934 Gallery controversy opens conversations on race, censorship

A mural of Mayahuel, the Aztek goddess of fertility, painted by Cat Ramos, Isabel Francis Bongue and Vrinda Munoz has created a wave that continues to ripple within the local art scene.
A mural of Mayahuel, the Aztek goddess of fertility, painted by artists Cat Ramos, Isabel Francis Bongue and Vrinda Munoz.
A mural of Mayahuel, the Aztek goddess of fertility, painted by artists Cat Ramos, Isabel Francis Bongue and Vrinda Munoz.Courtesy the artists

In the late June weeks after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, declaring the end of the constitutional right to abortion upheld for decades, artist friends Cat Ramos, Isabel Francis Bongue and Vrinda Munoz gathered to begin brainstorming for a mural to be painted at 934 Gallery in the Milo-Grogan neighborhood. 

“And at the same time, Colombia and Mexico were legalizing abortion,” said Bongue, who joined Ramos and Munoz for a mid-November interview. “So, we were just hanging out and talking and venting.”

In the midst of these conversations, Ramos suggested centering the mural on Mayahuel, the Aztek goddess of fertility, with the artists later choosing to depict her wearing a green bandana – a symbol long adopted by the movement for safe, legal abortion in Latin America. 

Work on the mural started in late August, lasting five or six days in the lead up to 934 Fest on Sept. 9. Initially, the plan called for Mayahuel to be completely nude, but when approached with concerns by a volunteer with 934 Gallery, the artists pivoted, covering the goddess’ vagina with a blooming flower but leaving her topless. “And that was the end of [conversations] until the mural was completely finished,” Ramos said.

In the days leading up to the festival, 934 Gallery received an email from a neighbor expressing concern with the contents of the mural, followed by a call from Rick Mann, who owns the building that houses 934, along with other properties that include nearby Milo Arts, a live-work residency and home to nearly 40 creators. In the call, Mann informed the gallery that he believed the painting was inappropriate for children.

“I give a lot of liberty to everyone, and I’m open to just about everything,” Mann said this week by phone. “But when it impacts youngsters or families or the neighborhood, then I put my foot in.”

Liz Martin, board president of 934 Gallery, a volunteer-run, nonprofit arts organization, said she was unsure why the mural attracted Mann’s attention, noting that there have been other murals painted outside of the gallery in the past that included nudity and passed without incident. The mural is also not visible from the street, and Martin said even visitors coming specifically to view the work have occasionally struggled to locate it.

“Right away our instinct was, ‘Absolutely not. We’re not going to cover this up,’” Martin said. “Our entire team thought the mural was culturally relevant and very benign. … So, we did a quick [vote] with our board ... and it was a unanimous vote to keep the mural.” 

Martin said the board initially struck an accord with Mann to keep the mural up through 934 Fest, adding further context to the painting by posting accompanying text written by Ramos that detailed the layered meanings embedded within the work. “The family that had reached out with concerns, I shared the story with them, and they were actually very satisfied with the educational component of the piece. So, I was hopeful, and we all thought it was over.”

Then, on Oct. 17, 934 Gallery received a formal letter from Mann, in which the landlord demanded that the mural be removed by Oct. 25.

For Ramos, the timing of the decision – falling just days after the Oct. 15 end of Hispanic Heritage Month – added to her already growing frustrations. She described feeling tokenized, with the trio’s work uplifted under the month's spotlight and then summarily discarded once attentions turned. Subsequent conversations with the gallery that the three artists described as muddled did little to dampen these feelings.

“It seemed like they didn’t want to help us or make it work, and it was just like, ‘We’re censoring it,’” said Ramos, who then alluded to a metal sculpture that was positioned to obscure the mural in the days after the gallery received Mann’s letter. “When they put that cage in front of her, it was like, ‘Oh, she just got detained at the border.’ … And that was the explosion.”

On Oct. 26, the day after 934 Gallery went public on social media with information about Mann’s letter and the need to paint over the mural – a decision Martin said emerged following discussions with attorneys in which the board determined it was legally bound to comply with the demand – Ramos posted her own video on Instagram. 

“I just want to say I'm wearing this shirt because this currently represents the state that I am in,” Ramos says near the onset of the recording, tugging at her T-shirt, which is emblazoned with a skull-printed luchador mask. “I am a fucking luchadora and I will luchar for what's right, okay? I will fight for what is right.”

