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Arts & Culture

"I Am A Man" Mural in Dubuque

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Dubuque Museum of Art
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the artist's concept to recreate the 1968 photo on an empty building at Bluff and 8th streets in downtown Dubuque.

In these racially charged times, the Dubuque Museum of Art is hosting a temporary exhibition of a timely new mural downtown.

In partnership with Voices Productions and support by Trappist Caskets and Humanities Iowa, the museum is hosting Dana Harrison's “I Am A Man” mural at the corner of Bluff and 8th streets in downtown Dubuque. Two stories tall, it is being created on the west side of an empty building formerly used by radio station KDTH and is part of the museum campus. It will eventually be incorporated into an expansion of the museum.

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Credit Dubuque Museum of Art
the artist Asphate working on the mural.

The mural is inspired by a famous photo taken on April 8, 1968 by photojournalist Bob Adelman at the memorial march in Memphis, Tennessee for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. who had been assassinated just days before. Gary Stoppelman, Executive Director of the Dubuque art museum, says Dr. King was planning to lead the “I Am a Man” march in Memphis supporting a sanitation workers strike that had begun in February.

“On April 3, King delivers his ‘I've been to the mountaintop’ speech, which is a call for unity, a call for peace. And it's prophetic. He says the choice is between non-violence and non-existence, and the next day he was murdered.”

On April 8, the march originally in support of the sanitation workers, becomes the “I Am a Man” march, and a memorial for Dr. King with 42,000 people marching in total silence behind his widow Coretta Scott King.

“There are a lot of reasons we chose that individual photo -- specifically for its humanity, for its expression, its simple expression and its resonance. Its resonance today by focusing on one individual. There was some discussion between the artists and about what would work best, and they felt strongly that focusing on a moment in time where an individual felt it was important to hold a sign declaring his humanity was particularly resonant to this moment today and to the fact that this is cyclical and ongoing.”

“Our hope, of course, is that as this photo has inspired people to continue Dr. King's message forward, that our work will inspire people to do the same as well. We're just trying to continue the conversation.”

Dana Harrison is a native of Fort Dodge, Iowa who has created murals across the state, including Des Moines. Fellow Iowa graffiti writer Asphate will work with Harrison on this mural.

The intersection at Bluff and 8th is where the Dubuque Museum of Art was originally established in 1874, is now the home of the Telegraph Herald offices. Across the street, where today there is a parking lot, was once the African Methodist Episcopal Church.

In addition, “I Am A Man” is a fitting image for the museum campus that sits adjacent to Washington Square Park, a popular location, historically and today, where local citizens gather, march, and protest. Stoppelman says while the building remains, the mural is a reminder of struggles of the past and how far we have yet to go. Because it is temporary, the image calls on us to carry its message forward.

The museum hosted a free community conversation on April 11 between the artist and museum curator Stacy Gage Peterson, which was a learning experience for all.

“You can see the whole thing on our Facebook page. It was pretty extraordinary. I think it was extraordinary on a couple of levels. It was the first moment where we were able to gather as a community since I've been here, really since before I came here in the past year. That gave it some significance just to begin with - it was inspiration for the community to gather in a way we haven't in a long time.”

Stoppelman says the mural is an example of how the museum has worked the past year to engage the community in new ways, and it’s important that the mural – which may be up for two years – will be temporary, according to the artist.

“This work has to be temporary. There's something important about the fact that history continues to repeat itself and that nothing is fixed and permanent, and that we need to continue to learn and push ourselves forward, that requires this work to be temporary. So that was the artist himself speaking.”

Stoppleman thinks public art like this can bring people together and express common hopes and dreams.

“I hope, speaking for myself only, that it sparks conversation. It sparks conversation around what is the role of art in a civic dialogue? What is the role of a museum in civic dialogue at a very minimum, and that encourages us to think about, what does it mean when the past 50 years and many more, people have felt the need to literally hold a sign saying I'm a human.”

To learn more about the museum, visit https://dbqart.org/.