CultureHouse Harvard is home to a new piece of public art, created by Cambridge-based artist Valerie Imparato and funded by Cambridge Arts. We asked Valerie about her inspirations, her artistic process, and her hopes for her newest mural.
A lot of your artwork, including this mural, features women of color. Tell us a little bit about the goals of your work in general, and how this mural contributes to them.
As a Black woman, I have grown up in a world in which there aren’t enough Black women presented as beautiful. Black women are somehow simultaneously de-feminized and sexualized. We’re always considered too loud or too angry; too strong or too much. But that’s not what I see when I look at Black women. I want to paint the Black women that I see: joyful, colorful, nurturers, lovers. I paint what I see when I look at myself or when I look at my mother. Black women have always fought for everyone else when no one fights for us. So, I make art for us. I make art about us.
Tell us about your choice of colors for this mural.
I wanted to use really bright colors because I wanted the mural to stand out and be easy to see from far away. Harvard Square gets so much traction. So many tourists come here from all over the world. I wanted the mural to be something that is hard to ignore, and I want people to associate the faces of black women with these bright colors — these happy colors — and feel joy. I hope that little girls walk by and see the big lips and round noses and see themselves.
Some of the women that you portray in your other artwork also have skin that is composed of blues and greens, seemingly resembling the Earth’s surface. Talk a little bit about this motif in your artwork.
I rarely paint Black people brown. If you look at my work, they are either painted with colors like blue or green, or they’re painted in gray scale (even when the background is in color). I’m not sure where or why that started. I think part of it is me asking myself what it means to be Black. When people think of Black women, they think of dark skin and kinky hair; most of my women are visibly black without those things (many of them are hairless). I didn’t notice the parallel to earth colors until you mentioned it, but it’s an interesting thought. If there were a real “Mother Earth” she would 100% be Black.
Tell us a little about the expressions on the faces and their gazes.
I wanted these women to look at peace. Gentle but determined. The blue and orange women look beyond, while the pink one is looking right at you. I wanted it to feel like these women are just there, existing, and the viewer has walked in on them and gets caught by the pink lady.
What does this mural mean to you, especially in light of the death of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement?
I feel like we’re finally in a moment of reckoning in this country. Black people have been asserting our rights for a very long time, and it feels like more people are finally starting to listen. Painting this mural, at this time, was an act of protest. The fact that now when people walk into Harvard Square they have three huge images of Black women staring at them, I hope that makes us harder to ignore. To me, this mural is a further declaration that we’re here, and we’re here to stay.
What are your thoughts on public murals and their impact on communities?
I think there are two things that make it so that public murals have a large impact on communities: scale, and access. Unlike many other forms of art, you don’t have to go find a mural. A mural isn’t for a specific museum audience. A mural is a part of a community as it lives with the community and in the community.
What do you hope that passersby in Harvard Square think and feel when they see your mural?
I hope that the mural makes people happy. I hope it catches the eye of little kids, little black kids in particular, and that they see themselves. I hope that it makes Black people feel seen, and helps non-Black people see us.
Valerie Prosper Imparato is originally from Haiti, but has lived all over the world — from Maryland to Johannesburg, Madrid to Nairobi. Valerie’s work tackles issues of faith, race, immigration, feminism, family, and community. She has most recently been focusing on public art projects depicting community and connection, as well as a collection of work about family and motherhood. See more of her work at www.valeriepimparato.com.
This project was funded by Cambridge Arts. Cambridge Arts was established in 1974 as a public nonprofit agency to fund, promote, and present high-quality and community-based arts programming in Cambridge, MA. Learn more about Cambridge Arts at www.cambridgema.gov/arts.
CultureHouse is a nonprofit that improves livability in local communities by transforming unused spaces into vibrant social infrastructure. Learn more at culturehouse.cc.