Commissioned by the Buffalo AKG Art Museum Public Art Initiative, 2023
Location: LBJ Apartments, 167 Humboldt Parkway, Buffalo, New York 14214 (Get Directions)
What Is Here, Aaron Li-Hill’s towering ten-story painted mural that covers the entire side of the Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority’s Lyndon B. Johnson Apartments, culminates an ambition that began all the way back in 2014. When Public Art Curator Aaron Ott first came up with a dream list of artists that he hoped to engage in projects for the newly created Public Art Initiative, Li-Hill’s name was on it. Periodically, Li-Hill was considered for projects that for one quirk of fate or another did not come to be.
During the pandemic and the Buffalo AKG’s closure for construction, internal conversations turned to the topic of accessibility, particularly financial accessibility. What does it mean to talk about being a place for everyone, but only being available to those who can afford it? That conversation resulted in the conceptualization of the free space of the Seymour H. Knox Building, but it also led the museum to take special consideration of the nearly ten thousand people who live in public housing in Buffalo.
“The audience of the BMHA is one that we hadn’t previously engaged with,” says Ott. “Perhaps some of those people could walk down Main Street and see Tavar Zawacki’s mural or see The Freedom Wall on Michigan Avenue, but those projects weren’t explicitly for them.”
The giant concrete wall of the LBJ Apartments therefore presented an opportunity. Prior to 1960 this area looked out on a tree-lined boulevard designed by Frederick Law Olmsted. Paved over by Robert Moses to prioritize the movement of vehicles, the boulevard became a dividing line across the city. Now, LBJ Apartments is home to a vibrant community of elderly and disabled residents, the majority of whom identify as Black, Latinx, or Indigenous, as well their children and their children’s children.
In 2020, the Buffalo AKG’s Communications & Community Engagement Department reached out to the BMHA and together developed a plan to involve residents in the creation of a mural. Their goal at the outset was to ensure that the residents of LBJ had agency in every aspect of the project: from the decision to move forward, to the selection of the artist, to the approval of the final design. Museum representatives began attending LBJ Resident Council meetings to engage the residents and develop an understanding of their hopes and aspirations for their home and their community. With the leadership of Resident Council President Erma Ecford, the residents expressed overwhelming support for the proposal to create a mural and offered hundreds of ideas for its content and style.
“People project their own prejudices and misunderstandings onto residents of public housing,” says Ott, “and they often assume that life in public housing is filled only with negativity and strife. But the residents of LBJ have families, they have an extremely robust and close-knit community, and they experience joy and hope like anyone else. Any mural to be done would have to say to the people who live in the building: your stories are valuable, you matter.”
The Buffalo AKG team came back with three potential artists who might be capable of working on the scale required—and who might comfortably hanging 125 feet up in the air. Aaron Li-Hill was one of those artists.
Enthusiastic, the residents of LBJ got the chance to meet Li-Hill in the fall of 2022 at a workshop where they were invited to bring their family photographs. To further get to know the people there, the Public Art Initiative also hired local photographer Pat Cray, who spent time with residents to create portraits that Li-Hill would then use in his work.
What Is Here, the tallest mural that the Public Art Initiative has undertaken, is a monumental collective portrait of those who have made that space their own. At its center is a man named Bow and Arrow, an Indigenous LBJ resident. For Li-Hill, Bow and Arrow’s prominent presence in the mural both acknowledges the original inhabitants of the land on which the building was built and symbolizes strength and survival in the present day.
“This mural is about strength amid division,” says Li-Hill. “What I tried to capture here, and something I experienced while with the community, is joy, support, and solidarity.”
Aaron Li-Hill's mural debuted to the community on August 14, 2023. Buffalo AKG staff, including the Art Truck, along with representatives of Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority and the Mayor's office were on hand to celebrate with the residents.