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Controversy highlights who gets a voice on Pittsburgh's public art

Black man poses at a construction zone
Bill O'Driscoll
90.5 WESA
Homewood Community Sports president Mubarik Ismaeli stands at the Homewood Park construction site.

When public art is proposed in a community, who gets to decide what it looks like?

That’s one question at the heart of a recent controversy around a work proposed for Homewood Public Park by one of the city’s most prominent artists.

The park project is a big one: a $12 million overhaul of the five-acre site, which is home base for Homewood Community Sports, for decades a key neighborhood organization serving neighborhood youths with programs in football, cheerleading and more.

Homewood Community Sports was also the driving force behind renovating the park, a project that dates back nearly a decade. Construction is ongoing, but when complete the park will include a full-sized football field, a swimming pool, a playground and an amphitheater.

As part of the city’s Percent for Art program, four artists were chosen to create work for the site. All four presented their proposed pieces at the January meeting of the city’s Art and Civic Design Commission, held via online video.

Four Black people look up while resting their chins in their right hands in front of white symbols on a black background.
City of Pittsburgh
Mikael Owunna's photographic mural "Ancestral Echoes, Future Hopes" was at the center of controversy in the renovation of Homewood Park.

"Ancestral Echoes"

The public comment that followed the January meeting focused on one piece, a mural-style photographic banner by Black artist Mikael Owunna. Owunna’s distinctive works — he photographs Black people covered in luminescent body paint, so they glow like starry cosmos — have gained him international attention, and in Pittsburgh his large-scale works adorn the side of Heinz Hall and an outdoor plaza of The Andy Warhol Museum.

For Homewood Park, Owunna proposed a 36-foot-long banner to hang on the side of the site’s fieldhouse. Titled “Ancestral Echoes, Future Hopes,” it depicted four Black people painted in his signature style, each in a thoughtful pose, their cheeks resting on their right hands as they gaze skyward.

“The piece that I proposed is really meant to convey the narrative that, as we honor and draw strength from our ancestors, we look to the future with hope and aspirations,” Owunna told the commission.

But while most of the 10 commenters praised the quality of all the artists’ work, including Owunna’s, seven of the 10 said “Ancestral Echoes” was inappropriate for the site.

“This is a football field, and what we’re going for on a football field and what we want to give out and what we want to exude is the total kind of opposite of the energy that the picture has when you first look at it,” said Ayodeji Young, a Homewood Sports football coach.

Another Homewood Sports backer, Michelle Stewart, called the banner too “somber.”

A rendering of Homewood Park.
City of Pittsburgh
An artist's rendering of the renovated Homewood Park shows the proposed location of Owunna's mural.

“Our children are already somber,” she said. “They go to school, and they’re somber because they’re not getting quality education. Their parents are somber because they don’t have the resources they need.”

Another caller described the artwork as mood-lowering: “If that was outside of my place that I played football, it would definitely take me from a 10 to a 3.”

“It doesn’t represent what we want represented down here,” said Homewood Community Sports President Mubarik Ismaeli.

A few commenters said the piece would be appropriate “Downtown,” but not in Homewood.

By contrast, commenters welcomed artist Camerin “Camo” Nesbit’s proposed life-sized sculpture of a bulldog, in honor of the Homewood Community Sports mascot, the Bulldawg.

“The bulldog statue is unbelievable,” said Young. “I can see that being a source of pride and love on a daily basis from our kids and members of our community coming to use that field, actually touching it, rubbing it for good luck on our way out to beat somebody up.”

Others praised artist Juliandra Jones’ proposal to embed bulldog footprints in the concrete pathway leading to Nesbit’s sculpture, and Najja Moon’s sports-themed poem mounted in metal script on a park fence.

Revised agenda

Owunna also happens to be president of the Public Art and Civic Design Commission, whose members are appointed by Mayor Ed Gainey. He recused himself from deliberations on the art in Homewood Park. The three remaining commissioners voted to continue the vote until February’s meeting.

However, when the city issued the agenda for that Feb. 28 meeting, Owunna’s artwork was absent. Department of City Planning staffer Kevin Kunak said it had been withdrawn by mutual agreement of Owunna and the city, in favor of further talks between the artist and the community.

bulldog sculpture
City of Pittsburgh
Camerin "Camo" Nesbit's bulldog sculpture, representing the Homewood Sports mascot, drew praise from the community.

The withdrawal allows the commissioners to vote on the other three artworks, whose design makes them more integral to the park’s construction. (Owunna confirmed this decision by email but declined further comment until after the Feb. 28 meeting.)

But the questions remain: Why did a work by so prominent an artist — a Pittsburgh native with ties to Homewood — face so much opposition from some in the neighborhood? And how much weight should competing voices on public art carry?

