Rik Freeman grew up in the South and has lived in Ward 7 since 2003. His neighborhood has greatly influenced his work and inspired his dedication to the work of other artists living east of the Anacostia River. That dedication will be recognized tomorrow at Anacostia’s Honfleur Gallery as he accepts the East of the River Distinguished Artist Award.
“My motivation for [seeking the] EotRDAA stems from the award itself recognizing the talents and skills of artists east of the river, which are many and varied, but often overlooked,” Freeman says via email.
At times, Freeman’s own work is overlooked. One of his earliest murals, “Movin’ Down the Line,” which features Marvin Gaye and Duke Ellington, was partially covered at its U Street NW location until this past June. The piece is temporarily uncovered as construction continues on the mixed-use development next to the building where it is installed, a plan announced to the building’s owner by JBG Development in 2012, as City Paper reported in 2013. A JBG representative noted via email at the time that “we were not able to design our project in a way that allowed the mural to be permanently exposed.”
Freeman’s upbringing in Athens, Ga. during the social upheaval of the ’60s and ’70s also influences the work he produces today. Both his paintings and murals reflect historical themes, often focusing on people of color and their relationships with music. His most recent mural, “Honor Yourselves,” depicts technological changes in the American public education system. It sits just above another piece called “Learn from Your Past,” featuring scenes of marching bands, jazz performers, and dancers. This mural series lives at H.D. Woodson High School, right behind Marvin Gaye Park in Ward 7.
Whether “Movin’ Down the Line”will be preserved in another way before construction is complete is unknown. But the threat facing Freeman’s public representation of Ellington—across the street from a luxury apartment buildings that bears the jazz musician and native Washingtonian’s name—calls into question the premium that the city places on public art.
Although Freeman thinks the District respects public art—the proliferation of D.C. murals by national and international artists is proof, he says—he still believes there exists a disconnect between the public and private side of art installations. “At times, I’ve seen pieces that aren’t truly reflective of the neighborhood they’re in, and that the public wasn’t considered in the process or their considerations were left out,” Freeman says. Last year’s 5×5 Project saw a major controversy in Anacostia, where Abigail DeVille‘s “The New Migration,” an installation of debris in a storefront window, was removed after Marion Barry and neighborhood residents complained.
This sense of accountability for public art reflects a larger question of art’s role in creating a legacy within a neighborhood. Does the likely destruction of Freeman’s “Movin’ Down the Line” also mean a destruction of a part of U Street, a part of the neighborhood’s collective memory?
“There should be consideration given as well to artworks that existed before a neighborhood or demographic change,” Freeman says. “That work is part of that history.”
The East of the River Distinguished Artist Award ceremony takes place tomorrow at 5 p.m. at Honfleur Gallery, 1241 Good Hope Road SE. Free.
Due to a reporting error, the original version of this post misstated the award ceremony’s date. It takes place Saturday, July 18.