“I was definitely angry, and I was upset I even had to do it, because it felt like in doing so, I was being stereotyped even more as the loud Brown girl,” Ramos said. “I don’t take anything to the internet but my art. I just want people to see my art. … But I also knew from the feedback I was getting in the community that I wasn’t the only one, so I had to speak up. … I was angry and needed to let the world know.”

In the immediate aftermath of the post, the artists said they received mass support from within the community, though some of it arrived couched in warning. “What I’ve heard from multiple people is this line that goes something like, ‘We support you, but try not to rock the boat too much,” Bongue said.

“Destroy the boat,” Ramos added.

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One of the people who felt the ripples from this explosion was artist Adam Hernandez. 

Late in the summer of 2021, Hernandez said he was commissioned by Michael Reese, co-owner of Reese Brothers Art Consulting, to create a painting to be displayed inside a new hotel being built in downtown Columbus by a major national chain.

According to Hernandez, Reese offered no specifications for the work beyond wanting the finished painting to be “multicultural.”

“He said something about the people [in the painting] having different skin colors and their clothes having different patterns,” Hernandez said. “I asked if he wanted to see a sketch, and he said, ‘No.’ … And the impression I got from him was, ‘I trust you. I just want something with this feel.’”

Digging into his cultural roots in Puerto Rico, Hernandez hit upon Atabey, worshiped as the goddess of fresh water and fertility, painting her in a simple dress and flanked by her two sons, Yucajú and Guacar. The trio is centered on a backdrop filled with colorful rainforest plants, along with hieroglyphics and graffiti that have long been a hallmark of Hernandez’s style.

But when Hernandez submitted the painting, he said Reese initially responded with confusion. “[Reese] said, ‘They don’t look like superheroes,’ and I was like, ‘Is that a good thing or a bad thing?’ Because he had never mentioned that before,” Hernandez said. “And then he was like, ‘I’ll just get you new canvases so you can make a new piece.’ And I was like, ‘Hey, you’re going to have to pay me to make a new painting.’”

Hernandez said that Reese eventually relented, ending the conversation by offering that he would “figure something out.”

That was the last Hernandez heard from Reese, he said, until August, when he received an invitation to an artist’s reception for the opening of the new hotel that featured his painting of Atabey alongside works by nine other artists.

During the reception, Hernandez said that Michael Reese’s brother and business partner, Jim, gave a speech in which he lauded the cultural diversity of the artists who had work displayed in the hotel. “He said, ‘We have artists from everywhere. We even have an artist from the Bronx,’ in reference to me, which I thought was a cool shout-out,” said Hernandez, who was born and raised in the New York City borough. 

One thing Hernandez didn’t see at the hotel, however, was his painting, though he initially believed it to be displayed in some part of the complex to which he didn’t have access during the party. This belief was shattered when Hernandez received a brief email from Michael Reese on Nov. 2.

“The budget is done for the [hotel],” read the email, screenshots of which were viewed by Matter. “The art you submitted does not work anywhere in the public spaces. The subject matter is not appropriate.” (Reese Brothers Art Consulting did not respond to multiple calls and emails requesting an interview.)

“My initial reaction, I was kind of sad, but I also got really angry, as well,” Hernandez said. “It wasn’t inappropriate when you used [the painting] to promote the show, or when you used where I was from as a token, like, ‘Look, we have diverse artists!’ … But when it comes down to the wire, for whatever reason this part of my culture isn’t okay. … I just felt like I was being used because of who I am as a person, and I think that happens to a lot of artists, where you become the token dark-skinned person on a panel or in a group show.”

“A lot of the pillars we have here, or the galleries, they’re asking for diversity and they’re asking for culture, but when we give them culture, it’s too much,” Munoz said. “They want a watered-down culture that’s more palatable for people, and that’s not our job as artists. Our job is to be the rawest form of expression we can, and to open those conversations and have people think and ask questions.”

Both Hernandez and the three Mayahuel muralists said they were initially afraid to speak out publicly about their struggles, owing to the close-knit nature of the Columbus art world and the impact making waves could potentially have on future opportunities.

“I talked to my wife, and she was like, ‘I support you, but we also have to think about our baby. This is a small town. I don’t want you getting blacklisted,’” said Hernandez, who shared that he finally decided to speak publicly after witnessing the stand taken by the muralists. “And I don’t think that will happen. I think I’m in the right, and I think people are open-minded and will embrace this as a learning moment.”