"A safe space"

Owunna has worked for years with the Oasis Project, the economic development arm of Homewood’s Bible Center Church. He has led workshops for middle schoolers there, and two large photographic works from his “Infinite Essence” series hang in the front windows of the Oasis Project’s Everyday Café, which sits half a block from Homewood Park. In materials submitted to the city, Owunna said he’d had several formal engagements with the community about his artwork dating to April 2022.

His first design referenced “specific historical figures from Homewood,” but Owunna wrote that in early 2023, community feedback indicated a preference for “general figures of empowerment that signify community leadership and inspire the youth.”

In October, his design for “Ancestral Echoes” drew letters of support from both the Bible Church Center and Mayor Gainey’s wife, Michelle Gainey, in her capacity as founder of the Greater Pittsburgh Arts Project. “I urge you to see this not just as a piece of art, but as a transformative emblem of community spirit,” Gainey wrote to the art commission.

Other supporters include the Homewood-based Legacy Arts Project, whose executive director, Erin Perry, admires the way the mural connects Black communities to history. “I think [Owunna’s] work is just a testament to all that is possible when we remember things that have existed before,” she said.

However, according to city records, at a public meeting held in November at Homewood’s Community Empowerment Association, several community members objected to “Ancestral Echoes” in much the same terms critics would use in January, calling it “depressing” and saying it “would not represent our sports team.” (Commenters were not named in the document.)

Addressing the art commission in January, Owunna noted that his mural will face the park’s outdoor amphitheater and will not even be visible from the field. “It’s been really thinking about the larger space, and about the park as a complex that includes athletic facilities but also includes spaces for the arts and spiritual organizations as well,” he said.

An important dynamic in Homewood is the strong sense of ownership of the park felt by many, especially participants in Homewood Community Sports. The park is located right across the street from both the Homewood branch of the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh and another cultural landmark, the Afro-American Music Institute.

Speaking of the field, Homewood Sports president Mubarik Ismaeli said, "This is like the Mecca of the community." In many families, involvement in the sports program goes back decades, to its founding in the 1950s. Ismaeli, whose own father was a leader of the group, said the all-volunteer organization has always cared for the field, as well as for the 400 or so youths it serves each year.

“You'll have three generations of families up here at one time sometimes,” he said. “This is where all the kids in the community come. They know it's a safe space. They know we provide mentorship. We provide conflict resolution. We love on them, feed them, everything they need. They know they can come up here and they’re safe when they come up here.”

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Whose words count most?

Experts on public art differ on how much weight different voices should carry.

“You know, this is kind of what democracy is all about. You cannot resolve these differences easily,” said University of Pittsburgh professor Kirk Savage.

Savage was once retained as a consultant on a controversial proposed artwork in Indianapolis. In a work commissioned to memorialize the Emancipation Proclamation, internationally known Black artist Fred Wilson proposed reworking the image of a formerly enslaved man from an older public sculpture. Wilson is a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” recipient, but opposition to the work was sustained.

Savage said sometimes further discussion can reduce opposition to a particular artwork. But in Wilson’s case, he said, members of the Black community said they understood what the artist hoped to do by repurposing the figure. They simply didn’t want another public depiction of an enslaved person in their town. Wilson's commission was canceled in 2011.

Savage says that although artistic freedom is important, in a case like Homewood Park, the voices like those of Homewood Community Sports backers should be heeded.

“A group that has been really stewarding the site for a long time does deserve to be given more weight than others, I think,” he said.

Other experts, while acknowledging the importance of community voices, fall more on the side of artistic freedom.

Kilolo Luckett, an art historian, curator and former art commissioner, said public art shouldn’t be about making images to order.

“Art should challenge you,” said Luckett, whose own art gallery, Alma | Lewis, sits a few hundred yards from Homewood Park. “Art should challenge you in a way that is generative. That can help you think through things that today you might not be thinking about.”

Luckett has also curated public art projects in the neighborhood, including one that honors famous Homewood residents with streetlight banners on nearby Homewood Avenue. She also advocated for diverse voices and approaches to art on a given site.

“You want there to be a variety,” she said. “You want a variety that animates that park. But it’s not all about sports. It’s not all about the football.”

City staffers were unable to provide any details about what form further engagement between Owunna and community members would take.

Homewood Community Sports president Ismaeli said he’s hopeful.

“I want everybody to win,” he said. “I want Mikael to be able to say he has artwork on this project. I want the community members to feel like this artwork is good for this project.”

Bill is a long-time Pittsburgh-based journalist specializing in the arts and the environment. Previous to working at WESA, he spent 21 years at the weekly Pittsburgh City Paper, the last 14 as Arts & Entertainment editor. He is a graduate of Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism and in 30-plus years as a journalist has freelanced for publications including In Pittsburgh, The Nation, E: The Environmental Magazine, American Theatre, and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Bill has earned numerous Golden Quill awards from the Press Club of Western Pennsylvania. He lives in the neighborhood of Manchester, and he once milked a goat. Email: