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Roxbury Rhapsody mural debuts in Bolling Building

Yawu Miller
Yawu Miller is the former senior editor of the Bay State Banner. He has written for the Banner since 1988.... VIEW BIO
Roxbury Rhapsody mural debuts in Bolling Building
Artist Napoleon Jones Henderson views his installation, Roxbury Rhapsody with MassArt students who served as apprentices on the project. (Photo: Courtesy Napoleon Jones Henderson)

Roxbury artist Napoleon Jones Henderson’s latest work greets visitors to the Bruce C. Bolling Municipal building in Dudley Square with 400 brightly-colored eight-inch ceramic copper tiles.

“Roxbury Rhapsody”, as the piece is titled, depicts the musical vibrancy of the neighborhood.

“You have a whole assortment of musicians who were born in and came through Roxbury and played at Connolly’s, the High Hat, Wally’s,” Henderson said. “The depth of music in Roxbury is very much a part of the piece.”

While Henderson recalls noteworthy Roxbury musicians, like drummer Roy Haynes and alto saxophonist Makanda Ken McIntyre, none of the faces depicted in the mural are of specific ones. The artwork depicts no musical instruments or conventional musical motifs.

“But you see rhythm and vibration in the work,” notes artist Ekua Holmes. “It’s a very subtle statement.”

Colorful faces of nameless Roxbury residents peer out at the viewer. Vibrant patterns – many with African motifs, radiate outward, pulsing with contrasting colors.

“Music is a series of vibrations,” Henderson said. “It has a vibrational aspect to it. And it has color. Most people think of music as an auditory experience, but it’s a visual, cultural and spiritual experience.”

Beyond the music, Henderson said the piece captures a bit of the soul of Roxbury and the African American community that has lived there over the last century. Many of the motifs are Adinkra symbols borrowed from the Ashanti people of Ghana, reflecting the African heritage of the neighborhood’s black majority. Turtles abound.

“It’s a universal symbol,” Henderson says of the turtles. “It has the same meaning in different cultures – steadfastness, perseverance.”

Author: Courtesy Napoleon Jones HendersonMassArt student Flolynda Jean loads a tile into a kiln.

As Roxbury undergoes demographic changes, including the Fort Hill area where Henderson owns a Greek Revival home, he says the Bolling Building mural will immortalize the current African American character of the neighborhood.

“I’m very pleased to be a part of preserving the people of Roxbury’s legacy in that building,” he said.

Henderson took five months to make the mural, assisted by three MassART students selected by Holmes, who serves as the school’s assistant director of Community Engagement.

Each of the 400 tiles was individually stenciled. After pouring powdered glass on each one, Henderson and his apprentices baked them, one at a time, in a small kiln.

Henderson, who has done similar tiled public art projects in Boston, Chicago, Atlanta and Providence, said he got the idea in 1986 when his daughter brought home a set of enameled cufflinks she made in summer camp. He was busy putting finishing touches on a proposal for an installation on a doorway at Roxbury Community College when the idea hit him.

“I said ‘this is what I need to use,’” he recalled.

MassArt’s Holmes said the work was painstaking for Henderson and the students, but the result was worth the struggle.

“The technique is phenomenal,” she said. “There’s a lot of intensity in this work. This is a real labor of love.”