Black Arts at Oxy


From 1971-72, Los Angeles was filled with static tension as the Black community started to make their presence known in art, politics, and the cultural foundation of the city. Los Angeles’s climate reflected the growing need for equity, resulting in increasing national and local attentions toward Black culture and histories. Thus the Black community began to develop a voice within different areas of academia, politics, and in new social environments leading to more national debate.

The presence of Black voices was particularly important in larger influential art institutions such as the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) which houses one of the largest collections of artwork in the United States. In 1971, LACMA made several changes to its bureaucracy and exhibitions as a way to represent Black art. The first two Black trustees Charles Z. Wilson and Robert Wilson were recruited in order to promote Black art into the institution (Who’s Who).  In a further attempt to advance Black arts, the museum put on two shows in 1971: "Three Graphic Artists" exhibited from January 26 to March 7, showing the work of three artists, Charles White, David Hammons, and Timothy Washington.  A second show in 1971, “The Art of Black Africa” opened on August 17, which was a rotating installation of works on loan from local collections. 

In an article written in The Los Angeles Sentinel, Stanely Robertson writes on the necessity of a gallery space devoted to Black Africa. He writes on the historical invisibility as well as the negative stereotypes surrounding Black art. Whereas, for example, the styles of Matisse, which were heavily influenced by African Art, were hardly defined as “savage,” a word often used to describe black art in a degrading manner. Robertson quotes an art critic, William Wilson who describes the exhibition in LACMA:

Two small exhibition spaces are crowded with 127 top examples of the art of Africa, mainly from the central portion. That is the area minded by slave traders who brought black captives here. The artistic heritage that was stolen from them is incalculable … It is chilling to think what an insipid business modernistic art might have been with the inspiration to formal dignity and spiritual passion it derived from the art of Black Africa.

Wilson's observations were the start of some institutional representation and acknowledgement of Black art in Los Angeles. As Robertson explains in an anecdote on a white woman and her child, internalized racism, or viewing Black art as lesser or "savage", was still quite prevalent in these spaces. 

The Pasadena Art Museum also exhibited black artists in the early 1970s.  In December of 1971 until January of 1972, the gallery showed the work of Romare Bearden, an African-american artists interested in depicting Black America through art.  The exhibit, previously shown at the Modern Museum of Art in New York focuses on the black experience in the United States. Quoting Bearden himself, the press release from MoMA explains, “Bearden holds that the life style of the black in America is ‘perhaps the richest because it is the one life style that is talking about life and about the continuation of life . . . through all of the anguish -- the joy of life.” The statement further goes along to describe the art itself: "These works, according to Carroll Greene, the exhibition’s Guest Director, are laced ‘with allusions to both American and African origins that include spirituals and jazz, card-playing nights and church-going Sundays, family meals and blue Mondays, set against lush Southern landscapes and bleak Northern slums.'” Bearden’s work is thus significant to Black culture overall; the showing of such themes in the Pasadena Art Museum reveals progress in representing the black experience through institutional art exhibits.  

As LACMA and other Los Angeles galleries were beginning to recognize Black artists and their work, so were high schools and universities. Educational institutions were beginning to facilitate and fund programs, such as poetry reading and art installations, that emphasized Black culture and history. In February of 1972 four LAUSD high schools formed a “black endowment fund” to support diverse cultural experiences in music and art for students of color. However, the exhibitions and cultural programs were not usually well received. Increased funding did not correlate to increased student and community engagement, but did heighten debate about the values associated with instituting such programs. Schools were sites of great controversy as demonstrated by a firebombing of the Black Student Union at UC Riverside during the spring of 1972 and a racially driven fight between large numbers of students at a Monrovia high school warranting police intervention and resulting in several injuries.

Black arts frequently had a political bent, and presumably one goal of much of that art was political enfranchisement of blacks in L.A. New attention to black arts was one mode through which white Angelenos became more sympathetic to integration, but often the effect was greater racial friction as white fear and frustration grew. Some neighborhoods were targets of intentional integration as with Lynwood early in ‘72, while Watts had to be actively defended by the Black Caucus against a city proposal to build three new highways through and an industrial park in the community. Notably, it was also early in ‘72 when a class action lawsuit against the LAPD for patterns of brutality towards black and other residents of color was dropped by the attorney after three years of preparations for trial. In short, Black voices were being highlighted as a form of interest convergence that allowed for the education of Los Angeles inhabitants, but this shift did not represent a uniform acceptance of black rights or culture in the city.

Page created by Christina Sabin, Katherine Torrey, Chloe Welmond and Allison Wendt in December 2016.

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