One of the best ways to exhibit the “alternative” in society is to express ideas, feelings, and emotions through an art form. Urban street art is extremely prominent in New Orleans, especially in terms of grand, large-scale murals painted throughout the city. According to Robert Sweeny in his editorial in Art Education (2013) he explains that “street art is contradictory: a form of artistic expression that resists institutional legitimacy while it simultaneously becomes more widespread, more accepted – an institution in its own right” (12). The project organized by The Art Council of New Orleans known as “Unframed,” is designated towards supporting visual street artists in hopes of exemplifying how art is transformative and imperative in urban communities. Presented by the Helis foundation, “Unframed” features 5 large-scale murals in the heart of downtown New Orleans. The “Unframed” exhibit, which includes 2 local artists, 2 international artists, and 1 mural created in partnership with the Young Artist Movement, has brought a vibrant and artistic touch to the buildings in downtown.
Etam Cru, a Poland-based duo is responsible for the mural located in the Central Business District at 600 O’Keefe Avenue. Known for their surrealist-tinged figurative pieces, Etam Cru’s murals often feature motifs from Polish culture. The O’Keefe Avenue mural depicts a singular man, demonstrating loneliness in a big city. The mural is located in one of the busiest areas in all of downtown New Orleans, situated two st
reets away from the Mercedes-Benz Superdome and the Smoothie King Center. In this densely populated area, it is rare to find oneself without another person nearby, but the man in Etam Cru’s mural is a young African American man in a hoodie who sits in a chair all alone while holding a mug. He stares at the viewer as the surrounding sounds of car motors humming and Saints fans cheering turn into soft white noise. As the man stares into the distance with no sense of urgency, stress or distractions, I reflect on how these features represent a sense of loneliness, which is ironic since this mural is located in such a populated area.
In the age of social media there is a stigma surrounding being alone; however, it is important to acknowledge that there is a difference between being alone and being lonely. The stigma of being alone implies isolation, friendlessness, and social incompetencies. However, being alone is not a bad thing. Being alone is an important tool in personal growth and character development. The dark shadows surrounding the man’s
eyes in the mural accompanied with his mellow stare and calm demeanor suggests that he has just woken up. I am drawn to his mug filled with what I would assume is coffee, indicating that it is morning. There is no newspaper in the mural, no phone, and not another person to offer any alternative interruption to not only the mural, but to the man himself.
Constant communication is an integral part of social media, creating the impression that one is never alone yet they feel lonely. The need to feel connected, validated, or simply relevant prompts society to disengage from the real world and into one’s own virtual reality. Within this world of instant and absolute communication, unbounded by limits of time or space, we suffer from unprecedented alienation. We have never been more detached from one another, or lonelier. The mural is representative of the purest form of being alone without any virtual distractions. The purity that the mural depicts stems from the lack of electronics, the lack of other humans beings, and the aspects of nature which the subject is surrounded by. With the man in the mural being surrounded by other life forms that don’t interact with him, he doesn’t have to disassociate from himself. The exclusion of such features creates a sense of peace in the mural, relaying the message that it is possible to be alone without the desperate need for connection. He has a straight-lined mouth, so he is not frowning or smiling. He’s in a state of contentment.
Recognizing our generation’s struggle with being alone is important in understanding the mural and its message. Being alone is important in terms of self-reflection, learning to rely on oneself, and understanding the essential difference between being alone and being lonely. Loneliness “is the absence of a particular type of relationship such as an intimate relation, friendship, or a link to a network of friends with shared interests and concerns” (4). Whereas being alone is not having another person (whether it be in real life or virtually) with you, or in communication with you. Self-reflection is important in developing character, creating personal morals and values, and understanding one’s personal wants and desires. Without the influence of someone else’s thoughts, feelings, or their overall presence, being alone is key in our ability to exercise introspection into our character, actions, and motives.