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The recently uncovered “The Black Experience” mural (1970) at UCLA’s Ackerman Center (all photographs by the author for Hyperallergic)

LOS ANGELES — I entered UCLA’s Ackerman Student Union hoping to blend in with the student body, find my way to a recently uncovered mural, and document the public’s reactions with an inconspicuous pinhole camera. But the building is a maze of chain eateries. And, after I pass a Carl’s Jr. for the second time, I accept that I’m lost. I turn right at the Jamba Juice and ask for directions.

Art is as much about context as it is process. The time and place of its creation, the manner in which it is displayed — these factors can influence a work’s reception much more than the technical precision of its aesthetics.

And so I’m told: “I believe it’s up one floor … just past Panda Express.”

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Sure enough, after ascending a flight of stairs, I find the 10-by-27-foot mural tucked behind the Panda Express checkout line. To maintain my cover I buy a small order of Orange Chicken and sit down at one of the long formica tables. “The Black Experience” was painted in 1970 by seven African American students in the wake of the Kent State shootings. The mural features their own portraits (plus one professor) composed of iconic images of black cultural leaders.

Then, in 1992, it was covered over during a remodel of the Student Union.

For 22 years those eight faces remained blocked by a slab of beige drywall. But an effort launched in 2012 to uncover and restore the mural was finally realized last week by the Afrikan Student Union, a professor and two students who were instrumental in creating the work.

Now uncovered, the sepia collage is striking. Eyes behind eyes pierce the viewer’s gaze and tell their stories — stories built upon a cultural milieu of protest and reform. But compared to the fluorescent glow and sterile sheen of the food court, the mural’s emotional depth falls flat.

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I pick at the sickly sweet chicken while casually angling the pinhole’s shutter toward the students — mostly one to a table — around me. A jock alternately pecks at his salad and iPhone screen. Two Hispanic food service workers stand just in front of the mural’s placard, deep in conversation, about everything but the message that looms over their heads. Then a young Asian man in front of me looks up, straight at “The Black Experience.” Recognition registers on his face. He found what he was looking for … and he tilts his head back down to his Instagram feed to type a comment.

I crack open my fortune cookie, hoping for some inspiration of my own. Just then, a student wanders over to the mural’s placard. He reads for a moment and then looks across the dining hall. We lock eyes. He stiffens, pretends he’s lost, and darts out an exit door so quickly that the slow exposure of my pinhole can’t even capture his existence.

I look down at the tiny piece of paper surrounded by cookie crumbs on the table top: “Everything you do is beautiful and inspiring.”

Just as long as it’s in the right context …

“The Black Experience” is on permanent display at UCLA’s Ackerman Student Union (308 Westwood Plaza, Los Angeles). 

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Michael Gabel

Michael Gabel is a photographer and writer based in Los Angeles. When not covering or contributing to the visual art scene, you'll find him high on a mountain...

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