Perspective of a visionary is attuned to everything as a work in progress. With work in a state of constant flux, allowances for them to condition flexibility over tendency is the testament to the outcome’s demands and challenges. In 1974 American Chicana scholar, activist, artist, visionary peacekeeper, Professor Judith F. Baca took on this challenge. She was approached by the Army Corps of Engineers to construct a mural to revamp and beautify a section of the newly cemented Tujunga Wash; a flood-water tributary of the Los Angeles River.
The LA River is the city’s expansive waterway system emerging from the Simi Hills and Santa Susana Mountains of Bell Creek and Arroyo Calabasas, intersecting in Canoga Park then extending east into Frogtown and discharging southbound into Long Beach. Encompassing a total length of 47.9 miles everyone in the Los Angeles Basin and flowing neighborhoods is connected and related to these cement confluences. At the initiation of the project with multifarious questions at hand, the biggest detriments to the success of this assignment were in displaying an authentic and consistent historical narrative, labor, and time. Hence, currently being in a time of which we’ll be able to look back upon and recant as the “post-truth” McCarthyism 2.0 era, the Great Wall of LA stands as a time-capsule and representational example of how we can aspire to teach history in the future – through the lens of the oppressed.
Heralding “through the eyes of women and minorities”, the ostracized and often taken for granted perspectives of ethnic, queer, and women voices in their brutally realistic viewpoints, confront the sponged patriarchal historical accounts on this 2,754ft. cement stretch of wall. Having span prehistoric California channeling through the Spanish arrival, 1848-1910 period, World War I, and up until the 1950s, each of the panel’s vivid expression leaves one in fixation.
‘The purpose of any monument is to bring the past into the present to inspire the future.’ -Judy Baca
Judy having been raised in Watts with a strong sense of indigenous Chicano culture through exposure of her neighborhood’s artistic utterances, she was abruptly uprooted to Pacoima. Speaking primarily Spanish when she was a child, she was offset to not having a firm foundation of English when she started elementary school. To a white suburbia far removed than what she was accustomed to in the familiarity of the Latino community, growing up as a minority she recognized after graduating from Cal State Northridge she wanted to make art accessible passed the institution. The mission in Judy’s work rests in giving agency to the historically disenfranchised lives and concerns in sectors of the populace related to women, the working poor, youth, the elderly, LGBTQ, and immigrant communities. When new social power spread to other ethnic enclaves in the city, common themes emerged that all communities shared amongst another. Leading to struggle with similar hardline issues that received media traction and documentation, the result created unabridged expressionism from lived experiences in these awakened communities.
Her vehemence in carrying a congruently charged message persevered as did those of Mexican painter/muralist predecessors, Los Tres Grandes – Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco, and David Alfaro Siqueiros; demonstrating Mexican-American identity politics, Mexican nationalism, Marxist ideals, and other turn of events correlated to the Mexican Revolution in their famous works showed parallels. Baca’s earlier projects beginning in the summer of 1970, reflected themes of street tension, social anguish, protest movements such as in her murals, Las Vistas Nuevas in Boyle Heights and Mi Abuelita in Hollenbeck Park during her time at the Parks and Recreation Department. Judy had the audacity to do something different than her contemporary counterparts – she charted into the public sphere and got the community involved in the process. She was promoted Director of Eastside Murals shortly after and then later founding the Citywide Mural Project – the first of its kind when it came to public mural programs. A few years of worrying about censorship and funding being pulled from the program by the city, she took a risk and established the Social and Public Art Resource Center (SPARC) alongside Christina Schlesinger and Donna Deitch in 1976.
‘This is not what art did. It did not intervene in social spaces, mitigating problems that these kids were facing. It was so foreign to the arts to be engaged in social justices action or transformative action with a community.’
The murals guidance came together through SPARC and with help of other organizations, scholars, ethnographers, historians, artists, and youth summer groups to contribute content, intellectual insights, research, artistic talents, and logistical support to the overall production of the murals over the course of the summer months of 1978-1983. A few of the artists recruited to team up for the project included Isabel Castro, Yreina Cervantez, Patssi Valdez, Judy Chicago, and Gary Tokumoto. Working through a process called “Imagining of Content” each section/scene underwent this examination of which pinnacle shifts in history were paramount to be highlighted in the mural. Taking an average of one year per section/scene, this design of “Imagining of Content” helped eliminate inaccuracies, decipher through historical biases, selecting sketches, and critiquing renderings. Working mano a mano, power complexes were evident during the production of the project between “warring neighborhoods”, the youth groups from different social, economic, and linguistic backgrounds. Skilled in dealing with conflicts of interests, Judy was able to make youth participants come together to see the project to fruition. Additional grants and funding in hiring youth Mural Makers for the project were gifted through the Jewish Community Foundation.
So where do the remaining decades between 1960 and the present stand? Pipelines for continuation of the project are in motion. However, restoration playing a reoccurring role in the discussion due to environmental exposure of sun, water damage, pollution from nearby fertilizers, and erosion with the current murals were estimated to have cost roughly $400k back in 2011 to complete. There are talks of other amenities such as a pedestrian bridge, and solar lighting to be added funding through LA county, the city, Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, and the CA Cultural Historical Endowment, though, is that enough? The National Endowment of the Arts is providing for the initial designs for the panels of the 60s, 70s, and 80s. Truth be told, waiting for the full disclosure of what is in the queue from Judy and SPARC is nerve-racking to say the least…. Imagining more bodies of work reflecting acts of resistance, the birth/assimilation of technology, economic, and climate catastrophes to be presented in the designs ahead are perhaps what we can be on the lookout for for this project’s future endeavors. I hope with working with juvenile delinquents in the past, SPARC is able to institute a program to incorporate incarcerated individuals through the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation with the California Arts Council. Aside from these points, the Great Wall of Los Angeles is a modern marvel that anyone visiting LA should take up the opportunity to see with their own eyes.
‘The people who have worked on this project gave much more than their time. They made a giant monument to interracial harmony.’
Judy has concurrent shows in Los Angeles as part of Pacific Standard Time LA/LA at the Hammer Museum, Cal State Univ. of Northridge, Craft & Folk Art Museum, and One Archives at the USC Libraries. Check out River LA’s initiative to transform and revitalize the LA River into a 51-miles continuous public space by the end of the decade. Also for additional fun, check out this online database hosting all murals in the Los Angeles area and their histories.