Displaying the Many Faces of Martin Luther King

Camilo José Vergara (Photo  by Robin Elisabeth Kilmer via Manhattan Times)

Camilo José Vergara (Photo by Robin Elisabeth Kilmer via Manhattan Times)

Photographer Camilo José Vergara has gone around the country with camera in hand, capturing the diverse images of Martin Luther King Jr. illustrated on murals across the states, as part of his efforts to document American cities. The Chilean immigrant, who received the National Medal of Arts and Humanities from President Obama in June, exhibited these photographs on August 21, one week before the 50th Anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington, reports Manhattan Times‘ Robin Elisabeth Kilmer. The show took place at 1900 Lexington Avenue in Harlem.

Vergara has discovered that murals of Martin Luther King reflect the people of the community in which they are found – whether the murals are merely artistic interpretations or the result of a particular ethnic influence. Each work, regardless of how different the works appear from one another, represents the civil rights leader’s appeal to each and every one of the seemingly different communities.

Most often King is surrounded by other historic Black figures, like Malcom X and Nelson Mandela. Sometimes he and President Obama stand side by side.

But his features become more malleable as they enter different communities, said Vergara, who swore that King looks almost Asian in a mural in a predominantly Asian community in Chicago. In another, he looks Toltec and is surrounded by La Virgen de Guadalupe and Emiliano Zapato; in yet another, he plays the guitar.

“Who ever heard of Martin Luther King playing the guitar?” mused Vergara.

This appropriation of the civil rights leader is what Vergara loves about the murals, and is, for him, an indication of the leader’s universal appeal as evidenced by the countless individuals throughout the country – and the world – who have adopted his physical resemblance and embraced his message.

“He’s every man.”

Vergara with artist Lance Bradley and the photograph of his mural in Harlem of Martin Luther King. (Photo by Robin Elisabeth Kilmer via Manhattan Times)

Vergara with artist Lance Bradley and the photograph of his mural in Harlem of Martin Luther King. (Photo by Robin Elisabeth Kilmer via Manhattan Times)

While the exhibit ran prior to the August 28 anniversary of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, the photographic showcase had another reason to take place on that date.

The exhibit was also part of Harlem Week. This year, the festival celebrates the 150th Anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, and the half-century that has passed since the March on Washington and the “I Have a Dream” speech.

One facet of the commemoration was to honor the historic events; another was to keep history ingrained in the collective memory. And King, in the likenesses displayed at the vacant storefront, continues to capture the public’s attention 50 years later.

The exhibit is over but you can view images of the murals on Vergara’s website, along with his many other photographs from across the country. Kilmer includes an excerpt from Vergara’s detailed mission statement, also found on his website.

 “For more than four decades I have devoted myself to photographing and documenting the poorest and most segregated communities in urban America. I feel that a people’s past, including their accomplishments, aspirations and failures, are reflected less in the faces of those who live in these neighborhoods than in the material, built environment in which they move and modify over time. Photography for me is a tool for continuously asking questions, for understanding the spirit of a place, and, as I have discovered over time, for loving and appreciating cities.”  – Camilo José Vergara

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