July 23, 2022
New mural of Brittney Griner and other wrongful detainees has Washington Mystics’ fingerprints on it
The Mystics’ Elizabeth Williams and Natasha Cloud helped put the mural up, and several members of the New York Liberty attended the unveiling in Washington
WASHINGTON – First, the volunteers applied a layer of glue, made of wheat and water, to the 15-foot brick wall. Then they put up the supersized black-and-white paper photos, many featuring smiling faces. Another layer of wheat-and-water glue went on last to keep the photos secure.
When the work was done and the volunteers, including Elizabeth Williams and Natasha Cloud of the Washington Mystics, laid down the brooms they used to apply the glue, Brittney Griner’s photo peeked out from an alley in Georgetown. She smiled at passersby shopping on the busy M Street Northwest and buying cookies at Levain Bakery next door.
Griner is one of 18 Americans represented on the mural, all of whom are currently wrongfully detained or held hostage in foreign countries. Their families and friends helped put the mural up on Tuesday and attended an unveiling ceremony on Wednesday. The Bring Our Families Home Campaign led the project, and artist Isaac Campbell designed the mural using photos provided by the detainees’ families.
Griner, an Olympic gold medalist and Phoenix Mercury star who was wrongfully detained on Feb. 17 in Russia on charges of drug possession and smuggling, is featured on the south end of the mural. Seventeen men with similarly uncertain fates are pictured in a line beside her. In the order they appear, the 18 people featured on the mural are:
- Brittney Griner (wrongfully detained in Russia)
- Emad Shargi (Iran)
- Luke Denman (Venezuela)
- Alirio Zambrano (Venezuela)
- Morad Tahbaz (Iran)
- Mark Swidan (China)
- Jose Angel Pereira (Venezuela)
- Siamak Namazi (Iran)
- Baquer Namazi (Iran)
- Jose Luis Zambrano (Venezuela)
- Jorge Toledo (Venezuela)
- Matthew Heath (Venezuela)
- Majd Kamalmaz (Syria)
- Airan Berry (Venezuela)
- Paul Whelan (Russia)
- Shahab Dalili (Iran)
- Kai Li (China)
- Paul Rusesabagina (Rwanda)
Griner is the youngest, at 31 years old, and 85-year-old Baquer Namazi is the oldest. All except Griner have been detained for at least a year; six have been detained for at least five years, and Mark Swidan has been detained the longest, since 2012.
The Bring Our Families Home Campaign launched in May 2022, and the mural is part of the family-led effort to free wrongfully detained Americans and Americans taken hostage. Campaign spokesperson Jonathan Franks consulted on the prisoner swap in April 2022 that freed Trevor Reed, an American who had been detained in Russia since 2019. Franks said at the unveiling ceremony that the campaign’s goal is to “urge President [Joe] Biden to … make use of all the tools in the toolbox to bring others home, including but not limited to prisoner trades.”
Williams and Cloud heard about the mural through the Women’s National Basketball Players Association (WNBPA), and Cloud also heard about it from her agent. They both went to see it on Tuesday after the Mystics’ midday practice. Williams told The Next that she had thought it would be completed by the time she arrived, but instead she got the honor of helping the organizers and detainees’ families put the paper on the wall. Cloud arrived a little later, in time to help apply the second layer of glue and finish a project that had started at 8 a.m.
“It was heavy,” Williams said of her emotions that afternoon. “Puts a lot of things in perspective. It makes me grateful that I could even be in a position to talk to these people and to share BG’s story and to know BG.”
“I felt a lot of sadness. A lot of sadness,” Cloud told The Next. “I feel like this season isn’t a regular season because BG isn’t here. And when I went up to the mural, that’s immediately what I felt … I can only imagine what she’s going through. So you feel all those feelings and then you feel that pride in your city that we stepped up as DC to … continue to shed light on it.”
Campbell said at the ceremony that collaborating to put up the mural with detainees’ families and friends was symbolically important.
“People of all different walks of life contributed in building this and they are in it, in every piece [of paper] and every splotch of glue. … Being able to provide these families with a tool, something as simple as putting some paper on a wall with glue we made over a stove, is incredibly moving and incredibly powerful,” he said. “Sharing this tool with them … is a message that everyone can begin to understand as we have a conversation, as citizens of this country and as elected officials, to really take a look inside and say, ‘Am I really using all the tools I have to contribute?’ Every person can have a piece in this conversation … We’ve made a difference, I think, with just some paper and some glue, and you can make a difference, too.”
The relatively simple method of creating the mural — called wheat pasting, it is the same basic method as papier-mâché — produces a striking effect. The mural spans the full length of the alley, covering the bricks on the wall, a drainage pipe and a few doors leading to the businesses whose walls bound the alley. Because the photos are in black and white, some of the lightest parts gleam in the sunlight. For Griner, those are the white Team USA jersey she’s wearing and the highlights on her cheekbones, forehead and shoulder. For other detainees, it’s their collared shirts or Matthew Heath’s Marine Corps dress cap.
Many of the photos show their subjects smiling, and they are arranged so that many of them seemingly look toward the center of the mural. As a result, it feels almost like a family photo where everyone isn’t quite looking at the camera. The mural also has a familiar, homemade feel because there are some creases and imperfections in the paper, and it is already peeling up at the bottom in places. That shows the passage of time, Campbell said, as the mural is meant to be biodegradable and impermanent.
