Ten years ago, Shonna McDaniels set out to include the beauty of Blackness in a mural about historic landmarks near Tahoe Park and was greeted by the ugly truth of racism and exclusion.

Local artist and museum founder Shonna McDaniels hopes her new mural “A Seat At The Table,” painted as part of the Wide Open Walls project, will uplift the community.

At the time, numerous calls to City Hall, by people who would today be called Becky or Karen, prompted a heated community town hall meeting about inclusion. In the end, SMUD, who was sponsoring the art installation, cut the check, but chopped the project as well.

Ms. McDaniels never stopped fighting for a seat at the table, for herself and other local Black artists. She’s the founder of the Sojourner Truth Art Museum and is a vocal advocate for more diversity, of artists and images, in public art opportunities.

It was a full circle moment this week as she completed the last stroke on a mural for the Wide Open Walls project. Ironically, the towering ode to Blackness was created on the wall of a SMUD substation. “A Seat At The Table” is located in Midtown at 1430 19th Street.

“I cried,” she said of the opportunity. “I literally cried like a baby because this has been a long time coming.”

The mural was inspired by African actress Lupita Nyong’o. Featuring a very dark-skinned woman, as the focal point was very deliberate for Ms. McDaniels, who wants the image to “uplift” her community.

Artist Finally Gets Her ‘Seat At The Table’

The large-scale painting took Ms. McDaniels and a team of enthusiastic fellow artists and volunteers less than a week to complete.

“I have so much support. Artists from all different genres have come out to help, we’ve had performing artists, dancers, visual artists, just so much support,” she said.

As they filled in Ms. McDaniels’ vision, area residents stopped by to admire the work in progress. They marveled at the detailed African pattern whose bold, orange lines draw in the eye and the eyes of a Black woman who seemed to mesmerize them from her high place of distinction on the wall.

Hundreds of residents and tourists, mostly White, stopped by to see the mural being created. There were often supportive honks from drivers-by.
It was a very different reception that she and a family-friendly group of volunteers received a decade ago.

“Art is a peaceful act and then we had all these people driving by and calling us ni**ers and monkeys and asking us who authorized us to ‘paint those aliens (Black people) on the wall.’ The kids were traumatized,” Ms. McDaniels recalled.

While she’s created plenty of art since then, the incident is as fresh in Ms.McDaniels’ mind as a new coat of paint, but she’s glad recent calls for equity and social justice have painted a different picture.

“What a difference 10 years makes,” she said.

“A Seat At The Table” is the second Wide Open Walls mural for Ms. McDaniels. Another, a tribute to the Ndebele women of South Africa, is located at 3217 Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard in Oak Park. Other Black artists with murals added in 2020 include Brandon Gastinell (1616 J Street), the late Michael Mcdaniel (917 7th Street), Nosego (1730 L Street), Brandon Alxandr (7th Street and Improv Alley), and Leecasso, whose tribute to late Congressman John Lewis and “Black Panther” actor Chadwick Boseman can also be found at 7th Street and Improv Alley.

With “A Seat At The Table” finished, Ms. McDaniels is focused on her next project, expansion of her museum space in South Sacramento. Expansion, she says, will allow for more Black art to be displayed and showcased in new and innovative ways.

By Genoa Barrow | OBSERVER Senior Staff Writer