SIUE Alum Paints Missouri’s Largest African American History Mural
It was through exhaustive research, painstaking attention to detail, passionate ambition and skilled craftsmanship that Southern Illinois University Edwardsville alum Gonzalo “Gonz” Jose Jove painted Missouri’s largest African American history mural.
Jove, who received a bachelor’s in sculpture from SIUE in 1979, spent the last 2-½ years creating the artwork that is 95 feet long, five feet high and graces the entryway of Better Family Life (BFL) Community Center, 5415 Page Blvd. in St. Louis. It was unveiled to the public on October 21.
The mural starts with the face of an African child rising out of the universe and scenes of African life, and ends with the universe looking down at a futuristic thriving African American community in north St. Louis.
In between, the pictorial documentary shows poignant periods of black history such as the Middle Passage, abolitionism and the Underground Railroad, emancipation, East St. Louis race riots, the civil rights era, and the Michael Brown shooting and Ferguson unrest.
The mural also spotlights great black figures such as Nat Turner, Frederick Douglass, Madame C.J. Walker, Ida B. Wells, Muhammad Ali and President Barack Obama.
“I felt empowered to do this mural on African American history. I was also humbled,” said the Bolivian born artist from La Paz. “Many people have asked why I was selected, because I’m not black. But I’m human. We’re all the same.”
Jove said he and his artist son, Alex, spent six months researching black history before doing any artistic work. Alex also helped paint some of the mural.
“In Western Africa, they had running water 200 years before the Romans,” he said. “There was so much richness and knowledge to grasp as it relates to African and African American history, and I immersed myself in it.”
When researching black history and creating the piece, Jove recalled his experiences with injustices and discrimination, both in his native country and in the U.S.
“In Bolivia, 10 percent of the people were of European descent. There are some parallels to Bolivia and the U.S. In Bolivia, the 10 percent dominated the indigenous people for more than 500 years,” Jove said. “At times, the indigenous people couldn’t walk on the same sidewalk as the Europeans.”
Jove’s family initially came to the U.S. in 1966. Later, Jove found himself attending a basically all-white high school in St. Louis. There were only one or two Latinos and one or two African Americans who attended the school. “I got picked on, and I started looking to my drawing and painting to express myself,” said Jove.
Jove was commissioned to paint several murals for Bolivia. One depicted social relevance, one was historic and the other was about justice. His other St. Louis works include a project for the St. Louis Art Museum in 2013. Renee Franklin, a representative with the Regional Arts Commission and the St. Louis Arts Museum, referred Jove to the Better Family Life Youth Program. The program was looking for an artist to work with youth after school and was inspired after viewing Jove’s portfolio.
“DeBorah Ahmed (director of the BFL Cultural, Educational and Business Center) said she had been looking for a muralist for the longest time,” Jove said. “When she saw my work, she said I was the one who had to do the mural.”
“I prefer doing murals, because they tell a story,” he said. “I love to do research and learn more about humanity. I don’t understand, though, how there remains this inhumanity throughout history.”
When asked what were some of the hardest or more powerful parts of the process for him, the artist visibly choked and began to weep.
“There were parts of the mural that were extremely emotional. There were times when I was crying and painting at the same time,” Jove said. “Millions of people died crossing the Atlantic due to sickness and despair, and their bodies were thrown overboard. The horrific crossing trained the sharks to follow the slave ships, because they knew they were going to get food. That’s why I painted sharks in the water.”
However, the mural does end on a positive note.
“I believe in the positivity of humanity and the strength of community,” Jove said. “That’s why I believe that there can be revitalization and restructuring of north St. Louis that will renew the area. So, I painted a vibrant African American community.”
Gonzalo “Gonz” Jose Jove, an SIUE alum, has painted the largest African American history mural in Missouri.
Jove is seen in front of another piece of artwork he created at Better Family Life (BFL) Community Center in St. Louis.