Silence in Full Volume: The Censorship of an Important Public Artwork
By: Tommy Vinh Bui
As I traipsed onto the burnished tile of the ticketing concourse of Los Angeles Union Station, I was duly bombarded by an arty avalanche of vibrant color and full-frontal flair. Blared before me was Chicana muralist and activist Barbara Carrasco’s carefully crafted and colourfully contoured eighty foot mural “LA History: A Mexican Perspective.” Immense and inimitable in scale and skill. I was retinally grabbed and gobsmacked by the picture-perfect and pawky provocation this artwork did pounce upon the senses. Wonderment wrung from my veins.
This was my first encounter with the mural several years ago during the exhibition “¡Murales Rebeldes! L.A. Chicana/o Murals Under Siege” co-curated by LA Plaza de Cultura y Artes and the California Historical Society. This forty-three panel painting has long been the epicenter of controversy and often mustered in the same breath when discussing the fraught topic of public art and censorship. Painted in 1981, the painting had had very limited exposure to public eyeballs and was unfortunately relegated and reduced to roosting in darkened storage rooms for much of the decades. An artwork stowed away into obscurity? Suppression and opportunities for thoughtful community conversations sidestepped? This proved to be an artwork well worth scrutinizing and exploring due to it being a paradigm example of the stifling of free speech. And in keeping with the upright core value of the American Library Association to actively advocate for and defend the tenets of intellectual freedom, I found the artwork all the more alluring and imperative to write about.
The artwork itself is a spectacle to behold. It’s a feast for the ocular appetites. That’s beyond dispute. The mural depicts a young woman watching wistfully as winsomely woven into her coif are chronological vignettes of Los Angeles diversity and history spangled for all to see. With a particular focus on a feminist perspective and from the viewpoint of other historically marginalized groups. Unvarnished and without apology. From the hidden atrocities to the proud landmark moments of the city. Sometimes insightly but always sincere, it’s an artwork that minces no muffled narratives and brandishes front and center under-told stories that urgently require contemporary illumination and discourse.
The crux of the kerfuffle was the initial genesis of the mural itself. The now-defunct Los Angeles Community Redevelopment Agency had originally commissioned the artist to produce the mural for the Los Angeles Bicentennial to much fanfare and support. But the project hit a rather critical hiccup and a kibosh invoked when the CRA took umbrage with fourteen particular depictions that were deemed controversial and unflattering to the city at large. The unifying theme of the disputed image depicted communities of color on the receiving end of discrimination. The images that caught the vitriol of naysayers include panels featuring seminal city figure Biddy Mason, the regrettable internment of Japanese Americans during the outbreak of World War II and the incendiary Zoot Suit Riots of 1943. Both blemishes and lamentable blunders in Los Angeles lore. But nonetheless pivotal to the overall forming of our city’s cultural identity. Carrasco’s resolve was unwavering and she refused to strike the at-issue imagery from the canvas. And thus accounted for the curtain to fall upon this important and silenced artwork for several years. Her staunch stance on not having her mural whitewashed and irrevocably revised was nothing short of heroic.
The artwork takes on all the more relevance this hour than ever before. Turbulently timely today, I’d say. More meaning buoyed and imbued to this mural leavened with a hard-fought right to exist. Now the embattled artwork has found residence on a wall at the Natural History Museum as part of an exhibition entitled Sin Censura: A Mural Remembers LA. Proudly and unflaggingly a relic to resistance to censorship and empowering multiple and inclusive perspectives of history. The exhibit also provides in-depth explanation of the vignettes along with background information about the initial furor and original censorship of the artwork. Provided both in English and Spanish text for further access and inclusivity of the artwork. I was struck with the poignancy of the recent Women’s March in Los Angeles and the fact that this once-suppressed mural was in full display nearby speaking a hard truth artfully and articulately just around the corner. Testament that censorship is temporary and truth enduring and will always out.
Vibrant and vivified in perpetuum.
Tommy Vinh Bui is a paragraph-peddler hailing from the bonnie barrios of Pacoima. He has an assortment of lugubrious-sounding degrees and was a Peace Corps volunteer in a dusty and distant land long ago. Tommy has an unswerving interest in intellectual freedom and his fingertips and keyboard reflect this. He may have impulse control problems.