On the Wall Between Two Cultures, A Mural

Six mural art exhibitions in Los Angeles.

By Zach Mortice 

Judith F. Baca, The Great Wall of Los Angeles, detail with Baby Boom. Image courtesy of SPARC Archive.

Murals, wherever they’re deployed, can be sites of cultural empowerment, protests aimed at the dominant culture, commemorations of heroes, or simple, subversive proclamations of existence.

 In their ability to reappropriate neglected space on a large scale, murals can be defining elements of landscape design. To thousands of landscape architects who will be in Los Angeles this month for the ASLA Annual Meeting and EXPO, Oct. 20-23, this will be good news: The Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA—Latin American and Latino Art in LA festival of thematically linked art exhibits will feature six installations that show how murals reshape our environment and tell hidden stories of marginalized cultures.

This year’s Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA, led by The Getty, focuses on the intersection of Latin American and Latino American art and culture in Los Angeles.

Judith F. Baca, photograph of The Great Wall of Los Angeles. A view of Judy Baca and mural makers meeting at the 1940s section titled David Gonzalez in progress. Photograph courtesy of SPARC Archive.

 Of the mural exhibits, the most engaged with landscape architecture is The Great Wall of Los Angeles: Judith F. Baca’s Experimentations in Collaboration and Concrete, at the CSU Northridge Art Galleries, which opens October 14. The Great Wall of Los Angeles mural, more than a half mile long, has been the work of the Chicana artist Judith Baca since 1976, when she first enlisted local neighborhood youth to assist her in bringing it to life. Still a work in progress, the mural traces the history of Los Angeles, Southern California, and America from prehistory to the 1950s, with a keen eye on ignored and underserved populations. It’s a Howard Zinn-style focus on “suppressed histories,” says Mario Ontiveros, an art professor at CSU Northridge who curated the show. Along the way, the mural pays tribute to early LGBTQ fights for equality, women’s roles in supporting the war efforts during World War I and World War II, the forced assimilation of Native Americans, and dust bowl refugees’ flight to California.

Judy Baca with The Great Wall of Los Angeles, detail with The Birth of Rock and Roll, summer 1983. Image courtesy of SPARC Archive.

Ontiveros’s exhibition is partly composed of documentary photos, but also includes drawings and notes from research community meetings that reveal Baca’s process. Still actively working on the mural (which is expected to be nearly a mile long when complete), Baca collaborated with Ontiveros on the exhibit.

When the mural began, Ontiveros says, there was little gallery and museum support for Chicana artists. Largely excluded from mainstream exhibition venues, Baca received a disused concrete flood channel from a local public art nonprofit (the Social and Public Art Resource Center) as her canvas. And while painting the Tujunga Wash drainage canal (a tributary of the Los Angeles River) in the San Fernando Valley, she and her team had to build sandbag barricades to keep flowing water away.

Mural makers crew, The Great Wall of Los Angeles, detail with Japanese Internment, summer 1981. Image courtesy of SPARC Archive.

The mural has since become a catalyst that has changed people’s relationship to the canal, which is now lined with trees, more attractive and accessible, and part of a greenway trail. The infrastructure related to Los Angeles’s concrete-entombed inland waterways is a ripe topic for landscape design lately, and one focus of Baca’s work. Growing up and working in Los Angeles, Baca took note, Ontiveros says, of the ways development and capital prioritized “hardening the arteries” of the city, and turning the river into “concrete scars.”

“The idea of the environment has been central to her work for over 50 years,” he says.

Judith F. Baca, The Great Wall of Los Angeles, detail with Charles Chaplin and Thomas Alva Edison, 1978. Image courtesy of SPARC Archive.

The long arc of the mural’s history demonstrates more than a few intriguing aesthetic transitions. In early phases of the mural, each image was mostly self-contained. But in later sections, images and eras overlap, sometime with surreal or magical realism twists. In the World War II section of the mural, Japanese American infantry emerge out of flowing blue U.S. flag stripes whipping through the sky, while Asian Americans sent to internment camps shuffle into the horizon. Later on, Dodger Stadium descends onto Chavez Ravine like a UFO, displacing a vibrant Latino community. These bold and broad visual metaphors that tell stories from overlooked points of view in a formerly overlooked place become far more than paint on a wall. “The beautification project,” Ontiveros says, “becomes a space of empowerment.”

The five other Pacific Standard Time mural exhibits are:

Ken Gonzales-Day, Danny, mural by Levi Ponce, Van Nuys Blvd., Pacoima, 2016. © 2016 Ken Gonzales-Day.

Surface Tension by Ken Gonzales-Day: Murals, Signs, and Mark-Making in L.A., at the Skirball Cultural Center, is a wide survey of more than 100 of Gonzalez-Day’s photos of Los Angeles murals.

Emigdio Vasquez, El Proletariado de Aztlán (Detail), 1979. Acrylic on plaster. 8′ x 40′. Chapman University Art Collections. © Emigdio Vasquez Art. Photo: Jessica Bocinski.

My Barrio: Emigdio Vasquez and Chicana/o Identity in Orange County, at Chapman University, is the first comprehensive exhibition of Vasquez’s work. The prolific Orange Country muralist’s paintings combine mythic Mexican and Mexican American history with gritty social realism. The artist’s son, who helped restore one of his father’s murals, will unveil a new mural on the Chapman campus, and Vasquez’s art will be shown along with related work by contemporary artists.

California Mexicana: Missions to Murals, 1820–1930 at the Laguna Art Museum, looks at the role the visual arts played in transitioning California’s national identity from Mexico to the U.S. with paintings, posters, prints, and film.

Prometheus 2017: Four Artists from Mexico Revisit Orozco, at the Pomona College Museum of Art, asks four contemporary artists to reinterpret José Clemente Orozco’s 1930 Prometheus fresco at Pomona College.

¡Murales Rebeldes! L.A. Chicana/o Murals Under Siege, at LA Plaza de Cultura y Artes, tells the story of eight murals in Los Angeles that have been threatened, censored, and demolished.

Several more exhibits find ways to look at Latino culture through a landscape design lens beyond murals:

Lineage Through Landscape: Tracing Egun in Brazil by Fran Siegel, at UCLA’s Fowler Museum, traces the plantcentric liturgy and ritual of West African-derived religions, transplanted into South America by the slave trade. Porcelain flowers and textured fabric weavings compile layers of cultural memory.

Jose Dávila: Sense of Place (at West Hollywood Park, 647 N. San Vicente Blvd., West Hollywood, California), hosted by LAND, is a large-scale modular public sculpture that will be disassembled and reconfigured in several Los Angeles landmarks, architectural sites, parks, and open spaces over the course of nine months, before being reassembled.

The U.S.–Mexico Border: Place, Imagination, and Possibility, at the Craft & Folk Art Museum, asks a multidisciplinary group of artists and designers to consider the border as physical infrastructure, the subject of imagination, and as a site of cultural production.

Zach Mortice is a Chicago-based design journalist who focuses on landscape architecture and architecture. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram. 

One thought on “On the Wall Between Two Cultures, A Mural”

  1. Wow, nice painting done on ‘The Great Wall of Los Angeles’!! it is the best option to tell hidden stories of marginalized cultures. Can you let me know how much exact time it took to design this wall of more than a half mile?

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