Walking across the asphalt expanse toward the Target store on East Lake Street, I am struck by a 52-foot-long burst of color painted on the store’s eastern wall. As you come closer to the mural, the large-scale faces of five women come into view, each of different ethnicities, with vibrant eyes designed to grab your attention.
The striking mural that St. Paul-based artist Hend al-Mansour painted on the east-facing wall of the Target store at 2500 E. Lake St. is a potent example of the power of “public art.”
In the spring of 2022, al-Mansour spent two weeks on a scaffold crafting the largest, most public piece she has completed, part of the effort to revitalize the Target store on East Lake Street (within eyesight of the burned out 3rd Precinct headquarters), one of the buildings heavily damaged during the civil unrest that followed the May 2020 killing of George Floyd by the Minneapolis police.
The Saudi Arabia-born al-Mansour was one of seven artists Target Corp. commissioned to create murals on the rebuilt store’s exterior, further revitalizing a spot once the site of several days and nights of strife and turmoil, following Floyd’s murder. The artists worked 10- to 12-hour days, using house paints that Target supplied — manufactured to withstand the ravages of Minnesota’s winter winds and summer sunshine.
“Faces” is one of seven new murals on the exterior wall of the Lake Street store, each by a local artist whom Target selected as part of its rebuilding effort. One of the faces is that of a young African American woman folding a smartphone, like the one 17-year-old Darnella Frazier used to capture the video of Floyd’s death that ignited a global movement. The acknowledgment of the injustice, and the healing, started that day, al-Mansour notes.
The mural also portrays a Native American cyclist and environmental activist, a Hmong teacher, a Somali American nurse dressed in green scrubs and a hijab, along with an Arab American artist holding brushes. Above the women are ornate Islamic-style arches, with native Minnesota wildflowers, including the pink lady’s slipper, the state flower.
Although al-Mansour has been a constant creator of drawn and painted images since her early childhood in Saudi Arabia, her first career was in medicine, as a cardiologist. But she never stopped making art. Twenty years into her practice she came to the United States in 1997 for a Mayo Clinic fellowship. She then decided to make art her full-time career, attending the Women’s Art Institute at St. Catherine University and earning her MFA from Minneapolis College of Art and Design.
She also met and married her husband, University of St. Thomas theology professor emeritus Dr. David Penchansky.
In 2013 she earned a master’s degree in art history at St. Thomas and has since exhibited her screen prints throughout the world. Al-Mansour’s colorful screen prints combine stylized figures, Arabic calligraphy and designs of Sadou (Bedouin style) and henna. She also builds shrine-like spaces out of printed fabric, reflecting both traditional Bedouin tents and Islamic architecture.
Al-Mansour and her talent have been recognized with a number of honors:
- She was awarded a McKnight Artist Fellowship in 2018, a Jerome Fellowship of Printmaking in 2013-14, the Juror’s Award of the Contemporary Islamic Art exhibition in Riyadh Saudi Arabia in 2012 and a Minnesota State Arts Board Artist Initiative grant in 2005.
- She was listed among the 100 most powerful Arab women in 2009, 2011 and 2012 in the online magazine Arabian Business.
- She has shown her work in regional, national and international exhibitions, lectured on Arab art and her personal journey, and curated exhibitions featuring Middle Eastern artists.
Al-Mansour is a co-founder of the group Arab Artists in the Twin Cities and was a member of the Arab American Cultural Institute in St. Paul, where she worked to promote the understanding and expression of Arab culture in the West.
How Art Restores Justice
During her growing-up years in the town of Hofuf, Saudi Arabia, al-Mansour says the burgeoning women’s movement of the 1970s impacted her choice of artistic themes and sharpened her awareness of gender equality, although “not on a conscious level. I’ve always liked painting women in various situations,” she explains.
“It was only when I went to art school that I examined my motivation and where my art was coming from. I realized it’s very important to me to express the injustice that is practiced against women and how to correct it. I started looking into history for women who had positive, leadership roles in Islamic society and highlighting them.”
Historically, in Islamic society art has been prominently featured as decoration for palaces, mosques and other buildings, usually without mention of who the artists were. Studying the history of Islamic art, “I realized that a lot of this art has been made by women,“ she says.
During a recent interview, al-Mansour was eager to discuss her mission and feelings about making art in public. As an artist, “when you are commissioned you try to figure out a way to make what you want to make, and also make it close to the theme the commissioner wants from you,” she explained.
On the store’s front face, al-Mansour created a 52-foot-long mural on the healing of the community. While conceiving the work, al-Mansour says she thought the “first type of healing is to restore justice. That is key to my feeling of justice.” The mural she created represents women of several ethnicities, each one embodying a different form of healing.
Of course, using close-up, head-on images of faces with what could be considered a confrontational gaze, is a way to catch the attention of passers by, the constantly changing viewing audience. Companies recognize the role and power of public art, she says: “We are surrounded by art; its power is obviously noticed by companies, who use it to their advantage in advertising.”
Art like the Target murals also provides a safe, very public place to examine ideas and topics that some might consider controversial or dangerous, she notes. “When you see art you can see the idea behind it and think about it, maybe not even consciously absorbing it.”
Because of its power, art has been used for both good and evil throughout history, she adds. “When you make art from your feelings and what you think is your mission in life, then you are being honest. And when you are honest you are talking not only about yourself but also about other people. We are all similar, in a way; deep down we all share the same concerns, hopes, fears. So artists express other people’s concerns fears and hopes, and they are windows for the community to let in fresh air, breathe and express itself.”
Creating art in public is a vastly different experience from an artist’s usual, isolated studio environment, which she enjoyed. “As my colleagues and I were painting, we had a lot of people passing and got a lot of thank you’s. Everybody said, ‘We need this.’ They were happy to see people who represented them.”
Still, she has mixed feelings about working in public versus the privacy and creative freedom of a studio. “When something goes wrong and you get frustrated, you don’t have to struggle in front of people,” she explains. Some artists are better at “performing” than others; for her, sketching the outlines and filling in colors were easier aspects of the project to do in public.
The Target mural was al-Mansour’s first experience doing large-scale art. Height presented a challenge, as did daylight. The artists painted over their initial sketches, which were projected on the wall; at times, she says, it was “very difficult to see the outline because there was not enough darkness.”
The time constraints specified by Target necessitated some endurance, with the artists working 10 to 12 hours per day. On the final day, Target provided helpers to finish the coloring process, she notes.
Al-Mansour would like to do more outdoor art projects, even though “it’s short-lived and can’t be protected against the elements.” But in such a public spot, “more people see it than they would in museums or galleries,” at least in the short term.
Image at top courtesy of Hend al-Mansour’s Twitter feed: @hendalmansour