LOS ANGELES TIMES
Sunday, April 28, 2002
What the Riots Sparked
The ideas born in those turbulent days continue to inform L.A.’s creative activity.
By CHRISTOPHER REYNOLDS
The jury said not guilty. The sky filled with smoke, the looters hit the streets, and neither justice nor peace seemed immediately available. So Noni Olabisi sketched. Lula Washington danced. Seth Kaufman collected charred wood and screws.
And now, 10 years after the riots of 1992, it’s clear that plenty of other Angelenos were doing likewise. A generation of paintings, murals, songs, books and plays was born amid the anxiety and violence of spring 1992, and many were weaned on the philanthropic programs that followed. With the exception of Anna Deavere Smith’s one-woman show “Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992,” most of those works have faded from public memory. But behind them stands a group of artists whose creative lives were reshaped, in sometimes startling ways, by the riots.
“Basically, every project that I do is very much shaped and marked by the events of that month,” theater and opera director Peter Sellars says. “It’s one of the reasons I live in Los Angeles. This is the city that went up in flames. And those fires are not extinguished.”
The artists, performers, writers and directors in this story amount to a small sampling of the city’s creative work force, some prominent, some largely unknown. But together, their experiences offer not only a novel perspective on those harrowing days, but a lesson in the limits and possibilities of making art about civic trauma.
From the first hours of destruction on April 29, 1992, people began making things.
In South-Central Los Angeles, Noni Olabisi, a full-time hair stylist and fledgling muralist was at her day job cutting hair. She had already missed two design-submission deadlines for a mural that was to go up nearby, her first public commission.
When the Simi Valley jury came back with not-guilty verdicts for the policemen accused of brutality against Rodney King, “I was looking at my co-workers’ faces,” Olabisi recalls. “And one said, ‘Do you know what that means, Noni? It means open season on black people.'”
Now she had a subject whose resonance was nearly deafening in her mostly African American neighborhood. She set to work on a design.
In a studio on West Adams, meanwhile, Lula Washington’s dance troupe couldn’t keep still. Within a week, the choreographer says, she had her dancers collaborating on a new piece. “We just couldn’t hold back the feelings and emotions. It was sort of an obsession of everyone when we’d come to rehearsal,” Washington recalls.
Actor Edward James Olmos couldn’t sit still, either. On the day after the verdicts, he challenged looters to join him in cleaning up. The next morning, a Friday, he drove up to the African Methodist Episcopal church on Adams near Western and pulled out a broom.
“I swept the parking lot,” Olmos recalls. “Then I walked down the street and kept on sweeping. It was ludicrous, to be honest with you–one person in the middle of the street with a broom.”
But then an old woman joined him, and a television news truck came by, then a truck full of teenagers arrived, and so on. For three days. At the peak, Olmos estimates, he had tens of thousands of people with him–an act of street theater that became a central image in the city’s tentative recovery.
Seth Kaufman headed for the ruins. The then 33-year-old assemblage artist spent months combing through burnt-out buildings, scavenging artifacts no looter would look at twice, recasting them as abstract art.
Poster artist Robbie Conal abandoned his usual low-tech caricature style and used digital photo manipulation to make an image of a flaming nightstick. “I was just so upset,” Conal says, “that I didn’t think drawings or ugly paintings of ugly white guys would be enough.”
So the responses went, from discipline to discipline, some projects arising overnight, some gestating for years. The rapper Ice Cube, who was writing angry lyrics about Los Angeles police well before the jury came back in Simi Valley, added riot-related material to his album “The Predator” in time for its late 1992 release. The Long Beach punk-ska band Sublime came up with “April 29, 1992 (Miami),” a song released in 1996.
In 1997, on the fifth anniversary of the riots, Showtime aired “Riot,” a fictional view of the unrest seen through black, Anglo, Asian and Latino characters. Producers Harry Winer and Judith Polone recruited writers and directors from different ethnic backgrounds, then wove the results together with a cast including Mario and Melvin Van Peebles, Luke Perry and Cicely Tyson.
In a sense, the movie industry had already weighed in by the time the verdicts were read. “Boyz N the Hood” and “Grand Canyon” had been released in the second half of 1991, after the March 3 beating of Rodney King and the March 4 airing of the video, but months before the riots.
