LOS ANGELES — South Los Angeles comprises a wide swath of the city south of the 10 freeway, stretching from West Adams down to Inglewood, encompassing Leimert Park and the Crenshaw District, and bounded by Watts on the southeast corner. Once referred to as “South-Central,” the Los Angeles City Council renamed the area “South Los Angeles” in 2003, perhaps in a bid to sanitize the image of an area that had become associated in the public imagination with riots and gang violence. Many refuse to call it South LA, however, protesting that it is an attempt to whitewash the area’s historically African American cultural heritage and increasingly Latinx population.
As with many parts of the city, South LA is changing — undergoing revitalization or gentrification depending on who you ask — spurred on by large-scale projects like Inglewood’s SoFi Stadium and the Crenshaw/LAX Metro Line, that attract developers, leading to rising real estate prices and displacement of long-time residents. In other parts of the city, artists and galleries have played a complicated role in this process. Drawn to underserved neighborhoods because of cheap rent, they are often viewed as the leading edge of the spear of gentrification regardless of their intentions. In South LA, however, there are instances of art being used as a force for community empowerment, as opposed to disenfranchisement.
“As we call ourselves artists, we lead as organizers first,” Patrisse Cullors told Hyperallergic by phone. Cullors is perhaps best known as one of the founders of the Black Lives Matter movement. However, she is also an artist who received her MFA last year from USC’s Roski School of Art & Design. Earlier this year, Cullors and two of her USC classmates, alexandre dorriz and noé olivas, founded the Crenshaw Dairy Mart, a space that fuses art and activism, in Inglewood. “We’re focused on liberation of the community first,” Cullors said. “Art has a place in that liberation. Every one of our peoples has used art as part of liberation struggles. We see ourselves in that lineage.”
The trio spent a year and a half meeting with their neighbors before opening their doors. “That incubation stage was important, trying to figure out how we can be part of community,” olivas told Hyperallergic. They officially opened on February 29 with a show focused on the decade-long movement to pass Measure R, a March 2020 LA County ballot measure aimed at increasing oversight of the Sheriff’s Department and reforming Los Angeles jails. Then the pandemic hit, and they were forced to close their doors.
They quickly regrouped with the Care Not Cages Relief Fund, aimed at helping artists in need from communities disproportionately affected by the pandemic, be they disabled, trans, queer, or of color. “We never saw ourselves as a static institution,” dorriz said. In addition to three main prizes, ranging from $500 to $1,500, they awarded $250 each to eight currently incarcerated artists. “We all mobilized around the relief fund in response to incarceration and outbreaks in the carceral state.” Work by six of those artists was featured on GalleryPlatform.LA, an online project set up in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic to showcase Angeleno galleries. The Crenshaw Dairy Mart and Care Not Cages Relief Fund set up a sales pool so that 100% of the proceeds from the sales was split equitably between all 10 artists.
Head west on Manchester Blvd, about a mile and a half from the Dairy Mart, and you’ll hit Residency Art Gallery. The space was founded in 2016 by Rick Garzon with the goal of serving the population of South Central, encouraging “dialogue between artists, activists, and the community,” according to their website. A lifelong resident of Inglewood, Garzon was motivated to offer a platform for artists of color in their own communities. “Some galleries in Mid-city, Hollywood, Culver City, they go out of their way to show Black and brown stories, but do they market towards the Black and brown communities to come see the show?” Garzon asked when reached by phone. “That was my thing, making sure our community saw our artwork.”
Garzon started collecting in his previous career in advertising, but became frustrated by the barriers he found put up for collectors of color. “I was trying to collect works that resonated with me, but I found it hard. These galleries weren’t selling to people like me, but the work was meant for me.” Since he opened his own space, Garzon says he gets collectors from all over the city, as well as New York, Miami, and Atlanta. But there are still those who view Inglewood with fear and suspicion. “People call asking if it’s safe to come down. It’s not if you have to ask that question!” he said, half-jokingly.
Although the Crenshaw Dairy Mart and Residency mark new voices in South LA’s cultural development, they have not sprung up out of the blue. Rather they are part of a lineage dating back at least 50 years to the Black Arts Movement and African American assemblage artists like Noah Purifoy and John Outterbridge. “Artists have been working uninterrupted in that area since the ’60s,” said curator jill moniz, who spoke to Hyperallergic by phone. “The neighborhood is a site of aesthetic innovation and endurance.”
“It’s important to understand that there’s always been an art scene in South Central, that has been largely led by Black people and allies,” Cullors noted. “The only way our artists’ institutions can exist is because of the Brockman Gallery, St. Elmo Village, the William Grant Still Arts Center. There’s a long legacy of cultural institutions in South Central.” Add to those veteran organizations the younger spaces like Art + Practice and (although just north of the 10) the Underground Museum, and you get a sense of the rich heritage of spaces that consider their community an integral part of their audience.
One artist who is deeply invested in her community is Lauren Halsey, who was raised all over South Central, and whose fantastical installations exhibited at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA), Los Angeles and David Kordansky Gallery reflect the neighborhood’s visual language, from hair salon signage to Afrofuturism. “It’s been sort of a vision of mine for as long as I can remember…whatever my career choice was, I would recycle those resources and networks, and hopefully funds, back into the neighborhood,” she told Hyperallergic.
That has taken the form of Summaeverythang, a community center next door to her studio that she envisions as a creative, intellectual, athletic, and musical hub for neighborhood youth (some of everything), which she intended to open later this summer. When the pandemic hit, she was forced to pivot like the Dairy Mart, and turned the space into a produce distribution center. Each week since early May, Halsey and the Summaeverythang team have sourced, packed, and distributed hundreds of boxes of organic produce filled with Tuscan kale, rainbow carrots, golden beets, mangoes, tangelos, and much more. (Full disclosure, I donated a small amount to Summaeverythang.) The produce is supplemented with art supply kits provided by the Dairy Mart.
The whole operation has been self-funded by Halsey and staffed by friends and family, which is by design. “It’s important that we don’t run to a partner,” Halsey said, referring to compromises that can come with financial sponsorship. “We self-direct decisions, it’s so specific to the context we’re in. I’ve been very careful about what we accept and the conditions.”
Self-ownership and self-direction are common themes in these ventures, shifting and decentralizing centers of cultural power and influence, so that they can be allowed to flourish from within rather than being imposed on from without. “My work has been about reversing that belief system of institutional control of our visual language,” moniz said of her curatorial practice. “[Artwork] is made in the community and should be accessible in those communities. We need to take it back. That’s the beauty of having spaces in our communities. That’s a necessary step.”
The artists, curators, and gallerists interviewed understand that representation matters, and that extends not just to who is being shown, but who is showing it, who is buying it, and who feels welcome viewing it.
“It means everything to be a true participant in the neighborhood,” Halsey said. “Otherwise the end result is a caricature of what you think you’re doing. Hiring folks from the neighborhood, who puts up work, who runs the gallery, the front desk, who sits in positions of leadership. All those actions matter. We know if a space is for us, or not for us, even if it’s in the middle of Watts.”