UT Landmarks Reveals 4,000-Square-Foot Mural “Amistad América”

Facing a 28-by-5-foot blank canvas, José Parlá imagines he is 5 inches tall. Standing in his New York City studio, he is preparing for his most ambitious project to date: a 4,000-square-foot mural six times the model’s size. He adds layer after layer of paint to the surface, using silk-screens, brushes, and his hands, smearing strokes that resemble his palms and fingers. It’s as if he’s leaving pieces of himself on the canvas.

Installed at the entrance of the Robert B. Rowling Hall, the new graduate education building for the McCombs School of Business, Parlá revealed his enlarged and completed piece on Friday as the latest edition to UT’s Landmarks collection. The culmination of four years of work, “Amistad América” maps Austin’s migratory history and illustrates the city’s vast skies, bountiful nature, and pulsing urban core, according to Landmarks Director Andree Bober.

“Art has the power to be a tool for positive change and resistance against injustice in a world where no condition is permanent,” Parlá said in a statement. “In painting I seek abstraction and feeling as a form of communication to provoke open diplomatic conversation.”

The earthy browns and textures in “Amistad América” make it look as if it were excavated or unburied, inspired in part by the mural’s underground location. Parlá said this also produces anthropological effects, representative of the space’s past and how it came to be—what is remembered beneath layers of paint. In this piece, Parlá highlights the city’s history of migration and diversity, specifically the unity of African-American and Latino cultures portrayed in the piece by the three words, “King,” “Austin,” and “Guadalupe.”

“I wanted it to feel like there is not only a psychological history in the theme of the work but that there’s a history on the surface of the work,” Parlá said during a Q&A at the mural’s unveiling. “It tells you what happened like scars on our bodies.”

The piece is textured, layered, and dominated by light blues and greens, which replicate el cielo (the sky) y la tierra (the earth) of Austin. Despite “Amistad América’s” abstractness, its strokes have an obvious human presence behind them, as if painted by a giant. The painting’s size demanded more dexterity from Parlá than any of his past works. Using a genie lift to move around the painting, he controlled its direction with one hand while holding a paintbrush in the other.

The movement in these lines resembles the style of calligraphy and graffiti Parlá began his artistic career writing. “King,” “Austin,” and “Guadalupe,” exist in the coded language Parlá grew up tagging with his childhood friends. Born to Cuban immigrants, Parlá lived part of his childhood in Puerto Rico and later moved to Miami. As a respite from the racial tension and gang violence in his high school, he clung to art.

“You have to do it quickly, in the dark usually, sometimes in fear of police or other writers stealing your spot—I brought all that with me to the studio, the performance aspect,” Parlá said. “In some ways, I’ve been preparing for this work my entire life.”

Photos courtesy of UT Landmarks.


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