Another extremely visceral way that the mural shows the passage of time is that some of the photos are blurry. Campbell explained that many of the photos are the most recent ones that the families had before their loved ones were detained — but some of those are now several years old and therefore lower resolution. With the photos being big enough that the small American flag decal on Griner’s USA jersey is the size of my hand, the blurriness of the older photos is inevitable, and it creates a feeling of the person fading away before our eyes.
Griner’s photo is one of the newer ones, and it displays the joy and warmth that she is known for around the WNBA. She is beaming and gazing slightly to her right, down the alley toward the others. She has matching star tattoos on her shoulders, and the letters U-S-A are visible on her chest at the very bottom of the photo.
“I thought it was perfect,” Williams said of the photo choice. “It’s a juxtaposition of her as an American, wearing a USA jersey, but also still a reminder that even with that on, she’s still limited and she’s still kind of stuck over there without America’s help. So I thought it was perfect. And with her smiling, too, it shows what type of person she is.”
“I love it,” Cloud added, “because … I think far too often, this country can be misrepresented, and I think BG is a great representation of it: Someone that lives authentically [as] themselves, lives their truth, lives with such a light and joy about them, and the time that she’s put in to give this country and wear this country across her chest and bring gold medals home to it. I think it’s a great picture.”
At first glance, Georgetown seems like an odd location for the mural. It isn’t particularly close to Capitol Hill or the White House, to most foreign embassies, or to a Metrorail stop for easy access. The neighboring businesses also create a jarring juxtaposition: A black and yellow flag saying, “Hostages & wrongful detainees. Bring them home” sticks out on M Street, in front of the Irish pub that shares a wall with Griner’s photo and near stores such as Allbirds and Urban Outfitters. The presence of Levain Bakery, whose exterior wall forms the other side of the alley, means that you smell chocolate chips and butter as you look at heart-wrenching photos.
But Georgetown is a bustling part of the city, giving people crucial opportunities to see the mural as they do everyday things. There are the people sitting in cars in the perpetual Georgetown traffic, the restaurant worker spraying down a plastic mat in the alley on a hot afternoon, the woman holding two small dogs on leashes as she waited in the alley for her friend to buy cookies. In a 30-minute span, several groups of passersby looked down the alley with curiosity, and a few bright blue chairs near Griner’s photo encourage lingering.
Williams and Cloud represented the Mystics at the mural site on Tuesday, and several members of the New York Liberty, in town to play the Mystics on Thursday, attended Wednesday’s ceremony. New York Liberty head coach Sandy Brondello coached Griner for eight seasons in Phoenix and was happy to be “in the right place at the right time” to participate. Brondello and her players stood alongside detainees’ families and got to meet them and hear their stories. (Griner’s wife Cherelle was not present because she was attending the ESPYs in Los Angeles that evening.)
“BG is someone that obviously I love dearly, and it’s unfortunate the situation that she’s in and I hope that we can get her home soon,” Brondello told reporters on Thursday. “But to meet some of the families, that was actually quite touching … It makes it really real because this is a father, a brother, a son, a lot of different things, and hopefully they all can come home soon.”
The Mystics did not attend Wednesday’s ceremony because it conflicted with their practice, but head coach Mike Thibault said that he would have tried to rearrange the practice schedule had he heard about the event earlier. “We heard about it through our players kind of at the last minute,” he told reporters on Thursday. “We would have liked to have been a lot more involved … My first reaction is that it’s really sad that we even have to do this. But I saw some renderings of it, and I think the artist has done a terrific job.”
Griner’s next hearing is scheduled for July 26 as her trial continues in Russia, where she plays for UMMC Ekaterinburg during the WNBA offseason. Russian authorities detained her in February after finding vape cartridges in her luggage at the Moscow airport, and she pled guilty to the charges this month. However, according to ESPN, 99% of Russian trials result in conviction, and the guilty plea was both “a recognition that there was no way she was going to be acquitted” and “a strategy to help facilitate a prisoner swap.”
Both chambers of Congress have introduced resolutions calling for Griner’s release, and, after calls for the White House to have a more active response, Biden recently declared wrongful detention and hostage-taking a national emergency.
“[Griner] has got a heart of gold,” Brondello said. “… I miss her. I miss her hugs, I miss her smiles, and I just pray every day that she’ll be back soon.”
“Even talking about it makes my heart heavy,” Walker-Kimbrough said. “I know I tell my family and my church to continue to pray for her because it’s just a terrible situation. … My family, they treat her like she’s one of our own, as far as with the prayer and stuff. Our hearts are heavy for her family.”
The WNBA, its players and its coaches continue to raise awareness about Griner’s detention, including with floor decals at WNBA arenas, frequent comments in press conferences and on social media, and every player wearing her No. 42 during the WNBA All-Star Game. Now, there is a mural in Washington to make sure no one forgets Griner or the other Americans who cannot yet come home.
“We can talk about issues, we can talk about how she is wrongfully detained, we can do all this stuff,” Cloud said. “But to have a mural of her, you don’t need words.
“It really is powerful in itself and just a constant reminder, again, that our sister isn’t here; she isn’t home. … It really hits deep with me, so I hope it hits deep with a lot of other people as well.”
Written by Jenn Hatfield
Jenn Hatfield has been a contributor to The Next since December 2018 and is currently the site's managing editor, Washington Mystics beat reporter and Ivy League beat reporter. Her work has also appeared at FiveThirtyEight, Her Hoop Stats, FanSided, Power Plays and Princeton Alumni Weekly.