LOS ANGELES — Seeing a neighborhood transform is a jarring experience. In Los Angeles, a panaderia could give way to a fancy café or a botánica to a curio shop for Silver Lake shamans. The consequence of these changes over time is often the forced migration of people out of cohesive communities, disrupting the sense of belonging that results from shared memory and collective history. These transformations gradually atomize neighborhoods to a point where long-time locals may feel like strangers in their own home. For the artist Lauren Halsey, however, gentrification is anything but inevitable. Her site-specific installation we still here, there at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (MOCA) transforms the typically austere space of the museum into a utopian dream made of the people, symbols, and imagery of South Central Los Angeles.
Halsey’s work has much in common with the Chicano aesthetic of Rasquachismo, which is characterized by inventiveness and creativity in the face of economic and cultural marginalization. Both make the most out of the least by relying on found objects or recycled materials, and celebrate the resourcefulness of communities often excluded from formal economies or creative industries. Halsey’s use of everyday objects and signifiers of black cultural life also align her with the tradition of Los Angeles assemblage artists like Betye Saar.
At MOCA, the signs and textures of South Central are carefully installed in an immersive environment, with dioramic sections suggesting the economic and cultural life of South Central residents. Zebra print and black panther rugs cover the floor for visitors to tread on as they navigate a cave-like space. Handmade signs advertise local business and storefronts, while posters in the neon technicolor style of the Colby Poster Printing Company promote concerts by black performers. Dolls and figurines are arranged to reenact scenes from everyday life, like women doing aerobics, children jumping rope, or churchgoers singing at Sunday service.
Signs written with affirmations (“Together We Can”) and other objects reflect the aspirations of local residents and perhaps the artist herself. In one section there is an arrangement of spiritual oils and sprays meant to invite prosperity or safety from police. Reproductions of murals, like one of the Mafundi Institute in Watts (a cultural center that emerged in the wake of the 1965 Watts Rebellion), point to the community’s historical assets, while cosmic and ancient imagery dot the installation in the form of pyramids, Nefertiti busts, and ankh symbols.
The logic of city development far too often looks at communities of color from a deficit-based calculus, framing communities by what they need rather than what they already have. Alternatively, Lauren Halsey, as architect and planner of her own world, looks to the people and places of South Central for inspiration, recreating them as memories and realities worth preserving.
Lauren Halsey: we still here, there continues at MOCA (250 South Grand Avenue, Los Angeles) through September 3.
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