Independent film producer Stephanie Allain, who oversaw “Boyz” as an executive for Columbia Pictures, says that since the riots, “the dramas that were about life in the inner city aren’t getting made anymore. It’s really hard to get money for movies that are about social reality.”
It might seem hard, too, to wrestle a children’s story from the riots, but writer Eve Bunting collaborated with illustrator David Diaz to produce “Smoky Night,” a book about anger and tolerance that won the 1995 Caldecott Medal, the country’s most coveted award for children’s picture books.
Novelists Bebe Moore Campbell and Paula L. Wood also incorporated riot stories and multicultural tensions into new books. Poet and essayist Wanda Coleman took the reins as guest editor of High Performance magazine and stayed up three days straight to lead a corps of volunteers through assembly of a 90-page issue on the verdict and riots. It hit the streets before May was over.
The Cornerstone Theater Company, whose mission is to enlist overlooked communities in the theater-making process, had just opened up shop in L.A. Less than a week before it was scheduled to hold its first auditions here, the riots broke out–“a grim confirmation that we had chosen the right city,” co-founder Bill Rauch says. “Everything we’ve done in Los Angeles was framed by the riots, and everything continues to be.”
At major arts institutions around Los Angeles, “everybody was totally petrified” in the weeks after the verdict, and administrators were soon scrambling to do big things quickly, recalls Adolfo Nodal, then the general manager of the city’s Cultural Affairs Department. By early 1993, Nodal’s department would distribute nearly $500,000 in one-time grants, most of them in increments of less than $3,000.
Other institutions created or expanded education and community outreach programs. Gordon Davidson’s Center Theatre Group commissioned Anna Deavere Smith, whose one-woman, multiple-character documentary play premiered to widespread acclaim at the Mark Taper Forum the following year (see accompanying essay).
Also “Which Way, L.A.?” was born. In June 1992, public radio station KCRW-FM (89.9) asked broadcast journalist Warren Olney to be the host of a round-table conversation. The program evolved into a permanent fixture of civic life, frequently serving as the kitchen table for the region’s ongoing cultural conversation.
On the whole, “I don’t want to say the rebellion was a good thing, but in a sense it helped us,” Nodal says.
Keith Antar Mason, artistic director of the Venice-based Hittite Empire, an African American performance ensemble, casts a more jaundiced eye on those days.
“All of a sudden, there was all this discretionary money,” Mason recalls. “Everybody wanted to do some kind of token appeasement. Was it nice to have so many people interested in what we were doing? Yes, it was. Did I know that it was going to be fleeting? From Day 1, I knew it was going to be fleeting.”
As the riots began, says artist Willie Robert Middlebrook, “I didn’t know anything about it. I had a studio in San Pedro, and I was photographing that day, and for some reason I didn’t listen to the radio and didn’t listen to the TV. As I’m leaving San Pedro at about 6 p.m., I see the smoke rising over downtown.”
Drawing closer to his home in Compton, Middlebrook saw buildings aflame, looters on the hoof, cars accelerating on the wrong side of the road–“Total anarchy. It was like waking up in the middle of ‘The Twilight Zone.'”
For Middlebrook, who was already wrestling with social issues in his art, the riots were a stomp on the accelerator pedal. Invited to create a riots-related work for a California African American Museum how, Middlebrook seized on the idea of identity: how we see ourselves, how other people see us, and the consequences when those images differ. Soon he had a work dominated by 16 black-and-white self-portraits.
“I’m a big black guy,” explains Middlebrook, 44. “When I walk into a room, for some reason, heads turn. So I figured the perfect person for it was me.”
The Los Angeles County Museum of Art later acquired the work, titled “In His ‘Own’ image.” Then last year the piece took on yet another life, when LACMA invited Middlebrook to expand it for an interactive children’s exhibit. The resulting 40-foot-long work is on display in the museum’s Boone Children’s Gallery through Sept. 2.
“I’ll always remember that feeling when I drove into Compton,” Middlebrook says. “Before that point, I had never been lost in America. And that’s in my work from time to time. It recurs, because there’s no way to get rid of that feeling.”
Stage director Sellars too had already set his career on a sociopolitical tack. Known for his daring adaptations and enthusiasm for multicultural ventures, Sellars was assembling a program for the Los Angeles Festival as the police trial advanced.
Sellars viewed the riots as “a very precise statement, drawing a map in flames.” For him, he adds, interpreting that map is “the assignment for a lifetime of work, and I take that very seriously.”
