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opinion | lawrence harmon

In the eye of the beholder

A Boston mural controversy shows how culture influences perception

Boston is a drab and colorless place, at least as seen through the eyes of Brazilian street artists Otavio and Gustavo Pandolfo, known in the art world as Os Gemeos (Portuguese for “the twins’’). Their gift to the city is a vivid mural that has set off a culture clash on the border between art and life in downtown Boston.

The mural depicts a young, huddled figure swathed in a headcloth. Scores of viewers think the figure depicts a terrorist. They expressed their criticism on the Facebook page of Fox Boston. The ACLU pushed back, highlighting the absurdity of attaching the terrorist label to a figure wearing a headdress.


I’m guilty, too, and I can prove it. My immediate reaction to the mural was: What is a cartoonish image of Palestinian hijacker Leila Khaled — the so-called “girl terrorist’’ of the 1960s — doing on the wall of an air intake structure in Dewey Square on the Rose Kennedy Greenway?

Enter the city’s art experts.

“Art is a language,’’ advises Jill Medvedow, who commissioned and financed the work in her role as director of the Institute of Contemporary Art. She suggests people learn some vocabulary before forming their opinions. Os Gemeos, she explained, often accessorize their characters in mismatched clothes, whimsical hats, scarves, and colorful hoods. These figures are best appreciated in the context of “distinctly Brazilian energy.’’

Globe art critic Sebastian Smee gets it. He has suggested that the character in the mural — a boy, it turns out — may indeed harbor illicit intentions. But only to the extent of tagging buildings with colorful graffiti characteristic of Sao Paulo, where the twins grew up.

Still, there is something unsettling about placing art work dominated by a massive masked subject near the entrance to South Station, the city’s major railway station. Bostonians may lack knowledge of the vernacular of Brazilian street art. But the artists from Brazil may be a little fuzzy on Boston sensibilities, too. This is still the city of origin of the passenger jets used by Al Qaeda hijackers to attack the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001.


Brazilian artists may not care. Their government doesn’t seem to. It hasn’t bothered even to enact anti-terrorism legislation. As a result, the FARC, Hamas, and other terrorist groups comfortably conduct their financial transactions in Brazil. It’s not a big topic of conversation in the art world. But it is a subject of considerable concern among international security experts who contemplate the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.

This mural controversy differs from the culture wars of the 1980s when cranks went out of their way to be offended by art shown in museums that received only a pittance in public funding. The Dewey Square mural is enormous, covering a 70-foot-by-70-foot space. And it is inescapable for people coming in and out of South Station. That’s why a more thorough vetting of the image would have been nice.

The approval and installation of public art on Greenway property is usually a three- to six-month process. But this piece needed to be permitted and completed in less than a month to coincide with the Aug. 1 opening of the twins’ show at the ICA. Normally, a seven-member committee of the Greenway Conservancy would convene to review and sign off on any public art installation. But things moved too fast for that. And the city’s Art Commission, which is eager to open new avenues for public art, stipulated only that the piece contain no nudity or obscenity.


Basically, no one at the ICA, Greenway Conservancy, or Art Commission knew exactly what the mural would look like until it was finished.

Had the decision-makers had a better sense, Bostonians might have been treated to the color and energy of an Os Gemeos mural without the creepy aspect of the masked figure. Most of the twins’ paintings at the ICA exhibit, after all, feature characters whose faces are not masked.

The mural remains at least through Nov. 25, when the twins’ exhibit ends at the ICA. But it could stay up longer depending on public reaction and how the piece holds up to Boston weather. So be it. Sooner or later, wind, rain, and salt will strip away the mask.

Lawrence Harmon can be reached at harmon@globe.com.