Why, yes, that is Hanif Abdurraqib staring back at you on East Main Street

Dubbed the People’s Mural of Columbus, the new artwork is the result of a collaboration between artist Bryan Christopher Moss and Cbus Libraries, among others

Andy Downing
Columbus Alive
Local artist Bryan Moss works on a mural featuring Hanif Abdurraqib along East Main Street

Artist Bryan Christopher Moss embraced the communal spirit driving the creation of the People’s Mural of Columbus in everything from the painting process, where he worked alongside local muralists such as Hakim Callwood, to the interview with Alive, for which he invited others essential to the mural's genesis to chime in, including Bryan Loar, cofounder of nonprofit Cbus Libraries, and attorney Inna Simakovsky of Simakovsky Law, a legal firm centered on immigration services.

“I wanted to bring you in to get your thoughts,” Moss said to Simakovsky on a recent weekday outside of the law firm at 1450 E. Main St., the site of the mural and a corresponding celebration set to take place on Saturday, Aug. 21. The event kicks off at 11 a.m. and will include readings by Hanif Abdurraqib (the initially hesitant subject of the mural), Barbara Fant and Alive columnist Scott Woods, among others.

More:Bryan Christopher Moss sits with the spirit of Aminah Robinson

Following introductions, Moss continued on, relaying how and why the trio initially connected, with Cbus Libraries leading the operational charge for the mural, Moss managing the creative aspect and Simakovsky providing both a location and a resonant mission of serving the immigrant community.

“I’m a refugee from Russia, and we work with a lot of immigrants and refugees,” Simakovsky said, sharing the connection she felt to the quote that inspired the mural, pulled from Abdurraqib’s 2017 essay collection, They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us. “We just went through four years of Trump, which tried to kill us, tried to ban us, tried to deport us. And we survived. And we survived because of the community, because of the people that lift us up.”

The full quote, which is painted beneath a mosaic-like image of Abdurraqib, reads: “There is something about setting eyes on the people who hold you instead of imagining them.”

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Everyone involved in the project has a slightly different take on the quote's meaning, with Simakovsky relating it to her work with refugees and Loar viewing it through a post-COVID lens, where the idea of community has taken on a renewed importance.

Moss, in turn, viewed it through his own craft. “I saw it as an artist, where you’re working in this hyper-isolation, and then Hanif graduated to where it’s like, 'Oh, I thought I was doing this for myself but now I realize I’m doing this for others,'” he said. “And that’s how I see the concept of doing murals. I’m not doing this for me; I don’t get any pleasure out of climbing stories up [to paint]. I’m doing this for a greater purpose.”

When first approached about the mural, Abdurraqib initially said no, largely because he has “no desire to be the show,” he explained. After mulling it, though, he relented, drawn in both by the work already being done in the community by Cbus Libraries, a nonprofit created to champion Central Ohio libraries, as well as the creative team involved, including Moss. “It was also important to me that it was going to be on the East Side, on Main Street, close to the neighborhood where I grew up,” Abdurraqib said.

More:Hanif Abdurraqib centers joy in ‘A Little Devil in America’

Of course, Abdurraqib didn’t realize at the time that the mural would actually feature his visage staring back at passersby. “I thought it was going to be language and not my face,” he said, and laughed. “But I also intentionally didn’t want to be involved in the process. … They’re artists; they know what they’re doing better than I do.”

The chosen quote, however, is one that has continued to resonate in new ways with the writer, particularly in more recent months.

“What’s interesting is I don’t return to They Can’t Kill Us all that much … but that is a quote I return to,” Abdurraqib said. “In part because this past year there were times of immense isolation, but also a great coming together of joys, of rages, of sadnesses. All of these things that, I think, ground me personally in what I love about this city, and what I believe its value is and what I believe is worth fighting for."

In the larger spirit of the mural, Abburraqib has also taken a bigger picture view of the project. 

“It’s an honor, because Columbus is a city of great artists who have had their work honored in a great many ways,” he said. “I think about Aminah Robinson’s impact, which is immense, and Elijah Pierce. Then every time I drive home, I live in Bronzeville, so I drive by the street named for Wil Haygood. These are folks I look up to and who have taught me, living ancestors and folks from beyond. To have work immortalized, it’s hard for me to think of this in a level way because I’m not ego-driven, so it’s been very grounding to think about it as being part of a larger quilt of history in this city I love a great deal.”

Local artist Bryan Moss works on a mural featuring Hanif Abdurraqib