Visual Arts

Perhaps It's Time For Another Look at Muhammad Ali's Message of Peace

Dream Baby Dream (9), one of a set of 12 paintings by Vincent Valdez, is on view at David Shelton Gallery through November 10.
Dream Baby Dream (9), one of a set of 12 paintings by Vincent Valdez, is on view at David Shelton Gallery through November 10. Photo by Peter Molick courtesy of David Shelton Gallery
It's been said that timing is everything. The 2016 death of legendary boxing champion Muhammad Ali dealt a knock-out punch, and not just in the world of sports. His work in the areas of philanthropy, humanitarian causes and civil rights ensured that the loss was felt all over the world.

And so when Texas artist Vincent Valdez was trying to complete an epic but haunting panoramic oil of a Ku Klux Klan family gathering on a hill, his attention kept drifting to the interfaith funeral proceedings being televised from Louisville, Kentucky.

Planned long ago by Ali himself, in consultation with attorneys, police, clerics and trusted confidantes, "The Book" was a two inch thick document that outlined every element of his funeral service, revised often, giving the champ one final goodbye to the world. That message, that peace must prevail, was delivered to a crowd of 14,000 regular Joes, VIPs and celebrities in a funeral service that included messages from multiple religions while also honoring the traditions of his Muslim faith.

But it wasn't until the 2016 presidential election came to a head that it became clear to Valdez that his next project — Part II of his The Beginning Is Near trilogy — would be to resurrect the compassion and conviction of the words heard during those fervent eulogies.


Now fully realized as a series of 12 mostly monochromatic oil paintings, on view at David Shelton Gallery, "Dream Baby Dream" beautifully captures the power of that service: Ali's grieving widow Lonnie seeking refuge in the shadows of her hat, the emotion of the eulogists, the stoic attempts to hold back tears and, as if lifted from the canvas of a Renaissance master, the deeply layered backdrop of funeral flowers emerging from the darkness.

In this era when President Trump churns through high-ranking staffers in a surreal imitation of The Apprentice, where White House insiders have formed a secret resistance to work from within, unrest and discontent are at an all-time high.

Compounding our nation's dis-ease is the fact that our President isn't too busy to redouble his swamp-draining efforts and criticize Nike for featuring Colin Kaepernick in its ad; the NFL player was the first to kneel during the national anthem to highlight racial injustice. Two-time Super Bowl winner Osi Umenyiora disagrees, saying that Kaepernick's stand for what he believes places the footballer in the same category as Ali and Rosa Parks.

Peace must prevail, and it's about time to hear that message again.

In painting "Dream Baby Dream" it was those messages of peace, the symbolism behind the flowers and wreath, and the echoing lyrics by Martin Rev and the late Alan Vega (electro-punk band Suicide) that mattered more to Valdez than the identifications of his subjects.

But you'll see them all when visiting David Shelton Gallery: Attallah Shabazz, the daughter of Malcolm X; Imam Zaid Shakir; Senator Orrin Hatch; and Rabbi Michael Lerner, who drew standing ovations from mourners for his thinly-veiled criticism of then Republican candidate Donald Trump.

"Dream Baby Dream" runs September 7-November 10 at David Shelton Gallery, open 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, 4411 Montrose, Suite B, 713-393-7319, davidsheltongallery.com, free.
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Susie Tommaney is a contributing writer who enjoys covering the lively arts and culture scene in Houston and surrounding areas, connecting creative makers with the Houston Press readers to make every week a great one.
Contact: Susie Tommaney