The perspective of a visionary is marked by seeing everything as a work in progress. With work in a constant state of flux, they prioritize flexibility over tendency, which is often a testament to the outcome’s high demands and challenges. In 1974, Judith Francisca Baca, American Chicana scholar, activist, artist, and brilliant peacekeeper, took on a project of immense proportions. Baca 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 — before finally discharging south into Long Beach. Encompassing a length of 47.9 miles, everyone in the Los Angeles Basin and surrounding neighborhoods is connected by confluences of water and incasing cement. At the outset of the project, with multifarious questions at hand, the major issue Professor Baca faced was how display an authentic and consistent historical narrative of labor and time within her piece. As we are currently living in the “post-truth” McCarthyism 2.0 era, the Great Wall of LA stands as a time-capsule and representational example of how to teach history in both the present and future – through the lens of the oppressed. Baca having stated in an interview with KCET regarding the availability of art to those that are poor, knew then that the big picture when it came to creating this public art space for everyone went against the grain of truth of the art world – which is art is created primarily for those with expendable income.
Seen “through the eyes of Native Americans, women and minorities,” the ostracized and often underrepresented perspectives of ethnic, queer and women’s voices, with their brutally realistic viewpoints, confront the sponged patriarchal historical accounts on this 2,754ft. stretch of cement wall. Spanning prehistoric California, the Spanish Arrival, the 1848-1910 period, World War I and up until the 1950s, each panel’s vivid expression leaves one transfixed with eyes agape.
‘The purpose of any monument is to bring the past into the present to inspire the future.’ -Judy Baca
Baca was raised in Watts with a strong sense of indigenous Chicano culture. Baca was attuned to her neighborhood’s artistic utterances before being abruptly uprooted to Pacoima. Speaking primarily Spanish as a child, Baca did not have a firm foundation of English when starting elementary school. In white suburbia far removed from her rearing, Baca missed the familiarity of her Latino community. After attending and graduating from Cal State Northridge, Baca recognized the need to make art accessible beyond the institution, and to the people she grew up with. The mission of Baca’s work is to empower the historically disenfranchised — from women to the working poor, from youth to the elderly, LGBTQ, and immigrant communities – Baca tries to lend a voice (without speaking for them) to those who have been silenced. When new social power spreading to ethnic enclaves around the the city, common themes emerged among the different communities another. They were all struggling to be heard, to be seen, and the result was unabated expressionism from lived experiences within these awakened communities.
Baca’s vehemence in carrying a congruently charged message persevered as did those of her 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 events correlated to the Mexican Revolution in their famous works, Baca’s murals call upon the greats that came before her. Within her earlier projects beginning in the summer of 1970, Baca reflected upon themes of street tension, social anguish and protest movements; Las Vistas Nuevas in Boyle Heights and Mi Abuelita in Hollenbeck Park were painted durnig her tenure at the Parks and Recreation Department. Baca had the audacity to do something different than her contemporary counterparts – Baca charted into the public sphere and got the community involved in the process. Baca was promoted Director of Eastside Murals shortly there after and later founded the Citywide Mural Project – the first of its kind when it came to public mural programs. After a few years of worrying about censorship and pulled funding, Baca took a risk and established the Social and Public Art Resource Center (SPARC) with 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 who contributed content, intellectual insights, research, artistic talents, and logistical support to their overall production. Over the course of the summer months of 1978-1983, various artists became involved including Isabel Castro, Yreina Cervantez, Patssi Valdez, Judy Chicago, and Gary Tokumoto. Working through a process called “Imagining of Content,” each section/scene underwent intense historical examination in order to highlight pinnacle moments in history. Taking an average of one year per section/scene, this process of “Imagining of Content” helped eliminate inaccuracies, decipher through historical biases, while 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, Baca was able to bring youth participants together to see the project into 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 plays a reoccurring role in the discussion due to environmental exposure to sun, water damage, and pollution from nearby fertilizers; the erosion to the current murals is estimated to have cost roughly $400k when they were completed in 2011. There are talks of other amenities such as a pedestrian bridge and solar lighting to be added through funding from LA county, the city, the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, and the CA Cultural Historical Endowment. Nonetheless, one is continually left asking, is it enough? The National Endowment of the Arts is providing the funds for the initial designs for the panels of the 60s, 70s, and 80s. Truth be told, waiting to hear the full disclosure of what is in the queue from Baca and SPARC is nerve-racking to say the least….
Imagining murals reflecting acts of resistance, the birth/assimilation of technology, economic, and climate catastrophes are perhaps what we can be on the lookout for for this project’s future endeavors. I hope SPARC is able to call upon their past work with juvenile delinquents and 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 the opportunity to see. Seeing is believing and one can only experience its majesty through one’s own eyes.
‘The people who have worked on this project gave much more than their time. They made a giant monument to interracial harmony.’
Baca 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.