The Mural of the Story

Artist Creates Epic Homage on Asphalt to Cultural Matriarch

XOLA in Tribeca                             photos by Eric M. TownsendXOLA in Tribeca photos by Eric M. Townsend

Tribeca, which was put on the map by its allure for artists, has a new public art piece. “XOLA,” a gigantic street mural by artist Imani Shanklin Roberts, was painted last weekend over a 2,000 square-foot patch of Franklin Street that is closed to vehicular traffic, and formally unveiled on Wednesday. Ms. Shanklin-Roberts’s mural is a tribute to Esther Mahlangu, a South African artist whose striking, macro-scale paintings often invoke her Ndebele heritage.
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The mural was created through a partnership between South African Tourism (a travel promotion organization sponsored by that nation’s government), the City’s Department of Transportation, and Citi Bike (which has a bicycle-share dock near the painting).

Ms. Shanklin-Roberts

Ms. Shanklin-Roberts

Ms. Shanklin-Roberts is a 2014 graduate of New York’s Pratt Institute, has a history of honoring female artists. Two years ago, she helped to celebrate the anniversary of the release of the landmark debut album, “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill,” by creating a series of ten oil-on-canvas paintings, each inspired by lyrics from the highly praised recording.

“I build my art making process by allowing myself to view the world that I live in critically and as a malleable aesthetic experience,” she says, adding that she emphasizes, “an Afrocentric perspective on identity, world-views, morality and aesthetics.”
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About her newest piece, Ms. Shanklin-Roberts wrote on Instagram, “when beautiful people in one of Manhattan’s most expensive neighborhoods capture and appreciate your African x Feminine powered piece enough to track its progress from work & home windows — you have to remain affirmed that your purpose and language is powerful!”

The passage about tracking the work’s progress referred to a series of photos by area resident Eric Townsend, a photographer who lives in the Financial District, but whose office overlooks Franklin Street.

“What struck me as being the most interesting part of watching the mural creation was how many people took interest in it and the way they interact with it now that it’s complete,” Mr. Townsend reflects. “For instance, people tend to use the ‘cross walk’ design to walk on, and step only on the black parts of the mural, as to not tarnish the color or white sections.”

“Then, of course, there are people who are completely oblivious to its existence and walk right over it as though nothing is there,” he added. “It’s really interesting to simply sit and watch people on and around the piece.”

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