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One of my favorite public art installations in Houston is Tolerance, by renowned Spanish artist Jaume Plensa, installed in 2011 along the north side of Allen Parkway and Montrose. This stretch along Buffalo Bayou Park is now referred to as Harmony Walk.

photo credit: Hadia Mawlawi

From the moment you encounter these seven kneeling figures, you are awed by their magnificence, scale and reverent kneeling posture. They are striking yet unimposing in their quiet presence that invites reflection and contemplation.

The inspiring story behind their commission says as much about Houston as it does about the art. In 2006 a local16 year old Mexican-American was sodomized and brutally assaulted. Unable to live with his shame following the attack he leapt to his death from the upper deck of a cruise ship, but not before mustering the courage to testify before congress and help pass the Hate Crime Prevention Act. This story shocked the local community and highlighted the extent to which hate-crime was increasing in the United States. Mica Mosbacher, widow of former Secretary of Commerce Robert Mosbacher said:

"In contemplating how in some small way I could help to right that wrong, I began to think about Houston, and that in Houston, our city is an open city, and those are not part of our values. We are tolerant, we embrace other cultures, and in fact, those other cultures have been the engines of our healthy and prosperous economy."

photo credit: Hadia Mawlawi- Dedication Plaque for the commission

She quotes the United Nation's definition of Tolerance and how it relates to the city of Houston:

"Tolerance is harmony in our differences. Tolerance is not a concession, it's not a condensation or indulgence."

The project became a collaboration between private funding spearheaded by Mica Mosbacher and the Aga Khan Foundation, and the city of Houston through the Houston Arts Alliance.

Each of the seven figures, representing the seven continents, are ten feet high and made out of thick stainless steel mesh comprised of characters and symbols from nine alphabets. These letters and numbers are intended to represent the unity and diversity of Houston while their random arrangement ensures there are no words contained within the mesh design. These letters come from a multitude of languages including: Latin, Hebrew, Arabic, Chinese, Japanese, English, Korean, Greek, Hindi and Cyrillic.

photo credit: Hadia Mawlawi

photo credit: Hadia Mawlawi

Striking and imposing by day, they become "glowing beacons" by night thanks to the lighting installed in their base.

photo credit: 365 Houston

In his official statement on the work, Plensa wrote:

"Despite all of the many differences that make us unique, such as religion and language, we are all trying to achieve similar things, such as love, health, prosperity, and the success of our children."

The primary difference between each of the seven identical statues is the unique boulder that each one rests upon. Plensa personally selected all seven boulders in Spain and they were shipped to Houston for this permanent public art installation.

photo credit: Hadia Mawlawi

When asked why the choice of the title, Plensa responded:

"I gave this title to my project because I feel that tolerance means to dream of one world. Tolerance is the right way to be content in relationships with others, but it's not easy. I guess it also means inspiration to live together in harmony."

Plensa also notes:

"In my projects, I am always trying to emphasize the interior capabilities of humans. We have to explore ourselves from the inside first and this is always an invitation for the visitors of my shows to do this."

This explains the transparent quality of Tolerance, the open spaces between each character inviting us not only to see through the statues but to contemplate what lies within.

photo credit: Hadia Mawlawi

Plensa, who said he grew up in a "Forest of Books" sees the letter as a metaphor for human beings:

"When you compare "A" with "B", or "C" with "D", or other characters, they seem different. But how beautiful when you can put them together and build up words. And words with words, text. And text with text, culture."

photo credit: Hadia Mawlawi

Former Houston Mayor, Bill White, who was involved with the project and attended the dedication ceremony, said:

"Above all, I really pay tribute to those who break down barriers in this community. Sometimes they're very courageous people who have endured some hardship and taken a stance . . . but often, they are quiet strugglers, individuals who have persevered when there is stereotyping. For them, this particular public art will be dedicated."



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