With virtually every production, his commitment to confronting racial politics emerges in a new permutation—sometimes inspiring critical raves, sometimes walkouts. He shifted programming of the L.A. Festival (which has since folded) to address racial politics. Directing a 1994 production of “The Merchant of Venice” that began at Chicago’s Goodman Theater, Sellars updated the setting to Venice, Calif., cast African Americans as Jews, Latinos as Venetians, Asians as the Bel-Air-dwelling privileged class. Directing a 1998 collaboration with Cornerstone, he moved the setting of Jean Genêt’s “The Screens” from North Africa to East Los Angeles, replacing French colonial authorities with National Guardsmen.
In these ventures, says Sellars, the idea is to challenge audiences to look beyond their immediate social landscape. He adapted “The Merchant of Venice” the way he did, he says, because the play “is about racism as an economic condition. And it’s also a play in which there’s a major trial, and the wrong verdict is reached. The people who reach the verdict are smugly confident that they won’t have to change their attitudes or their lifestyles. And Shakespeare begs to differ.”
Commercial artist David G. Brown came at the riots from a vastly different starting point–or rather, the riots came at him.
He had been designing movies posters and packaging for various clients, with no particular social agenda. But when the verdict was read and the chaos grew, Brown holed up in his Mid-Wilshire home and watched on television as looters overran his grocery store and dry cleaner. Then his mind wandered back to the daydreams he had as a child about drawing his own comic book series.
“My concept was to do this superhero, the L.A. Phoenix, who rose from the ashes of the riots to show young people there was a better way too solve conflicts,” Brown says. When his application for a $2,370 city Cultural Affairs Department grant was approved and the Phoenix project took wing, “it was like an epiphany: This is what I should be doing now.”
Before he fell from view, the Phoenix soared through a 16-page first edition for schools and libraries, scolding looters and calming cops as he went. He was sighted on CNN. He starred in an anti-graffiti, anti-gangs, anti-drugs comicbook trilogy, and he brought his creator into contact with a new community of activists and educators.
Brown joined that community. He still does commercial work but has also developed a “Tales From the Kids” comicbook workshop that guides children in designing their own stories and seeing them through to publication. Such projects, which typically rely on government grants and private sponsors, now make up the lion’s share of his income.
“It was the inception of a whole new career for me,” said Brown, 47. “If the riots didn’t happen, my focus would be getting to a corporate art director position.”
Like Brown, Olabisi hasn’t quite escaped her day job. But she has augmented it in a big way. Just outside the door of her hair salon at West 54th Street and Western Avenue stands the work that came of her spring 1992 sketches, a project that launched her as a muralist.
Mostly painted in black, white and red, the wall shows African warriors, a lynching, and a smoldering cityscape behind a man in a T-shirt that reads “No Justice, No Peace.” The work’s title is “Freedom Won’t Wait.”
Olabisi, now 47, completed it in 1993, with backing from the Venice-based Social & Public Art Resource Center. Much of the imagery is troubling, but that, says Olabisi, is the point. It passed a neighborhood vetting process, and when center officials are asked to name a mural that deals with the riots, hers is the first answer.
Olabisi has worked steadily as a public artist since 1993, both alone and in concert with collaborators. Her works include a Rosa Parks poster for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and her largest and most controversial mural so far, “To Protect and Serve” (1996), an admiring visual history of the Black Panthers movement painted on the side of a barber shop at 11th Avenue and Jefferson Boulevard.
The more she works as a muralist, Olabisi says, the more broadly she looks at subject matter. “I know that people are used to me doing black, black, black work,” she says. But lately, she’s more attracted to the idea that “it’s not really about the color thing. It’s about the spirit.”
While artists like Brown and Olabisi found their careers accelerating in new directions after the riots, others found dead ends and detours.
Keith Antar Mason and the Hittite Nation put together a pair of performance pieces addressing the April 29 police verdicts and their aftermath, and soon had bookings at prominent venues in Los Angeles and New York. But since that brief burst of attention, Mason says, he’s found that his Venice-based company has to go on the road to stay busy, taking residencies in such cities as Austin, Texas, and Minneapolis.
During the last decade, Mason says, “I’ve created seven new pieces about Los Angeles, but no one here in Los Angeles has seen the work.”
