Arts Desk

Don’t Call That Anacostia Public Art Project a Totem Pole

This spring, Anacostia will get its first totem pole. But whatever you do, don’t call it a totem pole.

At the end of May, residents of Anacostia will finally greet a public art project two years in the making: “Journey Anacostia,” a steel, copper, and stained-glass sculpture commissioned by the District to fill a city-owned lot at the intersection of Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue and Good Hope Road SE. The piece is the work of Wilfredo Valladares, a D.C.-based sculptor and teacher who’s constructed several other public art projects in the District and Maryland, notably the DC8 Totem Poles, a cluster of sculptures that symbolize the city’s eight wards. "Journey Anacostia," too, was inspired by the Pacific Northwest American Indian tradition, and the District was referring to the work as a totem pole—until a group of residents protested.

To be clear, Valladares' work doesn't resemble a traditional totem pole at all; for starters, it's not carved, and it's not made of wood. But when presented with a survey in 2011, 98 local residents voted to bring a totem pole to the empty lot—beating out a lighting treatment, xeriscaping, a fence treatment, and a mural—so that's what the city promised to put there. But it didn’t take long for residents to start grumbling about the totem pole idea, making their opposition clear in emails to District officials.

“We would like to know who voted on putting totem poles or anything else other than greenery at that site,” wrote then-ANC 8E Commissioner Sandra Seegars in a March 2012 email to city officials including Mayor Vince Gray and Ward 8 Councilmember Marion Barry. “That corner is the first location a person sees when crossing the bridge, it does not have to be an obnoxious spectacle. Are the totem poles suppose [sic] to remind Ward 8 that it is the ‘lowest thing’ on the totem pole” [?] This is supporting what Councilmember Barry says about Ward 8—last, least and lost.” Another resident wrote, “Why would anyone think totem poles would look good anywhere in Ward 8? Let them put them in Ward 3 or Ward 2. Leave that area the way it is.”

By the time those emails began to trickle in, the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities had already chosen Valladares to design the sculpture, and he’d already presented his proposal in a meeting to community members—though, not many people showed up. The Department of Housing and Community Development hosted another meeting in March 8, essentially a redo of the underattended meeting in February. At that meeting, Valladares showed his proposal and took feedback from attendees. According to a District employee who helped organize the meeting, some people who’d previously trashed the totem pole concept left the meeting with a less negative opinion of the project—largely because they realized it didn’t actually look like a totem pole.

“The piece is a sculpture, a 3-D piece, that is inspired by Native American and African-American culture,” says Valladares. “Basically it has a bottom part that is almost like an abstract [interpretation of] Native American architecture...and then on the top of the piece, it has a canoe,” he says. The sculpture bears a coil pattern design that incorporates elements of basket-weaving from American Indian and African-American cultures, he says. If it borrowed anything from traditional totems, it’s not especially obvious.

The District continued to call "Journey Anacostia" a totem pole until at least the fall of 2012, but eventually that changed. It's not clear why, though—because the DCCAH hasn't decided why. When Washington City Paper emailed DCCAH director Lionell Thomas about the project in February, he replied, "The work is referred to as ‘Journey to Anacostia’ [ed. note: The work is called "Journey Anacostia"] and not a ‘totem’ as the community was adversed to this reference." But Mary Beth Brown, the commission’s public art coordinator, says the department didn’t just cave to angry residents. “The change from totem pole to not totem pole is not a direct response to community members who were not happy,” she says. Her take is that the project grew to something more conceptually complex than just a totem pole, so the name no longer fit. But that doesn’t really hold up when you consider that Valladares’ design hasn’t changed. It still looks like a sculpture that does not look like a totem pole.

Regardless of what the piece is called, Valladares says he never intended to create a literal totem pole anyway—even if that’s what 98 District residents initially asked for. He came away from the public meetings with the sense that people wanted something that would inspire them. So he thought about features of the region that have persisted over the years—and he found himself looking to the Anacostia River, one of the region’s most enduring symbols. The river “has witnessed everybody in that community,” he says, “and it’s still inspiring people.” So he followed his instincts and used a little artistic license. “You can never make everybody happy,” he says, "so you just hope that you connected on some level with them.”

Photo via D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities

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  • ShutEmDown

    No matter what you call it, it is still out of character for the neighborhood. I attended the majority of the meetings and the process was stacked from the beginning. The artist was so disconnected from the community that he had never seen The Big Chair at the time of his proposal. It is only the best known landmark in Ward 8 and only a few hundred feet from the installation site. Hope the Commission is happy. The best part is that it's temporary.

  • Pool

    If ward 8 is too good for this sculpture, bring it to ward 5! I'd love some public art in my ward. I don't even care if it represents "the community"

  • ShutEmDown

    @Pool. It's not "too good," it just does not reflect the history or suit the taste of the community. The quality of the work and credentials of the artist are sound. However, this piece was moreso an outlet for the DC Commission on the Arts to dump a project somewhere than to provide genuine aesthetic improvement for the sake of justifying their funding. The artist is from Honduras and made no claim to know anything about DC or Anacostia.

    Ward 5 is welcome to the sculpture. I would relocate it myself if I could.

  • pool

    why must public art reflect the history of the community? i understand and respect that it should suit the taste.

    and yes, we'll take it! we have very little public art in ward5.

  • NN

    First of all, we in Anacostia DID NOT vote for a totem pole. The DCCAH held very covert meetings & voted, claiming to be comprised of people from the community. NO ONE east of the river likes this project. Please let us create our own neighborhood and stop trying to force cultural identity. We are a black neighborhood. Not white, not native American, not Ethiopian. Black, and we are proud of Marion Barry, Go-Go, Frederick Douglass. Let us create our own identity. Sick of DC's desperate plea to de-black Anacostia.

  • Cap City Records Panhandler

    "Captain John Smith recorded in his journals that he sailed up the "Eastern Branch" of the Anacostia River in 1608 in his search for the main branch of the Potomac River and was well received by the Anacostians."