When painter Yehimi Cambrón was a 15-year-old student at Cross Keys High School in DeKalb County, she placed third in an art contest and was to be presented with a certificate and $50 prize at the State Capitol. When she and her mother arrived, they were told that Cambrón couldn’t receive the prize because she didn’t have a social security number. It was a wake-up call that her undocumented status had consequences.
So when Cambrón, now an art teacher at Cross Keys, was selected to paint two murals downtown ahead of Super Bowl LIII and discovered her murals would be located near the state capitol, the opportunity felt redemptive. One mural, “We Carry the Dreams” will be a series of five portraits of “Dreamers,” with the stripes of American flag in the background. (Cambrón is a DACA recipient herself.)
“I think that Atlanta, and the South in general, is really trying to heal from the very ugly and painful roots of slavery, so a lot of the conversations we have around social justice are very black and white,” says Cambrón. “But it is so much more, and we are so much stronger in the fight for social justice and civil rights if the conversation is more inclusive. I had to find a way to illustrate that through my artwork, so I wanted to depict the faces of [undocumented] people, so that [viewers can] connect to the faces even if they don’t know that the person is undocumented.”
“There is so much more that we share than what divides us, so we have to become each other’s allies in these movements,” she says.
Cambrón is one of 10 artists whose murals are included in a series of public art installations titled “Off the Wall.” The brainchild of Atlanta arts organization WonderRoot and the Super Bowl LIII Host Committee, the project is designed to honor the city’s role in the Civil Rights Movement and address modern civil rights issues—including but not limited to race, gender, sexual orientation, and immigration status. The project was inspired by work WonderRoot had previously done in the gentrifying Vine City area that focused on community storytelling as a way to amplify and preserve the cultural legacy of the neighborhood.
“The project is less about speaking to the Super Bowl audience and more about leveraging what the Super Bowl will bring to Atlanta and catapulting the amazing work that people have done and are doing in Atlanta to further catalyze movements for justice,” says WonderRoot executive director Chris Appleton.
The participating artists—Cambrón, Sheila Pree Bright, Shanequa Gay, GAIA, Brandan “B-Mike” Odums, Reginald “L.E.O.” O’Neal, Ernest Shaw, the Loss Prevention Arts, Muhammad Yungai, and Gilbert Young—will create a combined total of more than 30 murals across the city that will be on display leading up to the Super Bowl. Following the game, they’ll become part of the City of Atlanta’s permanent collection and will be maintained by the city.
“The Off the Wall project visually represents the contributions, hopes, and dreams of all Atlantans and provides an opportunity to share our collective stories with the world,” said Camille Russell Love, executive director of the Mayor’s Office of Cultural Affairs, in an email.
Dreams are at the core of Cambrón’s work, and her second mural will focus on the intersectionality of identity in immigration, pairing the faces of non-Latinx and older immigrants with her signature monarch butterflies. Growing up, her art teachers advised her not to paint anything that started with the letter “B”—babies, bunnies, butterflies—but after she graduated from Agnes Scott College and participated in Teach for America, her relationship with butterflies changed.
“When I did Teach for America, there were several other undocumented teachers in the corps,” Cambrón says. “The DACA support team reached out to me to see if I could create a symbol that would represent undocumented teachers, so I [chose] the monarch butterfly because of the journey that it makes from Mexico to Canada generation to generation. Half of the symbol is a monarch butterfly, and the other half is an open book to represent education as liberation.”
For Muhammad Yungai, painting murals with inspiring messages in schools lead to his career as a professional artist. Yungai moved to Atlanta from New Orleans in 1996 with dreams of “becoming the next Jay Z,” but found the music industry wasn’t the best place for his art to thrive. As a kid, he had a knack for drawing famous faces, so he picked up a paintbrush to see if he still had the gift. When his daughters started attending charter school, he volunteered to create bulletin boards and work on art projects, which led to him being commissioned to paint murals.
“All of the murals I’ve done up until now have been in schools, so that the kids [there] can see positive representations of great black people who lived before us,” Yungai says. “Or I’ll actually paint the kids themselves so they can see that they are important, beautiful, and no matter where they’re coming from, they have a bright future if they apply themselves. My work is really about empowering young black people first, and the black community itself.”
For the Super Bowl, he will have three murals that will each take about a month to create: “Community Roots,” a piece that recognizes the importance of the city’s historically black colleges and universities to urban farming; “Helping Hands,” which will feature the cuffs and sleeves of civil rights leaders; and “New Kids on the Block,” a piece about gentrification in conversation with Norman Rockwell’s painting, “New Kids in the Neighborhood.”
“Most of the civil rights leaders fought so that we could be a part of everything that America had to offer a citizen—the right to sit on the bus, vote, move into any neighborhood. My personal thought is that civil rights are black people having the opportunity and space to solve our own issues without constantly having to take two steps back in order to get one foot forward,” Yungai says. “It’s the black community’s ability to become whole again and support the family structure.”
Shanequa Gay’s piece, “Excuse Me While I Kiss the Sky,” will located be at a MARTA Station and is inspired by a meeting she had with homeless teens from Covenant House. She took photos of some of the teens posing with kissy faces, because she says people don’t tend to see homeless people as loving. The mural will feature silhouettes of the teens surrounded by flowers that grow in Georgia—a nod to the teens’ desire to be seen and the state’s beauty.
“Atlanta has a chronic homeless problem that I don’t think is dealt with or engaged, and when we think about homelessness, we don’t think about the youth, much less young people,” Gay says. “I wanted to be able to bring light to that issue through my work.”
Gay, who is currently working on her MFA at Georgia State, says that she started drawing on walls as a child when her parents would send her to her room for punishment, which only gave her time to create. She tends to address the experiences of marginalized people in her work, along with hybrid cultures. Although her signature “deer people” will not be making an appearance in the murals, she will continue to use symbology in her work. Before the Super Bowl, Gay will also have an installation at Aqua Art Miami during Art Basel.
WonderRoot will release a mobile experience app so that Atlanta residents and Super Bowl visitors alike will be able to find and see all of the murals. The app will also provide information about the artists and context about the pieces, and a geolocation setting can also alert the user if they are near one of the murals.
“I think these murals will play a part in helping Atlanta to feel like an artistic city,” Yungai says. “I think that’s what it’s becoming—a hub for creatives. If you go downtown already, the city is becoming purposeful about color, and it feels warmer. You can feel that creative vibe, as opposed to seeing Usher or Outkast in a video. You can come here and feel the creativity.”