Sketches of iconic African-American figures materialized onto the blank, ivory alleyway wall of Washington, DC institution Ben's Chili Bowl. Although colorless and one-dimensional, the black and white outlines attracted observers to the popular hot dog restaurant while muralist Aniekan Udofia finished his latest work titled The Torch.
Udofia painted a who's who of African-American history on one wall, from abolitionist Harriet Tubman and former President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama, to boxer Muhammad Ali, singers Prince, Roberta Flack, and Chuck Brown, and comedians Dave Chappelle and Dick Gregory. Unveiled on June 21, The Torch is a vision board of aspirations for people of all backgrounds to look up to.
The 16 subjects were chosen through a poll by 30,000 voters, and once selected, Udofia got to work with acrylic and spray paint to bring the figures to life. The DC-born, Nigeria-raised artist added texture and color to each figure, capturing their personalities and mannerisms.
When Udofia was asked to refurbish his five-year-old mural that formerly covered Ben Ali Way, he sought to focus on the new figures' historical impact on the United States rather than their fame. Although Ben's Chili Bowl has fed Washingtonians since 1958, only its most noteworthy patrons had been recognized on its wall of fame. The Torch, Udofia explains, not only takes viewers on a chronicled journey into the lives of the entertainers, politicians, athletes, and activists, but also entrusts their achievements to them. "Harriet Tubman is holding a lantern," he says. "The idea is that she's passing down the torch."
Noticeably absent from Udofia's wall of relevance is Bill Cosby, who is a fan of Ben's signature Half Smoke. The embattled comedian is one of only two patrons who can get a free meal from the restaurant, along with Obama. In 2015, DC graffiti artist Smear Leader defaced Cosby's portrait on the eatery with a sticker of Kim Jong-un's face. The sticker was later removed by artist Kevin Irvin. The Ali family, who owns Ben's, has not made any formal or public statements about the Cosby defacement, but the public vote did prefer other notables to celebrate on the wall. "It was more about hitting the refresh button," Udofia says. "This was more of a transformation, a rejuvenating process."
Udofia says he was able to create a meaningful, cohesive narrative instead of just portraits of famous people. He found the wall to be another place to incorporate his subtle signature statement he calls, "Return of the Shaolin Pencil." Hidden among Udofia's murals throughout DC are yellow pencils. Although they are unassuming upon first glance, the pencils are meant to draw onlookers deeper into the subject's hero's journey.
The Torch embodies the history of Black America in three parts, according to Udofia: "Separation: we were in Africa. Initiation: we were brought here as slaves. Return: those people on the wall. They became something through the adversity."
Udofia says a hero's journey is concerned less with the voyage and more with one's evolution. "You return with a story. You return with yourself and you are able to change lives or inspire others by who you were and who you've become. That's what Black people have gone through in this country, and that's why The Torch is very relevant."
Some passersby may view the mural as just another clickbait-worthy Instagram post, but the artist is content knowing that his portraits have brought DC's heroes home from their history-making journeys.
The Torch can be found at the corner of Ben Ali Way and U Street N.W. in Washington DC. To learn more about the artist, click here.