An Old/New Mural Reemerges
For more than a decade, it sat in an abandoned former sanatorium for tubercular patients near Bakersfield, waiting for new eyes to notice it again. No one knew what kind of state it was in.
So as artist Barbara Carrasco, creator of the mural L.A. History: A Mexican Perspective, and a small entourage of museum people headed out to inspect and retrieve it on Aug. 14, her anticipation mixed with cold dread.
She’d heard there were leaks in the place, and water might have gotten to it. And then there was the inevitable dust, and possibly even rodents.
“I hope it’s all right,” she whispered.
Was this what the artist David Alfaro Siqueiros (1896-1974) experienced when he heard his downtown L.A. mural, América Tropical, had been whitewashed? When he thought of the days and weeks he spent organizing assistants, sweating under the summer sun, mixing possibly toxic painting materials? When he asked friends in the U.S., over and over, about efforts to restore the mural to its original condition?
No way to know. Siqueiros would die without seeing those hopes realized.
Such is the tenuous life of mural art. It’s not a matter of “if you paint it, they will come around.” You have to monitor it, look after its interests, renew city permits so it can stay on display. It’s an ongoing relationship that, if the artist is lucky, goes on long past his or her lifetime. And if not . . .
Carrasco and her team of fellow artists, which included a group of at-risk teenagers from East Los Angeles, finished L.A. History in 1981. Its 40 panels, each 4 feet by 8 feet, were meant to hang first on a wall along a building, at the time a McDonald’s, on Third Street and Broadway. But controversy intervened.
The mural, originally commissioned by the Los Angeles Community Redevelopment Agency, consisted of scenes of L.A. history interspersed in the flowing hair of a young Latina woman. And it was those scenes that caused the friction. One was of a Japanese American girl
sitting atop a suitcase, awaiting her family’s transport to Manzanar, one of ten U.S.-based concentration camps that interned 110,000 Japanese Americans during World War II. Another scene was a portrait of Bridget “Biddy” Mason, the last African American slave in Los Angeles who became a respected landowner and philanthropist. CRA officials wanted those and other scenes out. Carrasco said no.
“I couldn’t let go of the truth,” Carrasco told Jeffrey Rangel in a 1999 oral history interview for the Smithsonian Institution’s Archives of American Art. “The mural was truthful. And I couldn’t substitute it with images that were not truthful, that were — I don’t know. They were asking me to do something that I thought was wrong.”
Carrasco enlisted the support of community groups, including the National Coalition for Redress and Reparations (now Nikkei for Civil Rights and Redress), a Japanese American organization seeking justice for victims of the internment, and the Biddy Mason Foundation. A long fight over the rights to the mural ensued. Carrasco in the end retained the right to her work, but it was a pyrrhic victory: the CRA decomissioned it, and it could not be displayed at its original intended location.
Just about fifty years earlier, Siqueiros was going through his own struggles to stay true to the images of América Tropical, on Olvera Street. Reaction to its image of a crucified peasant under an American eagle was swift and angry, and Siqueiros was denied the visa that would have allowed him to stay and defend it. It was whitewashed within two years of its completion.
Carrasco has succeeded in displaying the mural that is her tour de force only three times in the nearly 30 years since its creation: partially in 1987 at MIT’s L.A. Hot and Cool: The Eighties
exhibition; partially in 1988 at the Otis Art Institute’s Agit Pop exhibition; and fully in 1990, at Union Station, as part of the Los Angeles Festival.
“I would have loved for it to be there permanently because that’s people come and go,” Carrasco said. “I used to take the train there when I was a little girl.”
But workers could not drill into the walls to mount it permanently because there was asbestos in them. So it stayed up for three weeks, and then, it went into storage — eventually ending up where Carrasco and her team went to retrieve it two weeks ago.
Now, a new public will be able to see Carrasco’s work. The mural is part of the Autry’s exhibition Siqueiros in Los Angeles: Censorship Defied, scheduled to open Sept. 24. It focuses on Siqueiros’
work and influence, telling the story not only of América Tropical but also of L.A. History, both works that have suffered and withstood censorship.
As workers brought each panel out, Carrasco checked it for damage (very little was evident) and pointed at the people whose images she recognized. For her, the journey was also one of time.
“She was reclaiming her work,” said Tiffany Lopez, an associate professor at UC Riverside who is working on a biography of Carrasco and accompanied the team to retrieve the mural. “In those moments, you saw her as a historian in action. She’s an activist artist and she’s a community historian. She’s been connected to L.A. throughout her career and life.”
Lopez saw this new unveiling of Carrasco’s mural as a new beginning.
“I felt we were stepping into this incredible moment in history,” she said. “I hope the Autry exhibition is a gateway toward finding a permanent home for the piece. It’s an important artwork for Los Angeles, not just for Barbara.”