
For guidance, the district convened a Reflection and Action Group, which held four public meetings before approving, by a vote of 10-1, a recommendation this past February to paint over all thirteen panels of “Life of Washington.” The committee referenced Cherny’s interpretation of Arnautoff’s work when it wrote that the “impact of this mural is greater than what its intent ever was; it’s not counter narrative if it traumatizes students and community members.”
Yap Jr., the lone dissenting Reflection and Action Group member, said he's disappointed the school board declined to further consider the alumni association's proposal to provide more context for the mural, and accused his critics of incivility. "Anything less than whitewashing for the opposition would be a compromise," he said.
It is a long-simmering issue: In 1968, according to the landmark application, George Washington High School students voted 61 percent in favor of supplementing the mural with positive depictions of black people. Daryl Thomas, then president of the Washington Afro-American club, called for “recognition of the great contributions of black people to the sciences and history.”
The Afro-American Club proposed that Dewey Crumpler, a young black artist, paint what has come to be known as the “response” mural. Crumpler’s "Multi-Ethnic Heritage: Black, Asian, Native/Latin American" works, completed in 1974, show empowered people of color rendered in a fiery, sunburst palette near the Arnautoff mural.
But Crumpler, now a painting professor at the San Francisco Art Institute, has emerged a seemingly unlikely champion of the mural that prompted his own. He recently appeared in a video analyzing controversial imagery. “Without Arnautoff’s murals, my murals are irrelevant. And without my murals, Arnautoff’s murals are irrelevant,” he said. “They are one thing.”
Some of the same community members successfully campaigned for the removal last year of Civic Center Plaza statue "Early Days," which critics also called historically inaccurate and degrading to Native Americans.
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