The online firestorm that exploded in April around the depiction of the prophet Muhammad in the first part of an episode of the irreverent comedy “South Park,” and the subsequent network censorship of the second part of the episode, sounded, sadly, like business as usual to Los Angeles artist Sergio Hernandez.
Comedy Central network bleeped some comments and blacked out some images of the April
21 episode after a Brooklyn-based online group, RevolutionMuslim.com, posted a provocative warning against the show’s creators, Matt Stone and Trey Parker, saying they would wind up “like Theo Van Gogh,” a Dutch filmmaker who was murdered by a religious extremist after commenting on a cartoon about the prophet Muhammad. Any image of the prophet is considered offensive by some Muslims. The “South Park” episode skewered several religious figures and showed Muhammad in a bear suit.
But Comedy Central’s censorship of the episode unleashed a controversy of its own, with other artists publishing their own takes on portraying religious figures and bloggers commenting on all sides of the issue. Hernandez, who in the 1960s formed part of Los Angeles’ Chicano art movement, said artists, especially cartoonists who comment on society and politics, have a duty to fight for their voices to be heard.
“People that oppose what you have to say will try to stifle what you have to say, will try to whitewash it, ” he said. “You have to fight it. You can’t back down.”
The incident puts Parker and Stone in the same club as the Mexican muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros, whose work in Los Angeles in 1932 provoked a dustup of its own that resulted in a
partial whitewash and eventual neglect, which some consider a kind of censorship. The controversy centered on “América Tropical,” a mural on the side of a building in historic Olvera Street that, contrary to the expectations of those who commissioned it, showed a mesoamerican Indian crucified in front of a temple and surrounded by symbols of imperialism.
This work is the theme behind the Autry’s upcoming Siqueiros in Los Angeles: Censorship Defied, an exhibition scheduled for September that examines the seven months Siqueiros spent here and his legacy, a manifesto for public art that Hernandez and colleagues Eduardo Carrillo, Gilbert “Magu” Luján and Ramses Noriega took up in the 1960s and 1970s.
“In a way, Siqueiros was the first graffitti artist of his time because he actually painted on a concrete wall with spray equipment,” he said. “It’s kind of ironic.”
The exhibit also highlights one work that Hernandez helped bring about: in 1970, he, Noriega, Carrillo and Saul Solache were tapped to create a mural for UCLA’s Latin American Studies program. At the time, the extent of Hernandez’s experience was drawing cartoons for the art magazine “Con Safos.” So he had to study up on large-scale painting. That’s when he discovered Siqueiros.
“Learning about his past, about his political affiliations, and … to see and to touch the mural by the hand of the man that I’ve read so much about,” he said, “it’s almost like climbing the Eiffel Tower, or seeing the canals in Venice, or seeing Michaelangelo’s David.”
Eventually, the four artists completed “Chicano History,” a monumental work that for many years was on display at UCLA’s Campbell Hall. But in the 1990s, it was taken down. Hernandez isn’t sure why.
“I’ve heard a lot of different things,” he said. “I never got the straight story. Some people say the whole régime changed. You had the new Chicanos coming in and saying, ‘Well, that’s passé.’ That’s what I hear.”
At the moment, the mural is in storage. Hernandez says he has received letters from the university promising to restore and display it again. So far, it hasn’t happened. He laments what he believes is a casual attitude Americans have toward art.
“You go to Europe and you don’t see that,” he said. “They conserve and care for all their artwork…. Our culture is so transitory. This is here now but maybe in ten years they’ll knock it down and build a Costco. Nothing stays.”