For fifteen years, the West-facing wall of Mama Ayesha’s restaurant on Calvert Street stood bricked and barren, save for a narrow painted banner of Middle Eastern desert. In 2007 it was time for a tune up, decided manager Mohammed Abu-El-Hawa, whose family has owned and operated the Adams Morgan icon since 1960.
Originally founded as Calvert Café by Ayesha Abraham, a Palestinian immigrant who arrived in Washington in the late ‘40s, the restaurant has “served ambassadors, foreign dignitaries, and U.S. officials,” according to its website, and found a regular in one DC institution in particular: reporter Helen Thomas.
The distinguished (and now controversial) White House correspondent seemed the perfect fit for his DC venue, and Abu-El-Hawa envisioned a mural of Ms. Thomas interviewing every president since the start of her career, beginning with Kennedy and on through, at the time, George W. Bush.
Meanwhile, Karla “Karlisima” Rodas needed a project; and the Virginia native—by then a prolific area muralist— had painted several decorative portraits for Old City Café on nearby Columbia Road, a Middle Eastern eatery owned by Abu-El-Hawa’s cousins. At their recommendation, he hired her to take on Mama Ayesha’s.
“I prayed to God to give me this opportunity,” says Karlisima, gazing now at her completed piece. Initially the project was to take up only a small portion of the restaurant wall; but when Helen Thomas—too modest, says Abu-El-Hawa, for such publicity—declined his offer to make her the subject of the mural, Karlisima spread her wings.
“I didn’t think that [having multiple images of Ms. Thomas interviewing Presidents] would work—it would make for an awkward composition,” says Karlisima in fluent French. (Born in El Salvador, raised in Virginia, and having worked in England and Germany, Ms. Rodas is more than a bit worldly.)
Following Ms. Thomas’ suggestion, the mural was to feature Mama Ayesha instead; and quickly, plans for the mural evolved to make it “DC’s biggest postcard,” a political family portrait of sorts spanning the entirety of the restaurant wall. (By the end, “I prayed to God to help me finish it,” jokes Karlisima, in reference to the mural’s daunting size—the project took two years to complete.) Drawing from the original vision in which Ms. Thomas was to be depicted interviewing every President since the start of her career, Mama Ayesha was to stand among every President since her landing on American soil.
A simple concept, to be sure; and indeed at first glance, with its bright colors and linear composition, almost excessively so. But the beauty lies in the details: the shadows of every column of the Lincoln Memorial, White House, and Capitol building; the sliver of light reflecting on the Presidents’ fingernails; Easter eggs lying subtly on the White House lawn; and the precision of each President’s expression…. Stunning.
Like the richness of DC’s wildlife.
“You see there, how beautiful?” she says emphatically, pointing at a picturesque view of trees just beyond Mama Ayesha’s. “[Nature] is a source of inspiration,” she explains. “[This city] has so much of it—it had to be shown.” Karlisima made sure to include the Potomac River (on the right side of the mural), and the changing seasons, too, were carefully designed. The scene begins at the left with the brown and orange hues of fall, transitioning into the barren trees of winter seen behind President Kennedy’s smiling face—a symbol of sadness at his death.
But much of the mural depicts the cherry blossoms of spring, and ends with a dramatic sunset, “in the spirit of optimism,” explains Karlisima.
“When I wrote the proposal for this piece”—Karlisima applied for and received a grant from the DC Commission of the Arts and Humanities—“I wrote of this country’s ideals. Even in [an economic] depression, there is always hope and optimism. That is the sentiment.”
All photos by the author.