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Another Casualty of L.A.’s Cultural Indifference?

Posted on Dec 9, 2013
AP/Nick Ut

Art restorers work on the “America Tropical” mural, painted in 1932 by Mexican artist David Alfaro Siqueiros, in Los Angeles. The mural is the only surviving public piece by the famous artist in its original location in the United States.

By Paul Von Blum

(Page 2)

Plain neglect has likewise kept audiences from fully appreciating other major examples of public political art. In 1996, Noni Olabisi painted one of the most controversial murals in Los Angeles history. “To Protect and Serve” is a favorable view of the Black Panther Party. It highlights the party’s social welfare projects, including its free breakfast programs and its educational efforts. “To Protect and Serve” also features imagery that attacks domestic racism, including details about the Ku Klux Klan, police racial violence and the outrageous treatment of Panther leader Bobby Seale during the Chicago conspiracy trial of the late 1960s.

Despite a unanimous recommendation by the panel charged with approving murals for inclusion in the city mural program, the conservative city arts commission refused to fund it, generating a massive fight against its de facto censorship attempt. After considerable community support, the artist completed her mural and it was a source of neighborhood pride. A few years ago, however, the artwork was seriously defaced and its original grandeur has been diminished. Like Conrad’s “Chain Reaction,” repair and restoration should be a matter of urgent municipal priority.

Another iconic mural, by Richard Wyatt, is entitled “Cecil,” also at the Watts Towers Arts Center. Painted in 1989, this work features a portrait of the late Cecil Fergerson. He was widely known as the “community curator,” a man who devoted his life to the promotion of African-American visual art in Southern California. Fergerson was a tireless and visionary advocate. Wyatt’s mural not only commemorates the man, but also inspires younger generations to continue his efforts to promote the visual contributions of people of color. Unfortunately, this mural, like many others throughout the region, has suffered the debilitating consequences of weather and pollution and is presently so faded that it is scarcely recognizable. Like many others, it needs a relatively small infusion of funds to ensure that the Los Angeles region truly matches in cultural practice what it proclaims so boldly in theory.

One other profound cultural loss in Los Angeles reflecting governmental and community indifference requires mention, even though it involved a private collection. For many decades, the Golden State Mutual Life Insurance Company, a black-owned corporation in South Los Angeles, held one of the most magnificent collections of original African-American art in the country. In 2007, the company, facing strong financial pressures, sold most of its major artworks, including some of the most famous works like Charles White’s internationally known “General Moses,” a striking portrait of Harriet Tubman. Swann Auction Galleries in New York City sold 94 works of art from the collection.

Despite the attempts by supporters of African-American art to save these masterpieces, few political leaders, major art and cultural figures, or others in a position to intervene or speak out did anything to preserve this cultural treasure in Los Angeles. Thousands of visitors had seen the works for 30 years; this opportunity, especially for youngsters in the African-American community, is now gone. Preserving this collection would have had enormous value not only to the African-American population, but also to all people in the increasingly multicultural region of Greater Los Angeles.

Cultural legacy matters enormously. We can ill afford to lose another major work of public political art. “Chain Reaction” must be preserved for several reasons. It is an outstanding public artwork by a master artist whose reputation for political cartooning will long endure. Moreover, it is a chilling reminder of the continuing danger of the potential of nuclear warfare, a danger that has scarcely dissipated in the early 21st century. That reminder reflects the highest educational purpose of public political art. But above all, its preservation would reverse the distressing tendency in the Los Angeles region toward cultural indifference. The time has come to align the official rhetoric of regional greatness with actions consistent with that vision.

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