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Miss Chelove: deciphering the hidden messages of a city’s street art revival

Written by Jacopo Prisco, CNN

Cita Sadeli saw the start of the pandemic from a different perspective than most: standing on an articulated elevator, hovering 120 feet above street level. She spent much of early March 2020 painting a mural outside the Xena Hotel in downtown Washington, D.C., watching from above as the coronavirus outbreak slowly took the city under its hold.

“I started on March 1 and the city closed around mid-March,” she said in a phone interview. “I could see the whole city change from this very high vantage point, people were dragging their office chairs across the square to take them home, because they weren’t going to come back to their desks. Everyone was panic.”

Work on “Guardians of the Four Directions” took place at the very start of the coronavirus outbreak and required the artist to be lifted up to 120 feet from street level. Credit: Omar Garcia

His work unexpectedly served as a balm. Titled “Guardians of the Four Directions,” the seven-story mural depicts two female warriors of color holding spears and standing firm, like sentinels watching over the city. They’re meant to represent nature, which Sadeli, who signs her artwork as Miss Chelove, says is among the things that have given us a sense of peace throughout the pandemic.

“People would just tell me that they would go out for a walk at the end of the day, to try to regain some composure and have a sense of normalcy in their lives, and they would see these two strong women, and I would say how much stronger they felt after seeing this (mural) unfold during this incredibly unstable time,” she recalled.

The experience encapsulates much of what is unique about street art and working on a large mural, which can be dangerous and intoxicating at the same time, especially in a place like DC.

“Because it’s such a politically important city, there are so many people passing through here, staging protests. There’s always something going on. It’s very, very lively in that sense. But ( the political district) is a distinct part of the city in many ways and for many (non-white) communities,” she said. These communities make DC one of the most diverse cities in the United States. , with 14% non-citizens or naturalized inhabitants, and large groups of immigrants from countries such as El Salvador, Ethiopia and Guatemala.
Miss Chelove: deciphering the hidden messages of a city’s street art revival

Chelove in front of “Amazon Love Letter”, from 2016. Credit: Jeremy Brandt-Vorel

“I’m half Indonesian; I’m also a minority and come from an immigrant background,” said Sadeli, who is featured on the Washington, DC, episode of CNN’s original series “Nomad.” “One thing that’s important for me to do is to kind of keep some of these stories of the minorities and the black, indigenous and people of color in the area and to keep those stories alive and circulating them in the street as much as possible.”

Marking and bombardment

Sadeli was born in Bloomington, Indiana, but moved to the DC area when she was 4 years old. Her mother was involved with the Indonesian embassy in town, which became a way for Sadeli to express her culture and, incidentally, expose herself to street art. . “We grew up going there and on those trips, all along the way, I would see graffiti. As a youngster, I was fascinated and immediately drawn to them,” she said.

“As a teenager, I started tagging here and there on the streets, and then I eventually met some expats from the Bronx who had moved to the area and taught me more about the culture, and that stayed. I feel like it’s still part of my job, although I’m not out there tagging and bombing all the time,” she said. is the simplest form of graffiti – an artist’s stylized signature – and bombarding means saturating an area, with tags or “throwies” (filled bubble letters using two colors).

Today, when doing street art, Sadeli mostly works with grants. “Fortunately, there’s a fair amount of good public art funding, at least in DC,” she said, adding that she’s seeing the same across the country.

After applying for and winning a grant, artists are paired with the owner of the property that will host the mural, and they create a concept together, often with input from the community. Sadeli’s main goal as an artist, she said, is to send an uplifting and positive message, which is reflected in the bold and vibrant colors that have become her signature. It’s a philosophy exemplified by “She Smiles 100 Suns”, a Miss Chelove mural painted on the side of Sonnie’s Groceries on DC’s Kennedy Street, depicting a girl among flowers and meant to evoke youth and strength.

Miss Chelove: deciphering the hidden messages of a city’s street art revival

“She Smiles 100 Suns” (2019), a mural on Sonnie’s Groceries in Kennedy Street, depicting youth and strength. Credit: Miss Chelove

Community link

Although the designs are carefully planned rather than improvised, the artistic process is influenced by the surrounding environment and this can seep into the work, Sadeli said.

“What’s around you, who you meet informs the mood and that can be a totally positive addition or – maybe if you’re going through something personally – it can detract from the quality of the work, like any artist “, she said. mentioned. “Because it’s a performance: what you bring to it every day and how that interacts with you, that changes everything.”

Another piece, created before the pandemic and titled “You’re Welcome”, is painted on the wall of a local clinic whose mission is to provide health care to incarcerated and homeless people. It depicts three people of different ethnic origins.

Miss Chelove: deciphering the hidden messages of a city’s street art revival

“You Are Welcome” (2018), outside Unity Health Care in Columbia Heights, a mural reflecting the clinic’s multicultural patients and a message for them. Credit: Miss Chelove

“This building is in a very ethnic part of town, Columbia Heights. This space actually became a gathering place for people during COVID, but right before that immigrants wouldn’t come to the clinic when they were sick because that they were afraid that ICE would have them. In the grandmother’s shawl, you see “Welcome” in five different languages ​​- this is to really connect with these communities. To let them know that this is a space for them,” she said.

Miss Chelove: deciphering the hidden messages of a city’s street art revival

“Seasons collection” (2021), a series of installations for Signal House in the Union Market neighborhood of Washington, DC. Credit: Miss Chelove

Local communities are quickly creating a connection with these murals, Sadeli observed. “People really get attached to the job. If something happens to it they get upset. They feel like they own it and I think that’s the biggest part of that job, something I wouldn’t trade for any job. in a gallery, where only a certain segment of the population can really access your work,” she said.

“It’s the greatest privilege ever to have your work seen by anyone.”

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