By Thomas K. Pendergast
“Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present, controls the past.”
In 1949, when George Orwell published those words in his novel “1984,” the murals depicting the life of the first U.S. president at George Washington High School (GWHS) were already a decade old.
More than 80 years after artist Victor Arnautoff painted them, the murals now face destruction and are the focus of an intense debate about who gets to control the memory of the past and what that legacy will be in the future.
Arnautoff was a Russian immigrant and a communist, who would later move back to the Soviet Union in the 1960s. He died in 1979.
The murals are frescos painted when the school was built in the 1930s, during President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal-era, and funded through the federal Works Progress Administration (WPA), which created many public schools and libraries throughout San Francisco and the nation.
When Amy Anderson saw the murals, her focus was not on the artist or his politics; instead it was on the art itself, or more specifically, the portrayal of First Nation (Native American) people within the murals. She was on a tour of the high school with her son, who was in eighth grade and considering enrollment there, when she first came across the murals.
Her initial reaction was not good.
“It felt like it was making it look as though American Indians are these ‘exotic peoples’ and that’s a stereotype that is difficult for me to see on walls. So, even just that exotic stereotype was difficult, challenging, for me,” she said. “It made me feel very uncomfortable.”
Anderson said she is a registered member of the Ahkaamay Mowin tribe, although she said she also has Ojibwe Algonquin blood.
Then she saw the mural that shows a dead native warrior lying on the ground as pioneers and prospectors march past. Washington, off to the left, points in the direction that they are going.
“I just had a very visceral reaction,” Anderson said. “It just felt like, throughout my whole body, this is just not right to have up here. This is disrespectful to the deceased and this is telling the story of my people, being American Indian, saying that we’re all dead.”
Later, when her son decided to go to GWHS because of its music program, he complained to her that he had to lower his head in shame every time he walked past those murals, so Anderson went to the school district’s Indian Education Parent Advisory Committee and brought the subject of the murals to their attention. They in turn went to the SF Unified School District (SFUSD) Board of Education on Jan. 23, 2018, and asked them to take the murals down.
And they did not stop at the Washington murals.
Michelle Antone went before the board that day and asked them to include other murals as well.
“There are other murals there that are regarding other races,” Antone said. “It made us think what other murals are listed in our high schools or even buildings. We wanted to know and have an inventory, so we know what murals are in our schools and what we can do to take them out of our schools.”
Reflection and Action Working Group
The school board responded by setting up a 13-member Reflection and Action Working Group (RAWG), which held four meetings and eventually came back with a vote of 10 in favor of removing the murals, two abstaining and one against removing the murals.
That lone dissenting vote belonged to Lope Yap, Jr., vice president of the high school’s alumni association.
“This is no longer, for me, a political left versus right (issue),” Yap said. “This is more like right versus wrong. How far are you going to go with this? If you’re successful … are you going to change names of bridges, parks, libraries? Are you going to change the name of Washington State? Are you going to change the name of our nation’s capitol?”
According to the New York Times, of the 2,004 students at the school, most identify as Asian American, 89 identify as African American and four identify as First Nation. According to the district’s Indian Education program, as of last year there were approximately 250 students throughout the district who identify as First Nation.
But it’s not just that lone mural which has drawn criticism. Another shows Washington on his plantation with his slaves shucking corn and picking cotton in the fields.
Media reports say RAWG concluded in their report that the murals do not represent “SFUSD values” and that the depictions in the mural “glorifies slavery, genocide, colonization, manifest destiny, white supremacy, oppression.”
Artist’s Son Defends Artwork
Arnautoff’s son, Mike Arnautoff, who is now 95 years old and living in Ohio, says this is just simply not true. He also said he is a GWHS alumnus who graduated in 1942.
“I don’t think he glorified it,” he said. “He just wanted to show what he saw history as it was, not necessarily glorifying it, just putting down what he knew about it from his studies of Washington’s life. The injustices of African Americans and Indians are there because it was history.”
He said those seeking to destroy the murals are just trying to deny future generations a real idea of what the history was like.
“Except that maybe later in life, they learn about it and say ‘hey, I didn’t know that in high school,’” he said. “’They didn’t tell me about that. I never saw anything about that.’”
He said his father wanted to say to the viewer, “Look, look! He did more than just being the president.”
But Anderson thinks the murals’ time has passed.
“They’re art that has played out its story and a new story needs to be told,” Anderson said.
Gray Brechin is a project scholar of the Living New Deal at the University of California, Berkeley and was interviewed recently on KGO radio about the issue.
“It really is a question of what is to be remembered,” Brechin said. “Should we forget what happened to African Americans and to the California Indians?
“We’re really at a very dangerous moment because if a school board votes to destroy this provocative art, it opens the gateway so that no work of art that is provocative will be safe if it offends somebody or some group of people,” he said.
Paloma Flores is the director of the school district’s Indian Education program and a member of the Pit-River Nation. She supports the removal of the murals, particularly because they are in a high school.
“I hold our institutions of learning to a higher accountability because of their place in society,” Flores said. “(The murals create) an unsafe feeling for our students, both Native American and African American … children who walk through those halls, who deserve an education that is true. So I feel that we have a lot of work to do and a responsibility to this next generation.”
“Yes, art is always up for interpretation,” she said. “But art also has a responsibility to evoke conversation and tell the story, and not to do harm. Art is not supposed to harm children.”
And as for her, she said, “I am no longer accepting to be depicted as collateral damage at the feet of these glorious pioneers.”
But not all First Nation people agree.
Robert Tamaka Bailey is an Oklahoma Choctaw and he views Arnautoff’s murals as an historical record with a certain value.
“He was not glorifying anything,” Bailey said. “He was showing the bad side of George Washington that people were trying to hide.”
Bailey admits that his gut reaction to the murals is anger, however, not enough to destroy them because that would remove the knowledge of this history and leave opportunities for denial of that history in the future.
“Basically what it is, is trying to erase history; trying to say it never happened,” he said. “You take those out, you’re playing right into their hands because what proof are you going to have when they say ‘that never happened.?’ It’s a history-learning fact that you can’t erase.”
Yap thinks there is no better place for the murals than a high school because it “creates a teaching moment.” He also sees something more sinister in trying to remove them.
“In the ‘30s in Germany the Nazis decided to wipe out history. They did their book burnings,” Yap said. “This would be no different. Whether you burn books or whitewash paintings.”
Judging by the comments on social media, GWHS alumni are predominantly against removing the murals. Reactions on the school’s Facebook page for alumni on the mural controversy story were overwhelmingly opposed to what they see as censorship.
The alumni association (GWHSAA) sent out a mailer in March entitled “Enlighten or Erase?” urging action to save the murals.
“The GWHSAA contends that dialog and reconciliation about historical sins can be done in a sensitive manner with the murals in place and proposes several solutions to address the cultural concerns raised, including screens, interpretive panels and site-specific curricula.” The mailer is signed by John Rothmann, GWHSAA president.
The SFUSD’s Board of Education is now waiting for a report from the district’s superintendent exploring options and recommendations that is expected sometime this month or in June.