Calling forth powerful images highlighting the struggle against racial and police violence toward people of color in America today, “No Weapon Against Thee Shall Prosper” is a mural with many functions. The mural, which will feature on the front lawn of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston when it opens Sept. 26, serves as an introduction and conversation starter for museum visitors — on the issue of police brutality and racism in America, but also what role the arts and museums specifically play in reflecting communities of color.
Sophia Dawson, one of the collaborating artists behind "No Weapon Formed Against Thee Shall Prosper," hopes the mural will also be an invitation to previously marginalized communities of color to feel welcome at institutions like the MFA. Dawson's art has a history of highlighting subjects like the mothers of people killed by police violence and racism or political prisoners. Her work is meant to present harsh truths that demand confrontation, and her depiction of George Floyd’s mother cradling her young son is no different.
“It’s a good starting point,” Dawson said of the installation that features portraits of Floyd, Martin Luther King Jr., and others. “It’s opening up a conversation, but not from a ‘I want you to make this better’ standpoint. It’s taking a stance. It’s time to stop asking and start declaring.”
"No Weapon Formed Against Thee Shall Prosper," named after a bible verse (Isaiah 54:17), was initially born in June via Murals for the Movement, a venture started by Liza Quiñonez of Street Theory. According to Quiñonez, it was born out of a desire to rebuild community while providing a lifeline for struggling artists, who were out of work due to quarantine in New York and Boston. One of the first projects funded, “No Weapon Formed Against Thee Shall Prosper” debuted at Ideal Glass Studios in New York City over the summer. A collaborative piece between artists Victor "Marka27" Quiñonez, Dawson, and legendary designer Cey Adams, the trio worked on it together on the rooftop of Quiñonez’ studio. For each of the artists, Adams said, it was the first time that they’d interacted since the citywide lockdown.
Initially, the mural was only going to stay up for two months in New York, so Street Theory proposed moving the installation to the MFA and including Boston artists Rob “Problak” Gibbs and Rob Stull.
“We presented the proposal to Makeeba McCreary, chief of learning and community engagement at the MFA, and we were extremely excited and humbled once our proposal was accepted,” Quiñonez said.
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It’s been a little more than a year since the MFA was rocked by charges of racist profiling and patrons using racist slurs against visiting students and since then, the museum has implemented several changes including the hiring of a director of inclusion.
According to McCreary, featuring "No Weapon Formed Against Thee Shall Prosper" on the museum’s front lawn provides an opportunity to reflect on the current cultural climate while celebrating the reopening of a Boston landmark.
"'No Weapon Formed Against Thee Shall Prosper' gives us the opportunity to reopen with a statement that says we, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, are willing and committed to remaining present and open to today’s critical conversations. It makes me so proud to be a part of this institution at a time when we easily could have just hung our ‘welcome’ banners and stayed in a celebratory moment,” McCreary said in a statement. “The artists involved in the project lend critical voices that will contribute to the future of our institutional strength.”
For Quiñonez and crew, the mural and others like it have been a cornerstone in the struggle against racial inequality for years. So, the fact that their mural would be featured on the front door step to one of the most-respected institutions in Boston isn’t lost.
“In many of these cities our murals have served as backdrops during massive protests as reminders of the beauty, hope and justice that we are all striving for,” Victor Quiñonez said. “It’s no secret that in the past the MFA has had issues when dealing with Black and POC audiences. The MFA and many other institutions are working hard to reflect and correct [their] approach towards community engagement. This is not an easy task and there is much more to overcome but the recent collaboration with Rob Stull and Problak was a step in the right direction.”
For Adams, a graffiti pioneer and hip-hop design legend for artists like the Beastie Boys, Public Enemy and the Notorious B.I.G., the inclusion of the mural in such a prominent place at the MFA indicates that cultural institutions are opening up a dialogue.
“I’ve been protesting my whole life and I’ve had to deal with a lot of the things that a lot of people are just now finally confronting; people dying at the hands of racial violence,” Adams said. “Being an artist I’ve never really found a way to work that narrative into my artwork until right now. But, it all comes together, the graffiti as a teenager, working with Public Enemy on their pro-Black message, and my work as a designer.”
For "No Weapon Formed Against Thee Shall Prosper," Adams returned to a previous work completed for the National Museum of African American History in 2016. For that museum’s opening, Adams created a black American flag, taking the focus off of the red, white and blue, stripping it down to put the focus on civil rights leaders and cultural pioneers from the Black community.
“This mural is important because it’s not just about showing the work, it’s about making sure the stories of the people making it are told as well. Coming together with Victor, Sophia, Problak and Rob was so natural and it just made perfect sense to work on something we all understand individually,” Adams said. “In the same way young people are out protesting, we’re all joining to take a stand."