Martin and 934 Gallery have taken initial steps to do just that, meeting in person with Ramos, Bongue and Munoz in late October and then releasing joint statements on Nov. 1

“Hearing about what Adam Hernandez is going through and talking with Isa and Vrinda and Cat about other experiences they’ve had over the years here, those are things you’re very much not aware of,” Martin said. “And I have a lot of empathy for where they’re coming from, and the struggles and uphill battle they face that we’re not really privy to.”

“It brought up other issues people had experienced in the past, not just at this gallery but in the [larger] art community,” Munoz said.

A painting of Atabey and her two sons by artist Adam Hernandez described as "inappropriate" by a Columbus art consultant.
A painting of Atabey and her two sons by artist Adam Hernandez described as "inappropriate" by a Columbus art consultant. Courtesy Adam Hernandez

Martin also said that it was incumbent upon galleries and local arts organizations to “lift up and support” artists of color and to help prevent them from experiencing repercussions for speaking up, adding that galleries such as the Vanderelli Room and Roy G. Biv have already reached out, looking for ways to support and platform the impacted muralists. “When [artists] feel they’re being oppressed, and that they’ll be punished for speaking out, that’s not good, and we’re not here for that,” Martin said.

Currently, the mural of Mayahuel is slated to remain up and unaltered at 934 Gallery through next year as planned. The situation remains far from resolved, though.

“I appreciate [934] trying and for taking responsibility, because I don’t think a lot of galleries would have done that. But for me the damage is done,” Ramos said. “Until we see if Rick Mann is still going to have control over other artists and other artwork on the walls, then nothing has changed. Everything is still the same.”

In conversation, Mann repeatedly stated that he didn’t have any answers for the issues dredged up by the controversy, and his thoughts swung between issues ranging from his unfamiliarity with laws related to depictions of nudity on private property (the city currently allows women to bare their breasts in public, a practice that has withstood legal challenges) to bigger conceptual debates including the line between pornography and art and who gets to make that ultimate determination.

Throughout, Mann also veered between expressing a desire to have greater authority over 934’s outdoor mural program (“In the future, we will do a sort of owner’s review of things”) and wondering if his initial attempt to have the painting of Mayahuel removed might have been too aggressive. “I realize now, I shot first and asked questions later,” he said.

Told that it sounded like he was still wrestling with recent events and what approach might be taken moving forward, Mann replied, “I wrestle with everything.”

“But I think I’m as tolerant as anyone,” he continued. “Possibly. At least I think I am. Maybe. Possibly I’m not. I don’t know.”

This sense of uncertainty has bled into the future of the 934 mural program, the status of which remains an open question pending a looming conversation between Mann and the gallery board, Martin said. On Monday, the board met to prepare for the eventual meeting, discussing the possibility of incorporating language into future artist contracts to alleviate Mann’s concerns while also preserving a necessary degree of autonomy. 

“I really hope we can keep the integrity we’ve had with the [mural program] and work with [Mann] on developing an understanding that he needs to have trust and openness," Martin said. "If he’s trying to create a community of artists, it needs to have some sanctity.”

Moving forward, Bongue also said 934 Gallery needs to be more “realistic about what they can offer.”

“934 has a reputation of being a gallery that will touch things other galleries won’t, but their mission is to be an arts anchor in the Milo-Grogan neighborhood, and I see those as two different missions, honestly,” Bongue continued. “I think they’re going to have to decide what they can offer and what their brand is going to be. And having Rick Mann as their landlord is going to put them in a position where they’re going to have to make some difficult choices.”

To its credit, 934 Gallery has no intention of shying away from these issues, recently hatching plans to partner with like-minded galleries and arts organizations for a series of community discussions designed to advance conversations on race, censorship and access. All of the artists interviewed described these continued conversations as essential to developing a more diverse and equitable Columbus art scene.

"I'm glad people are finally having this conversation, but there's a lot more that needs to be discussed," Ramos said.

“Our art deserves a place,” Hernandez said. “If it’s important to be diverse and representative of the arts in Ohio, you can’t draw a line at Puerto Rican or Taino or Latino culture. You’ve heard that phrase ‘representation matters,’ and I truly believe that. … That, to me, is what I’m fighting for now, too.”

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