At Lula Washington’s studio, where the choreographer and her dancers spent all those hours on their feet while the city smoldered, the troupe came up with “Check This Out.” The 40-minute piece starts with a chant of “no justice, no peace” against projected street scenes of burning, looting, police and rioters. The score by Bob Dale evolves from radio static to percussive bursts, then sound bites from U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles). The dancers move through emotional, sometimes violent gestures, and recite recollections of those harrowing days.
After a handful of performances in Los Angeles to mixed reviews, Washington and her company took a condensed version of the piece to a booking conference in 1993. Several presenters, Washington says, told her they were looking for riots-related work. When the company presented the excerpt, everything changed.
“It alienated everybody, basically,” Washington says. The company landed no bookings, she recalls, and had to scramble elsewhere to fill in the gap.
“People felt we were angry and we were hostile, even though the piece had an upbeat, optimistic ending,” Washington says. Though the work has prompted standing ovations at some performances and was chosen for staging under the banner of Sellars’ L.A. Festival, she says she has come to realize that it’s “so raw and in-your-face that it frightens people.”
She handles it gingerly now, as one would a loaded weapon, and when a presenter requests it, “I let them know that it’s hard for some people to digest.” The reality, she says, is that sometimes “they say they want this, but they really want something that’s safer.”
For Kaufman, the assemblage artist who spent those months sifting through the ashes, a far more rewarding creative experience seemed to be taking shape. His sooty, scavenged abstractions quickly won him an invitation to mount a one-man art show and organize a group show about the riots elsewhere. He was also hired by Absolut vodka. Kaufman led a multicultural artists’ collaboration that went up in lights over Sunset Boulevard. “Have Hope Help Heal,” it said.
The one-man show, “Dwelling in Rebellion/A Year to the Day,” at the Zero One Gallery on Melrose Avenue, led to about two dozen sales, at prices from $200 to $3,000. A batch of melted liquor bottles in a burnt box, titled “Toast of the Town,” went to a collector in Colorado. Another work of burned wood and screws, titled “Sniper Number One,” landed in the joint collection of the Laguna Art Museum and the Orange County Museum of Art.
He was in demand as never before, yet “my life, my sense of security, had been stripped from me. It deeply affected my sense of mortality. I had never seen my society completely disintegrate,” says Kaufman, now 44. “I did nothing for an entire year but address my experience of the riots.”
Kaufman took himself out of the riot-artifact business in 1993. “I didn’t want to become ‘The Riot Guy.’ I exorcised what I needed to get out of me, and it was time to move along,” Kaufman says. “I came out of that year broke.”
Kaufman still works in assemblage, selling through a dealer in San Francisco, and his bio shows a healthy list of exhibitions, sales and events in recent years. But he looks back at his post-riots work with deep ambivalence.
“It was a very tumultuous and painful journey,” he says. “I came under attack in many cases, in fact, because I was a white guy talking about issues that had largely affected inner-city groups. But the fact is that we were all terrified as we drove around the city, and we all saw the buildings on fire.”
In the face of such stories, says Mark Greenfield, director of Watts Towers Arts Center since 1993, it may help to remember that “art doesn’t have to be permanent. Maybe, sometimes, it’s a matter of putting a bandage over the wound, and letting the wound heal.”
Greenfield, who has done painting and assemblage, remembers being recruited to join a 1995 gallery exhibition of African American and Korean American artists. Meeting on weekends to plan, paint and relax over lunch, Greenfield and Korean American artist Kyongho Shin Ko made a painted particle-board picture puzzle of a Latino man selling oranges and flowers by a freeway onramp. The work was titled “Just Five Bucks.”
Its enduring value? Hard to calculate. But a decade later, the relationship between the collaborators is intact. Out of it came an invitation for Greenfield to sit on the board of the Korean American Museum.
As for the artwork itself, Greenfield says, “I could not tell you where it is now. But I’d much rather have the friendship.”
Christopher Reynolds is a Times staff writer.
Copyright © 2002 Los Angeles Times
Seth Kaufman took himself out of the riot-artifact business in 1993. “I didn’t want to become ‘The Riot Guy.’ I exorcised what I needed to get out of me, and it was time to move along,” Kaufman says. “I came out of that year broke.” (KIRK McKOY / LAT)
Kaufman’s 1992 “Reach Out and Torch Someone”, left, and his new, untitled work, right. (KIRK McKOY / LAT)