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Frieze Week Los Angeles 2024

Witness History Being Made: Judy Baca at LACMA

Judy Baca’s mural The Great Wall of Los Angeles has been nearly 50 years in the making. Now, she’s working on it live in public at LACMA, in a historic gesture of creative transparency and cultural community

BY Armando Pulido in Frieze Los Angeles , Frieze Week Magazine | 29 FEB 24

Judy Baca has transformed the Los Angeles County Museum of Art into her studio. In the museum’s Resnick Pavilion, behind a railed platform, a mural is taking shape, accompanied by archival photographs, site plans and a model of the Tujunga Wash in Los Angeles County’s San Fernando Valley. The mural stretches along the wall on a giant scroll to allow it to be transported to its final site in the future. This addendum to The Great Wall of Los Angeles, which Baca began in 1975, reprises the mandate for the original work, depicting the histories of marginalized communities in LA and the Civil Rights movements of the 1960s and ’70s. And Baca does not shy away from telling the city some hard truths.

In the exhibition “Painting in the River of Angels: Judy Baca and The Great Wall,” the Chicana artist begins the blueprint for a new section of The Great Wall, tentatively titled Farmworkers’ Movement, East LA Student Walkouts, Watts Rebellion, Watts Renaissance, Black Panther Party, El Altar (2023–24). Despite still being at the draft stage, Baca’s “punto” perspective—a technique of musical-ratio space division that she learned at Mexican muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros’s La Tallera mural workshop—is already evident, capturing the dynamism and impact of these historical events.

Judy Baca
Judy Baca at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 2023. Photograph: Daniel Jack Lyons

Nearby, one panel of the new extension is already fully rendered in color. The Great Wall of Los Angeles: Generation on Fire (2023) depicts the 1961 Freedom Riders, a group of activists who challenged segregation on US public transport. Protestors are forcefully hosed down to quell flames surrounding their bodies, alluding to an attack by an armed mob of Ku Klux Klan members that fire-bombed the protestors’ buses. The scene distills a moment in American history while, at the same time, pulling back to suggest a wider relevance—political activism against segregation, racism and war remains all too essential today—creating a remarkable throughline between past and present.

Paired with these panels are original site plans, tracing the history of the mural’s genesis in 1974, when the US Army Corps of Engineers contacted Baca about creating the work in the flood control channel of the Tujunga Wash, as part of a beautification process. Originally assisted by artists, historians, at-risk youths and community members, Baca completed the initial phases covering prehistoric LA through to the 1950s with her piercing, corrective histories. In 2022, the Mellon Foundation awarded Baca and the nonprofit organization she co-founded for the creation and preservation of activist and socially engaged art, the Social and Public Art Resource Center, $5 million to extend the work and bring its story up to the present day. Such funding marks a significant paradigm shift for Chicano muralism in Southern California, as these pieces have historically been erased, white-washed or destroyed, as in the case of Baca’s own Hitting the Wall (1984) mural under the 110 freeway.

Judy Baca on scissor lift at The Great Wall
Judy Baca on scissor lift at The Great Wall of Los Angeles, 1983. Courtesy: © SPARC Archives; photograph: Linda Eber

Today, the mural’s creation involves a different collaborative process. Baca and her team have moved from working in the Tujunga Wash to studio spaces, or, in this case, the county museum. It has shifted from being a primarily youth-driven collective to a smaller team of historians, artists and activists, but it nonetheless still poses larger questions about who gets to witness history—especially marginalized history. What does it mean for museumgoers to be present at the creation of one of the world’s most vivid depictions of the Chicano Movement, a story that is often only told within Chicano communities? What does it mean for a Chicana artist to occupy a municipal museum’s central space and command the attention of everyone who walks through its doors?

The political dimension of Baca’s work cannot be ignored, especially as it calls out fascism, which we see on the rise today throughout the world. The artist reminds us that, though these histories may seem removed from us, they still need a narrator, especially one who has stood unapologetically by her beliefs throughout her decades-long career. Baca’s practice also reminds us to remain steadfast in a collective stance against injustice and to continue to use our voices.

Judy Baca painting Great Wall
Judy Baca at LACMA, 2023. Photograph: Daniel Jack Lyons

The artist collective Asco demonstrated this belief with their notorious Spray Paint LACMA intervention in 1972, in response to a claim that Chicanos made graffiti, not art. It wasn’t until 1974—the same year that The Great Wall of Los Angeles was conceived—that the Chicano artist group known as “Los Four,” made up of Carlos Almaraz, Gilbert “Magu” Luján, Roberto Isaac “Beto” de la Rocha and Frank Romero, was the subject of the first exhibition of Chicano art at LACMA. For a city with a predominant Latino presence, it was long overdue. Nearly 50 years later, Baca has reclaimed that space, involving the public in the expansion and ongoing story of one of the world’s longest murals, which arguably tells a more accurate and compelling history than that found in American textbooks.

Painting in the River of Angels: Judy Baca and The Great Wall” is on view at Los Angeles County Museum of Art, USA, until June 2, 2024

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Main Image: Judy Baca and members of SPARC working on The Great Wall of Los Angeles, 1981. Courtesy: Judith F. Baca and © SPARC archives; photograph: Gia Roland

Armando Pulido is a writer and curatorial assistant at the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art, Los Angeles, USA.