There are some relatively new murals, finished in September 2019, in downtown Durham. Head over to East Chapel Hill Street, right across the road from Ninth Street Bakery, and you’ll find them pretty quickly. On the right, Frida Kahlo gazes upward from her colorful perch on a parking lot garage door. To her left is a similarly vibrant scene with a monarch butterfly as its centerpiece. However, should you approach them closer, you’d notice an accompanying instructional plaque.
After reading the instructions, you find out that by downloading the app “Mariposa AR” (“mariposa” means butterfly in Spanish), the murals become enhanced by augmented reality. Once downloaded, the app reveals stories of immigration, floating objects and even portals that virtually transport you into a related North Carolina Museum of Art exhibit. Be careful not to get hit by a car while getting lost in exploring the virtual reality world.
The app was created by Code the Dream, a Durham-based organization that provides free software development classes for people from low-income backgrounds. By providing real life, hands-on work, Code the Dream is empowering people with the skills they need to succeed, and “Mariposa AR” is one of these projects come to life.
On “Mariposa AR” are several stories of immigration to Durham. By using monarch butterflies as pinpoints, a world map shows all the different places Durhamites come from. The monarch is a fitting symbol for such information, as it is famous for its large migrations between Mexico and the United States.
Visitors to the murals can also leave a short story about their own experiences with migration. These range from the intense, like Cruz from Celaya, Mexico, who wrote, “Swam rivers and crossed borders to get here,” to the silly, like the monarch butterfly over Moscow that says “Hi, I’m Mike, and I’m a ninja. I was born in Russia and moved to the U.S. at a young age. Been a ninja ever since then.”
The app is greatly connected to the artwork, which takes influence from Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, two artists famous worldwide for making Mexican modernism popular around the globe. This focus of the artwork is, of course, a conscious choice by each of the artists. Just like how the butterflies on the app represent the stories of each viewer, the murals represent the personal life of the artist.
The artist, in the case of the butterfly mural, is Cornelio Campos, a Mexican American painter. In an interview with the North Carolina Museum of Art, he said, “This was a real opportunity to represent my culture in my own style.”
The artist of the Frida Kahlo painting, Cecilia Lueza, is from Argentina and enjoys working on public pieces of art, a medium that is not present in her native country. Her mural, called “I am my own muse,” aims to “[bring] a lot of brightness, color dynamic, and it creates an interesting focal point for the community,” according to an interview with the North Carolina Museum of Art. She decided to paint Frida Kahlo because “her life especially is a big inspiration for many people, including me.”
In any case, both the murals and augmented reality experience are a favorite among Duke students and Durham residents alike.
“It’s another perspective on life,” first-year Alex Burgin said. “We can see how other people view the world, how they express themselves, and you can get some enjoyment out of it too.”
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Another first-year, Sarah LoCurto, found the virtual reality component of the murals compelling: “It definitely has a contrast with the real art that’s right in front of you.”
Without any background with AR previously except Pokemon Go, LoCurto appreciated the combination of public art and virtual reality.
“It’s definitely a much more interesting use of augmented reality,” she said.