from the pages of July/August 1995


The Black Panther Mural in LA

By Paul Von Blum


On February 4, 1994, a panel of art professionals, including artists, administrators, and academics, met to award commissions for the 1993/1994 Neighborhood Pride Mural program funded by the City of Los Angeles and administered by the Social and Public Art Resource Center (SPARC) in Venice, California. The panel enthusiastically selected a young, talented African American woman, Noni Olabisi, to produce a mural entitled "To Protect and Serve" on the side of a hair styling salon in a neighborhood with a predominantly African American population.

Our panel selected Olabisi’s work on the basis of the strong and engaging design she submitted for consideration (Figure 1). Emerging from extensive discussions with people in the community, this mural chronicles the positive impact of the Black Panther Party. Its sympathetic portrayal of Panther leaders Huey Newton and Elaine Brown complements its focus on the Party’s social programs, including its well known distribution of food, clothing, and medical care to needy members of the African American community. More controversially, the mural design also reveals images of police brutality and a corrupt judicial system. Its images of lynch-minded KKK members and a bound and gagged Bobby Seale during the trial of the Chicago 8 evoke unpleasantly accurate memories of the past. Even more provocatively, the design shows a strong Black male figure at the extreme left holding a rifle, a quintessential expression of his commitment to self-defense and the protection of his own people.

Our panel knew, however, that this vision countered the more distorted images of the Black Panthers reflected in the conservative mainstream media. We suspected too that the Los Angeles Cultural Affairs Commission, whose members were appointed by Republican Mayor Richard Riordan, might find the mural objectionable.

Our apprehensions proved accurate. A few days later, SPARC presented the panel’s selections for approval by the commissioners, ordinarily a routine proposition. The commission has the responsibility of evaluating the artistic quality of the murals and is specifically prohibited from censoring works on the basis of their political or ideological content. The Commissioners (with no African American representative) denied approval for "To Protect and Serve." Instead, they asked SPARC to bring Olabisi to answer various questions about her proposed mural. During that session, individual commissioners voiced negative comments about the mural and about the Black Panther Party: "the Panthers were bad people, they killed police"; "the guns are so violent"; and "it doesn’t show police in a positive light."

Before the second meeting with the Cultural Affairs Commission, SPARC distributed more than a thousand fliers showing the mural design, providing a brief history of the Black Panther Party, and advising residents that the mural would soon be painted in the community. SPARC received no objections to the work either by phone or mail. Mobilizing for the next meeting, SPARC assembled various supporting documents and materials, including letters from various panel members who had chosen Olabisi.

Noni Olabisi’s effort is in a long tradition of African American art, indicating particularly that 20th century African American art has been noteworthy for its powerful social and historical commentary, including such luminaries as Aaron Douglas, Hale Woodruff, Jacob Lawrence, Charles White, and Elizabeth Catlett.

Noni Olabisi also joins a younger generation of African American artists in their contemporary commitment to visual critical commentary, specifically in their vigorous artistic resistance to racism in the United States. Her work can be compared to that of Adrian Piper, Dana Chandler, William Walker, David Hammons, Faith Ringgold, Murray De Pillars, Carrie May Weems, Pat Ward Williams, and others who heightened public awareness of major and controversial historical and political issues with their work.

Olabisi’s prior works suggest that she is an emerging artist of genuinely exceptional quality, whose presence in the company of prominent African American visual arts figures is entirely appropriate.

Two charcoal drawings from the 1980s, for example, illustrate her dedication to her fellow African Americans. "Think!" (Figure 2) is a powerful image of Malcolm X, a depiction highlighting his long term commitment to learning and education, in contrast to the often demonizing view of Malcolm in the traditional media. "Ripped Off" (Figure 3) is more explicitly a work of social protest. The young boy, wrapped ironically in an American flag, reinforces Martin Luther King’s indictment at the 1963 March on Washington, when he eloquently accused America of issuing Blacks a check returned for "insufficient funds."

The artist had also produced a SPARC-commissioned mural in 1992. "Freedom Won’t Wait" (Figure 4) responded to the traumatic events in Los Angeles following the April 1992 acquittal of the police officers who savagely beat Rodney King. Integrating such slogans as "No Justice, No Peace" and "Freedom Won’t Wait!!!" into a larger visual context, the mural reflects the legitimate anger and frustration of the African American community in Los Angeles and throughout the nation.

