Artist Displays Final Mural in ‘Homecoming: Hill District, USA’
A multimedia artist is telling the stories of Hill District residents past and present through a new mural commissioned by local groups.
Three years in the making, Njaimeh Njie has installed the final mural of her public artwork project on the front steps of a Hill District landmark.
Njie, a multimedia producer, was commissioned by the Temporary Public Art and Placemaking Initiative of Neighborhood Allies and Office of Public Art to complete “Homecoming: Hill District, USA,” and the final piece has been installed on the front steps of the Kaufmann Center. The mural features six individuals who reside or have resided in the Hill District.
The individuals pictured are Clarence Battle, director of Ammon Recreation Center; Dorothea Lee Parker, who was Allegheny County’s first black female deputy sheriff; Arthur Giles and Juanita Flannigan, son and mother; Tamanika Howze, community activist; steelworker Louis C. Coles; and an intentionally unidentified young woman.
Nije spent a year searching through images and interviews from both public archives and her own. Nije specifically searched for individuals who would visually fit together but be diverse enough to allow a variety of stories to be told.
“I had to dig into images I had collected, either those that had been donated or those I took on the Hill, and kind of looking at the scale that would work, what individuals would all look well together, and who the people were when thinking about their stories,” says Nije.
Looking at those selected for the final product, the individuals that Nije chose all have different backstories with one thing in common: the Hill District is home.
“I don’t actually know all of their stories, which is a part of why I was drawn to them. A few of the folks are longtime community activists and advocates and then a few of the folks I thought their images were important,” says Nije.
Nije wants people passing by the mural to see a piece of themselves within the artwork, whether it was a mother and child sitting together or a child carrying books.
“People who, even if you don’t know their stories, you can recognize something of yourself or your experience in them,” says Nije.
In black and white, the mural is placed on the rise of the steps making the best view from street level. Nije handled the design of the project by working with Photoshop to create a markup that was later sent to Printscape, a local printing company.
The company printed the images onto adhesive-backed vinyl paper, then they were pre-cut to the height of the rise of the steps to make for an easier installment. From there, it was “like pulling the back off of a sticker” and then placing it onto the riser to mimic Nije’s original markup.
“The reaction has been really, really warm,” says Nije. “It is a sigh of relief… Seeing people taking pictures of it and sharing it on social media and talking so warmly about the people they know in the installation and how much it means to them, it has been a really awesome experience.”
“Homecoming: Hill District, USA” has two parts, the first consisting of the mural and three other public art installations around the Hill District, and the second is a website made up of interview excerpts, vernacular photography and an interactive map of the Hill District.
“I wanted to tell people’s stories in a pretty artistic way… I tried to look into what everyday people would be experiencing,” says Nije.
Typically a project for Nije consists of interviews on the street, documentaries, video, and archives to find a story. Her work, like the mural, centers on “the black living experience,” specifically, looking at how African Americans have “historically navigated the city and how that has shaped the contemporary experiences.”