Aniekan Udofia made his way to Ben Ali Way at 2 a.m. Thursday to watch as the vinyl prints of his work were installed on the side of Ben’s Chili Bowl, one of the most well-known restaurants in Washington, D.C. For 2½ hours, Udofia oversaw each piece as it was married to the wall and smoothed flush against the brick.
But even though Udofia was seeing it for the first time in its final form, he couldn’t really see it, considering the sun hadn’t even risen and darkness still hovered over the alleyway. Five hours later, the full scale of what he had created could finally be taken in.
His mural of Negro Leagues baseball legends Mamie “Peanut” Johnson, Josh Gibson and the Homestead Grays was the kickoff event for the 2018 Major League Baseball All-Star week. MLB tapped a black artist to create a mural celebrating black baseball excellence in Chocolate City, and that tidbit should not be overlooked when discussing how the league infused the history of the city into this year’s All-Star festivities.
Mo’ne Davis, who became the first girl to win and pitch a shutout at the Little League World Series, and Sean Gibson, the great-grandson of Josh Gibson, were both invited to the ceremony and spoke to commemorate the occasion.
Even after the one-hour event, Udofia was still in disbelief.
“It was just amazing,” the D.C. native said. “Just seeing the work and the way they printed it out. It came out and it was so crisp, and it looks just like the painting itself. I didn’t know what to expect. … I was staring at it on canvas all along and, you know, you get used to looking at it every day and you’re like, ‘Eh.’ Then you come out here and you see it and it’s blown up and you’re like, ‘Whoa, I did paint that. Wow … I finally get to see it for what it is.’
“Seeing it now, it’s a whole other experience. … I like the movement … and the movement of the color.”
Ben’s Chili Bowl is proud to announce that @MLB unveiled a mural honoring Negro Leagues Baseball and trailblazing players Mamie “Peanut” Johnson and Josh Gibson on the Lincoln Theatre across from our historic U Street location!
— Ben’s Chili Bowl (@benschilibowl) July 12, 2018
Davis talked about the lessons she learned from her mentor Johnson, such as never throwing over the heart of the plate. She described the first time the two met, after Davis’ Little League coach reached out to Johnson about attending their game in Loudoun County, Virginia, and how Johnson trekked to Williamsport, Pennsylvania, to see Davis play.
“She was just so outgoing and so genuine,” Davis said. “I think it’s pretty cool how a lot of women are getting the recognition that they deserve. Only if it happened before she passed, but hey, at least she’s getting it and people are getting to know who she is.”
Sean Gibson, the executive director of the Josh Gibson Foundation, was absolutely blown away by the image of his great-grandfather, but more importantly, he was happy to see that Gibson wasn’t alone in the image. Baseball is a team sport, and seeing Gibson and the team together was paramount.
The fact that the mural was across from images of Barack and Michelle Obama, Prince and Muhammad Ali was something Sean Gibson pointed out in his speech when he talked about the importance of maintaining the history for the generations to follow. And for all the stories out there about how amazing his great-grandfather was as a ballplayer, Sean Gibson told the story of how Gibson tried to save his wife’s life as she gave birth to the couple’s twins.
“It’s beautiful,” Sean said. “I think he did a great job. I like the colors. When you drive past you can see it, but I think it’ll get a lot of attention. It’s a great honor.
“He was a great family man. Josh played baseball year-round, so he wasn’t home that much. … Hearing stories from other Negro League players is fascinating, because they tell you about his playing days … being a happy-go-lucky type of guy, not a serious guy, so all those stories like that are great to hear.”
Late last year, Udofia was approached by the league and city about his interest in taking on the project. Once he agreed to be the artist for the mural, he was given reading material on Gibson, the Grays and Johnson so he could get a better idea of whom he was trying to portray.
Johnson, who relocated to D.C. after her playing days and died in December 2017, was the first woman to pitch in the Negro Leagues. Gibson, one of the greatest hitters and players the sport had ever seen, played for the Grays, who won nine consecutive Negro National League titles.
After watching the videos and going over the reading materials and finding out the mural was going to be located in the famous Ben Ali Way, Udofia was completely on board. It took about a month to come up with the concept — color patterns, flow and where things went — and then over four days he painted the piece on two huge canvases.
The color red is a constant throughout the piece, and done intentionally as an ode to the D.C. flag. Red stars, another prominent feature in the city’s flag, are consistent in the mural, and the way Udofia designed it makes it look as if Johnson is reaching for the stars. This all moves into a portrait of the Grays and Gibson, who looks prepared to deliver a crushing blow to the ball being thrown toward him.
“It’s surreal,” Udofia said. “It’s the All-Star weekend, and the kickoff is a mural that I created, so, yes, absolutely, I am very grateful for being called upon to do this.”
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