A group of students, educators and artists is recommending a mural depicting scenes in the life of George Washington be removed from a San Francisco high school that bears his name because it doesn’t represent the school’s values.
The controversy over the New Deal-era mural, which depicts the nation’s first president standing over a dead Native American and also includes an image of an African American slave, has pitted those offended by the mural against preservationists who cite its historical importance. The school district will decide whether to keep the mural.
In December, the San Francisco Unified School District convened what it called a “Reflection and Action Group” to decide the fate of the “Life of Washington” mural at George Washington High School, according to school district spokeswoman Laura Dudnick.
The mural at the 2,000-student public school was commissioned by the Federal Art Project — a New Deal program to fund visual arts — and painted in 1936 by Victor Arnautoff, a native of Russia and protege of muralist Diego Rivera, who later became a professor at Stanford University.
Elements of Arnautoff’s 13-panel mural — including an image of Washington standing over a dead Native American as he points to a map with one hand and directs frontiersmen with the other — seem an indictment of U.S. imperialism and capitalism. Arnautoff, who became a member of the Communist Party in the 1930s and was interrogated by the House Un-American Activities Committee, returned to the Soviet Union before his death in 1979.
In February, after four public meetings, eight members of the 11-person Reflection and Action Group recommended the mural be “archived and removed because the mural does not represent SFUSD values,” Dudnick wrote in an email. “The majority of the group expressed that the main reason to keep the mural up at the school is focused on the legacy of the artist, rather than experience of the students.”
Last month, San Francisco Board of Education President Stevon Cook told KQED he supported the mural’s removal, but was more concerned about chronic absenteeism and teacher housing.
“Paintings on the wall isn’t, I don’t think, what we signed up to do when we joined the board of education,” he said. “Empowering students — making sure they feel represented and reflected in a positive way — that is the center of our work. If removing a painting will help us achieve that, then I’m all for that.”
Cook didn’t respond to The Washington Post’s request for comment on the mural.
Joely Proudfit, chairwoman of American Indian Studies department at California State University at San Marcos, who met with the Reflection and Action Group, said any historical value the mural has doesn’t justify its presence at a public high school. She said its image of a dead Native American contributed to a narrative of Natives as “dead and defeated,” and that those who sought to keep the mural at the school were putting “art over humanity.”
“If they think these murals are more important than our future . . . then those people need to have their own conversations with themselves,” she said, suggesting the work’s supporters should “raise the funds, remove the walls, replace the walls.”
Lope Yap Jr., vice president of the Washington High School Alumni Association and a member of the study group, disagreed with the board’s majority and said the mural should stay. He pointed out elements of the mural that criticized Manifest Destiny — the frontiersmen are painted a ghostly gray, for example — and compared the work to a memorial such as the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.
“The most incredible thing about these great-looking murals is that he was able to create these images really as an advocate for those who are oppressed or abused,” Yap said.
Susan Ives, spokeswoman for the Living New Deal, a nonprofit at the University of California at Berkeley dedicated to preserving New Deal public works, shared Yap’s view. She said it was a “misinterpretation” that the mural was racist and said it could be used as a teaching tool in the school’s curriculum.
“What people need to know is that this just isn’t a San Francisco school board decision,” she said. “This work belongs to everyone and we all have a stake in that.”
About 60 percent of George Washington High School’s population is of Asian descent, 18 percent is Latino and about 10 percent is white, while 0.2 percent is American Indian or Alaska Native, according to school district data.
Dudnick said the superintendent and staff would review the study group’s recommendation and make its own suggestion to the San Francisco Board of Education. The issue has yet to appear on the board’s agenda.