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Counterpunch

'Unity' Angels Don't Reflect the Real L.A.

April 12, 1993|JUDITH F. BACA and FATHER RICHARD ESTRADA | Baca is artistic director of the Social and Public Art Resource Center in Venice. Estrada is director of Jovenes Inc., an L.A. organization that aids homeless immigrant youths. They wrote this article as representatives of the Unity Coalition. and

When Felipe de Neve issued his decree in 1781 that designated El Pueblo de la Reina de Los Angeles Sobre el Rio de la Porciuncula, he probably had in mind the conversion of the heathens and the establishment of a rich colony with goods to send back to the Old World. The Angels, a symbol from the Our Lady of the Angels of Porciuncula Chapel in Italy, perhaps was an appropriate reference then for Los Angeles, particularly if Neve had those intentions in mind. The 212 intervening years have taught us much about the imposition of religion, culture and power over indigenous peoples and the accompanying losses that entails. Our "City of the Angels" has a new meaning today. But then as now, Angelenos on our streets are primarily of color.

This is why we find Christopher Knight's article ("Leave Them to Heaven," Calendar, March 7) demanding a response, and why we read with interest Bob Pool's "Angel Feud" (Metro section, Feb. 11).

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While it may be an aesthetically pleasing work of art, we find it inconceivable that a local artist could not be found to work on the mural titled "Unity" for the First Interstate World Center's lobby. A work commissioned for an amount ($500,000) that far exceeds the budget for the entire Neighborhood Pride Mural Program, which commissions 10 murals per year in Los Angeles ethnic communities; murals that truly represent diversity.

"To do it, the artists went to the source," Knight tells us. We are asked to revisit the Conquest as a method of rationalizing why it is OK to make white angels in a colored city. Knight should know better than to call on the premises of Western European art to defend the works of Russian immigrant artists, Melamid and Komar, or did he fall asleep through the critique of the quincentenary celebrations? Los Angeles, perhaps more than any other city in the United States at this moment, is a place where people cry out for art reflecting their own Native, Pre-Columbian, African and Asian roots.

We believe these angels represent the worst of multiculturalism. They appropriate added-on symbols of ethnicity while carrying out the same old agenda--white predominance! The "borrowing" of the Pre-Columbian feathered serpent, Quetzalcoatl, from the Aztecs, the crowned mahogany headpiece from the Nigerian masks and the eagles wings for our diverse Native peoples as "emblematic of a variety of cultures" is exactly what we would take issue with. Holding up emblems of ethnicity functions the same metaphorically as turning the real ethnic people (the majority of our city) into artifacts.

We must get past the notion that diversity means tacos, egg rolls and soul food. These symbols cannot stand in for getting to know real people. The work itself stands in for an opportunity to build real unity, perhaps, by commissioning a team of black, Asian, Latino and Native artists to make images that simultaneously represent their own cultures and point out the connections between them.

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Robert Maguire III said that the work was commissioned long before last year's painful events and that he thinks "it is a wonderful symbol of diversity and ultimately, unity." While we applaud the Percent-For-Art Program that requires developers such as Maguire to put a percentage of their building costs into public art, the implicit thought behind the plan was that a responsibility exists for the developer to create hospitable environments for the public. It's time to examine who the public is in Los Angeles and the fact that any percent for art becomes public dollars and carries with it all the mandates of public process. Long before last year's events, these issues were central to Los Angeles' civic life.

Ultimately, unity may come about from this work. It has made clear to us that it is time to create a coalition of local artists and community members that will prevent such acts in the future. This coalition will unite to alert the city, county, state and private sector that we, the diverse people of Los Angeles, have a right to see ourselves represented at the decision-making tables and in the imagery of any future public art projects. It is time now for true unity among artists and cultural workers who are committed to urban art that reflects what we see in our communities.

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