Preserve Victor Arnautoff's mural in George Washington High School

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The “Reflection and Action Group” appointed by the San Francisco Unified School District has recommended that all thirteen panels of a mural painted in 1935-6 by Russian émigré artist Victor Arnautoff at George Washington High School be painted out because, in the words of the group's recommendation, "the mural . . . glorifies slavery, genocide, colonization, manifest destiny, white supremacy… [and]… oppression.”

However, given Arnautoff’s political beliefs, and according to a recent 2017 biography by Dr. Robert Cherny, Victor Arnautoff and the Politics of Art, the purpose of these murals was to present a counter-narrative to typical high school textbooks of the day and to highlight exploitation and oppression of people of color in the United States.

In other words, through his art, Arnautoff was practicing a commitment to social justice and he was certainly not glorifying slavery, genocide, colonization, manifest destiny, or white supremacy. He was, instead, through his unique depictions of scenes of the life of George Washington, condemning those institutions and ideologies.

Arnautoff created the murals to protest both the genocide of Native Americans as well as slavery and oppression of African-Americans at a time when few openly discussed these aspects of American history. High school curricula in the United States, even today, neglect the history of Native Americans and First Peoples.

As such, the mural should serve as a critical educational tool and destroying or removing it only serves to promote an inaccurate perspective of the artist and his work.

There are several workable options that have been suggested to keep the mural intact and to allow faculty to use it to support their teaching. Erasing this work of art will not serve the interests of the students at George Washington High School and will divide the community.


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