LOS ANGELES — On a recent Saturday afternoon, an enthusiastic crowd gathered at the opening of LA’s newest museum, mingling and snapping photos as a DJ spun RnB and Hip-Hop outside. It was not located Downtown or on the ritzy Westside, but 12 miles directly south of the Broad Art Museum and the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA), on the edge of a strip mall in Compton.
“I’m originally from Compton, and I wanted to bring a creative space back to the city,” Abigail Lopez-Byrd, who co-founded the Compton Art & History Museum with her husband Marquell Byrd, told Hyperallergic.
The new space at 306 West Compton Boulevard is an outgrowth of Color Compton, a community-based arts organization that offers programs in photography, painting, printmaking, film, and music. One of the center’s popular programs is on archiving. “Particularly with Compton, we don’t have spaces where young folks can learn about them,” Lopez-Byrd says.
“We don’t have enough complex narratives about what Compton is and what it has been, and how it continues to be a creative city,” Byrd adds. “We want people to understand its rich history.”
That history, Byrd notes, does not start with the NWA — the rap group largely responsible for making Compton a global household name and cultural force in the late 1980s. Compton has gone through many demographic shifts over the last century, beginning as a largely White town until the 1950s, when middle-class Black Americans began moving to the area after racially restrictive housing covenants were outlawed. Over the past two decades, Compton’s Latino population has been growing, making up 70% of the city’s residents according to the 2020 US census.
The pair envisioned an art space that would feature work by contemporary artists from the community alongside archival materials, on loan through partnerships with the California State University, Dominguez Hills and California State University, Los Angeles. The museum’s inaugural show, Sons Like Me, highlights this dual focus on history and art, with a solo presentation of painting and textile works by Anthony Lee Pittman and ephemera from the Communicative Arts Academy, a seminal Compton-based arts nonprofit that operated from 1969 to 1975.
Pittman’s works reflect his Black and Latino background, interwoven with elements from European art history, Afro-Futurism, and contemporary music. Quotes from songs by another native son of Compton, Kendrick Lamar, line the walls. Black members of his family are depicted as saintly figures with golden halos, including a portrait of his father, who is shown in front of a police car as two pitbulls hover supernaturally overhead. Those are Pittman’s childhood dogs, who were killed by sheriff’s deputies when they escaped the yard, coming back as guardian angels to protect his father. “That was my first big loss as a child,” he says.
In other paintings, Pittman confronts contemporary issues, as in a portrait of Kalief Browder, who was held at Rikers Island jail for several years without trial after being accused of stealing a backpack. He spent 700 days in solitary confinement and hung himself two years after being released, his death leading to calls for prison reform. Nearby hangs Pittman’s response to Kehinde Wiley’s portrait of Barack Obama, offering a less celebratory vision of the former president’s legacy. Pittman copies the Obamas’ pose from Kehinde Wiley’s well-known painting
, but turns the green hedge into a curtain, pulled back to reveal a desert drone strike. His head is ringed by a halo-like waffle and floating chicken wings, referencing the Obama Special at local iconic restaurant Roscoe’s House of Chicken ‘N Waffles, a jab at the uncritical adulation often heaped on him.
In addition to the paintings, the exhibition features two industrially woven tapestries, referencing Mexican artisanal weaving, mass-produced blankets ubiquitous in many Latino homes, African-American quilting traditions, and Medieval European tapestries. A traditional Vanitas still life is updated with a firearm, a can of malt liquor, and a jar filled with marijuana, transforming it into a “hood vanitas,” as Pittman describes it.
Two altars are set up in the exhibition: one in the back to honor Pittman’s Mexican grandparents who passed away, and another at the entryway featuring photographs of Black artists, writers, and musicians who inspire him. These include artists Charles White and John Outterbridge; filmmaker Marlon Riggs; disco pioneer Sylvester (“he went to church on Central and 118th, right by where I grew up,” Pittman notes); and poet Essex Hemphill, whose poem “In the life” lends the exhibition its title.
Pittman credits his high school art teacher Cleveland Palmer with supporting his artistic development, taking a small group of students on field trips to places like ArtCenter in Pasadena. “He was dedicated to us seeing ourselves as artists,” he recalls. It is perhaps those excursions outside of Compton that drive home the significance of the new museum for Pittman.
“It’s the only permanent space [in Compton] I can think of dedicated to art,” he says. “We don’t have to go to Long Beach, or Downtown, or West LA to the Getty. We can see art right here, that’s curated for the community and the needs of the community.”
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