Neither information about the proposed mural’s scholarly context, nor evidence of its artistic excellence, nor statements about its extensive community support, however, made any difference to the Cultural Affairs Commission. Despite statements from several artists (including a passionate and moving presentation from Noni Olabisi herself), critics, and community activists, the commission again rejected the mural, this time on the pretext that evidence of sufficient community support was lacking. Although three commissioners voted to approve the mural, four votes were necessary to carry the motion. Even the strong recommendation for approval by Cultural Affairs General Manager Al Nodal, who pointedly emphasized both the distinguished historical record of SPARC and the outstanding artistic stature of Olabisi’s mural, could not dissuade the intransigent commissioners.

Throughout the tension-filled meeting, various commissioners continued to object to the mural’s political content and to the Black Panther Party. Some maintained that an image of a Black man with a rifle would lead inexorably to even more violence in the streets of Los Angeles, thereby attributing to political art a measure of social influence that even its most ardent supporters seldom claim.

Following the second rejection, SPARC organized a massive petition drive in support of the mural. After obtaining close to 900 signatures and lining up new speakers, a third meeting with the commission was held. Several community residents and leaders, including the owner of the hair salon, artists and cultural leaders from the African American community, and a minister from the First AME Church, spoke about the need for this mural in South Central Los Angeles. Cultural Affairs Commissioner Carmen Zapata also vigorously defended the effort, comparing the mural to Picasso’s "Guernica," noting that it was a magnificent piece of art and that denying approval would constitute a great loss to the city.

This third meeting was even more tense. In the two weeks since the previous meeting, conservative forces had also mobilized opposition, including the district Councilman and a few local Black businessmen. Despite the compelling evidence of overwhelming community support, and despite a presentation by a deputy city attorney that rejection on grounds of political content was legally impermissible, the commission again disapproved "To Protect and Serve."

After this latest rejection, SPARC began an even more systematic mobilization of support for the beleaguered Black Panther mural. Further community meetings were organized and the local press was informed of the developing censorship controversy in Los Angeles. The ACLU intervened when its Southern California Executive Director wrote to the commission President that the commission’s actions, clearly based on the political content of the mural, infringed on the freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment of the United States Constitution. Finally, the cumulative political mobilization appeared to work. On October 7, 1994, the commission finally, if grudgingly, approved "To Protect and Serve," apparently paving the way for Noni Olabisi to begin production of her mural.

Shortly thereafter, SPARC was threatened with a major reduction of public funds. Meanwhile, the City Councilperson who initially opposed the mural took his case to the City Council, where his effort to block funding failed. The Los Angeles Police Department, still a retrograde force in city affairs despite new leadership and some modest reforms, expressed disdain for Olabisi’s effort. Probably not coincidentally, police officers also raided the hair salon where the mural was to be painted, ostensibly because of suspected "drug activity" on the premises.

Under severe pressure, SPARC finally decided to remove the mural from its city-funded program because of legitimate fears of longer-term political and budgetary reprisals. The decision was made to fund "To Protect and Serve" through private donations. Fortunately, at this writing, the mural is in production.

This qualified victory over censorship has implications for progressive political and cultural workers far beyond Los Angeles. The specific controversy about the Black Panther mural should be understood in light of the underlying, more distressing reactionary political mood in the United States -- an atmosphere that had been evident long before the massive Republican victories in the November 1994 elections. Censorship of the arts has had a long and dishonorable history in the United States. Powerful conservative forces have routinely sought to eliminate alternative visions about history and politics. They understand, all too well, the threat to their domination when oppressed people learn more fully about the injustices they have endured and about their own powers of resistance.

Political artists and their supporters should mobilize now, even before the major onslaught intensifies. The successful defense of "To Protect and Serve" in Los Angeles suggests that political organization is crucial if the arts are to continue as sources of educational enlightenment and social resistance. Individual political artists and alternative cultural organizations should line up their community support on every front. They should increase their commitment to create alternative art institutions, less dependent on government largess and less vulnerable to censorship and repression. In short, they should become political in their lives as well as in the content of their works. The alternative could well be catastrophic.