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LOS ANGELES — Earlier this week, eager students at the Maya Angelou Community High School in South Los Angeles lined up outside what looked like an ice cream truck after school. Instead of Bomb Pops and soft serve, however, the truck was offering to take black-and-white photographs of the students, which were then instantly printed on large sheets of paper, emerging from a slot in the side of the vehicle. Dozens of the photos would be wheatpasted onto the school’s walls, offering a diverse portrait of the student body. A final coating of Permashield with UV and graffiti protection will hopefully keep the work intact for several years. Dubbed “Inside Out,” this is a project by the French street artist JR, who has taken his truck to communities around the world, allowing them to represent themselves.
“Inside Out” is one of over two dozen mural projects that is covering the school’s campus as part of the Maya Angelou Mural Festival. Organized by Branded Arts, a Los Angeles-based company that brings public art to both corporate and community-based settings, the festival includes not only the murals, but a two-day symposium open to the public featuring speakers from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab, and Self Help Graphics. A grand finale celebration on Saturday night will feature a spoken word poetry slam and a performance from popular R&B artist Miguel. Branded Arts also collaborated with streetwear company Kith to redesign the school’s mascot from a wolf to a phoenix, capturing the spirit of Angelou’s inspirational verses, for whom the school was renamed several years ago.
Working with input from the community, Branded Arts selected a mix of international and local artists to participate, the most well-known being Shepard Fairey, the Los Angeles-based artist responsible for Obama’s Hope poster. Gracing the street-facing facade of one of the school buildings, Fairey’s mural applies his signature graphic style to an adaptation of a 1969 photo of a beatific Angelou by Chester Higgins. On a press tour earlier this week, Branded Arts’ youthful, fast-talking founder Warren Brand explained that it would take 45 gallons of acrylic paint and 1,200 cans of aerosol to complete the 160-foot long mural, the largest of the bunch.
Other participating street artist stars include Add Fuel (the nom de plume of Portuguese artist Diogo Machado) and 1010, a collective from Germany. Machado’s contribution melded several different patterns with the generic, if well-meaning, slogan “Somos Uno (We Are One).” 1010 covered a large wall with an illusionistic trompe l’oeil form that suggested an abstract void cut into the wall. Miami-based artist Axel Void aimed for a more direct connection to the community, basing his photorealistic mural on a photograph of a family barbeque taken just blocks from the school.
Community engagement has been an issue for Branded Arts in the past. Late last year, they experienced pushback for their first Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) school project, at the Robert F. Kennedy Community School in Koreatown. Community activists complained that Beau Stanton’s mural of Eva Gardner — intended as an homage to the golden age of Hollywood — featured an abstracted sun that resembled the Rising Sun flag of Imperial Japan, which held Korea as a colony from 1910 to 1945.
“At RFK we had a good community vetting process,” explained Brand, “but this one was fully comprehensive, a much more robust process.”
Part of that process involved meetings with students, teachers, and other members of the community, allowing the public to voice their needs about what they wanted to see represented. It also offered an opportunity for local artists to throw their names in for consideration.
“One of my friends mentioned to me that they’re having a meeting, planning this South Central mural project,” the local artist who goes by Brushwork told Hyperallergic from atop his scissor lift. “I was like, ‘I have to be part of that.’ There’s been other things that have gone down with art, where people hire other artists to come down to this neighborhood and paint, and we’ve never been able to get in contact with the people who hire them.”
Brushwork’s mural, inspired by his parents’ backyard garden made up of over 300 plants, likens the nurturing environment needed to raise a garden to that of a family home.
The South Central-based, women of color art collective Ni Santas also came on board through the community meetings. “Previously, if there was outreach, they just put up a flyer, but they don’t make sure that local artists see it,” said Clover, one of Ni Santas’ founders. “But here, they did a better job. Students and the community had weekly meetings, discussing what they wanted to see on the murals. We turned in a sketch and they had to approve it.”
Ni Santas’ mural depicts the intersection of Central and Slauson, which sits along the Los Angeles’s Historic Jazz Corridor. Highlighting Central Avenue’s distinction as the epicenter of the Los Angeles jazz scene in the mid-20th century, their mural will feature musicians such as Roy Ayers and Billie Holiday, as well as iconic institutions like Dolphin’s Of Hollywood record store and the Dunbar Hotel, which provided high-end lodging to African Americans when other comparable hotels denied them shelter. Contemporary local figures will also be included, linking the past and present.
In addition to their input, students were invited to assist the artists in completing the murals, as well as serve as subject matter in some cases. A mural by the Perez Brothers featured students skateboarding around two vintage lowrider cars, and Victoria Cassinova’s contribution is based on an image of a graduating student bound for UC Irvine in the fall. “The concept is about her journey, that your mind can manifest anything,” she said.
During the press tour, another local artist named Tochtlita was directing students working on her text-based mural that read “They tried to bury us, they didn’t know we were seeds.”
“I feel like the artists have an understanding of where they’re at and what we need,” she said. “They’re highlighting people from the community. That’s powerful, because we never really get highlighted in that sense, but now we have a space for that.”
The Maya Angelou Mural Festival’s Grand Reception takes place on Saturday, May 18 at the Maya Angelou Community High School ( 300 East 53rd St, South Park, Los Angeles) from 4 to 9pm.