Before Obama, there was Eisenhower. And before Shepard Fairey plastered his iconic image of the new president to Marvin’s wall in the so-called Obama corridor, Karlisima (Karla Rodas) was painting presidents on what she calls “D.C.’s biggest postcard.” Rodas started the 60-by-25-foot mural on the outside of Mama Ayesha’s in Adams Morgan in May 2007 and was still at it—sometimes into the night and often wearing several scarves and fingerless gloves—until after the inauguration.
The D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities funded the project; its concept was largely set by Mama Ayesha’s family members, who still run the restaurant she opened in 1960 (then known as the Calvert Café). Mama herself is on the wall, curiously flanked by Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan in a lineup that includes presidents 34 through 44—that last one painted in a jaunty pose with a winning smile.
The guys on the wall are the ones who’ve served as president during the time Mama Ayesha’s has been serving D.C. The restaurant’s namesake, however, was not the first choice for the sole woman among them. That spot had been reserved for the place’s most famous regular, White House reporter Helen Thomas (who, contrary to popular belief, did not begin her career covering Lincoln. Actually, it was Kennedy).
Thomas, who has her own booth inside Mama Ayesha’s—it’s built lower than the rest to accommodate her petite stature—was approached to be a part of the project. “She was going to be in a chair, with pen and paper,” says the restaurant’s co-owner Mohammed Abu-El-Hawa, Mama Ayesha’s great-nephew. But Thomas, he says, “is very modest and didn’t want all the attention.” She applauded the suggestion of replacing her image with Mama’s as a tribute. “I think it gives it a little more sense of our history,” he says. “We’ve been in Washington a long time and many of these presidents have come and gone in that time.”
Rodas took a shine to the idea of painting Mama. “To me, she is in an inspiration, that she came to this country and worked hard and did so much,” she says. Rodas, 38, moved as a teenager from San Salvador, El Salvador, to Alexandria and, after graduating with artistic honors from Annandale High School and Washington University in St. Louis, she has become one of the better-known muralists of D.C. Her work appears on the walls at Café Atlantico, Famous Luigi’s, the now-closed Luigino’s, and at Wesley United Methodist Church, among other spots. Outside Mama Ayesha’s, she painted not only the presidents and Mama Ayesha, but also a subtle progression of the seasons—fitting because it took a cycle through all of them for her to finish her latest and most mammoth work.