A few weeks ago, a new mural debuted near Van Nuys Boulevard on Laurel Canyon, as many recently have in the past year along Pacoima’s “Mural Mile.” It’s another vision created by Levi Ponce with assistance from active community members and artists, such as Manny Velazquez, Kristy Sandoval and Javier Martinez.
The mural was revealed just as Levi was becoming a local media darling, with coverage in the Daily News and on KCET.org, KPFK and, of course, i am san fernando. Soon after “Pacoima Neighborhood Mural” debuted, Good Day L.A. was touring the street art with Levi, and the prolific muralist was subsequently interviewed on CNN and MSN.
All good, right? Well, not exactly. “Pacoima Neighborhood Mural,” which depicts two Latinas in dresses lying amidst flowers against a backdrop of stained-glass windows, has stirred up controversy. Some have called the image sexually suggestive with regard to the dress, poses, facial expressions and reclined positions of the two female models (as if they’re in bed, some have argued). Additionally, others see the religious iconography as a reinforcement of values that suppress females.
Between the excitement of Levi’s technically beautiful work, the media spotlight on Pacoima and the mixed feelings toward the representation of women in the mural, things got messy. How messy? Let’s just say Facebook was involved.
I watched and listened as this played out among community members, acquaintances and personal friends. Part of me wanted to jump in with my own initial thoughts but, like many, my feelings were still murky and unclear. Anything I said would have been reactionary, and I’ve learned that time often gives me the space to make sense of gut reactions.
What was my gut reaction upon seeing the 70 feet by 20 feet depiction? Like most things that strike me as off, I found it hard to digest but I couldn’t pinpoint why. Perhaps seeing its grandiosity in person left a sense of awe I felt uncomfortable with. Yes, I was moved. The national flowers from various Latin-American countries were beautiful, the loteria pictograms clever, and sheer stature mesmerizing. But then there they were — women I had met and conversed with in real life right in front of me, yet I could not see them.
In my first and only encounter with Ana Hernandez, one of the models, I gathered that she had an interest in photography since we only spoke briefly before she was off to shoot. In my time with Melanie Moreno, the other model, I learned that she is a talented wardrobe stylist with a passion for online media. I’m glad I got a chance to see those dimensions because the average mural observer will not be afforded the opportunity. The mural subjects will likely be relegated to “Latina babes” status, just as the Daily News recently called them.
Even though I wasn’t sure how to react, I knew I had concerns. First, there’s the notion of public art and its role in the community. Every artist has freedom to create and nearly every artist comes under fire at one point in his or her career, but do street artists carry more responsibility than others since their medium is intended for the public space, focused on accessibility and expected to interact with the community? And should a modern-day Latino or Latina muralist painting in a disadvantaged neighborhood take extra care in his or her decision-making, especially considering the art form’s deep historical ties to Mexico, which harkens back to an era when murals were rooted in social and political movement and served as a platform for underrepresented people?
I am not one to infringe on artistic freedom. After all, I’m a writer with a public-facing website who shares her sometimes less-than-popular opinion on a daily basis. The “About” section on iamsanfernando.com cheekily states, “I’m an independent blogger. You don’t like? Start your own blog.”
But, the difference is that my audience has a choice. They can choose not to read my words, never visit my website and, with a few resources, start their own blog and share their voice. The same cannot be said of a mural. You’re running into that sucker, whether you like it or not, and creating a mural is not a realistic possibility for the average citizen.
That being said, my answer is yes. A muralist should take extra care when considering his or her subject matter and think about how the piece will interact with the community at large. It’s one thing to facilitate access to art for residents who aren’t receiving it, but the more important thing is pushing through meaningful and compelling images that challenge the empty and false ones penetrating their daily lives.
There’s also another problem with the picture here, and it has to do with the representation of the two women on the wall. If a mural tells a story and challenges social constructions, what does “Pacoima Neighborhood Mural” have to say? How does it confront the all-too-common depiction of the sexualized female, particularly that of the Latina “vixen”?
There are people in certain camps that just don’t see the mural as “that bad” or overtly sexual. First, let’s state the obvious. There is a sexual connotation. If the characters from some of Levi’s other murals were subjected to such a pose, people would sense something was off. Would the Mona Lisa in “Pacoima’s Art Revolution” lose her strength if she was reclining with that same expression on her face and dress falling off her shoulder? How would Danny Trejo’s power be reduced if he wasn’t upright and looking down on you with that mean mug?
The idea that the mural is not “that bad” is a large part of the problem. Not that bad compared to what? Compared to what you’re used to seeing? Beer ads? Porno? The point of reference is off base; males have unjustly created the benchmark and ignorantly continue to look to it as a measuring tool.
The most surprising element about this whole ordeal is not the content of the mural itself. We women are accustomed to images that objectify, conversations that insult and actions that abuse. It’s not right, but also not shocking. No, the real letdown comes in the form of trust broken.
The suggestive nature of the mural struck a particular chord among community members because it was an “inside job.” This wasn’t the usual corporate entity looking to cash in on the Latin market by playing up that spicy/sizzling/feisty/hot Latina in a red dress (see: Sophia Vergara, Corona ads, any movie where the girlfriend is Latina, life). No, this was our brown, conscious brothers and some sisters who either call themselves feminists or, at the very least, are aware of a predominant culture that has marginalized them in some way.
When our community of Chicano activists and local artists — the very friends and neighbors who work side-by-side in a struggle that parallels that of females — offer this mural as their vision of Pacoima women and thereafter cannot look past the backlash, admit fault and offer understanding, it feels like an affront.
To me, this was the most upsetting element about the whole drama. I read or heard ignorant comment after ignorant comment and ran into defenders of the mural who were flabbergasted by the negative reaction. They chalked it up to the vocal opinions of “extreme feminists” and brushed it off. I didn’t know there were levels of extremity when it came to equal rights.
Some, mainly men, were ready to swiftly absolve the mural’s shortcomings because the door had now been opened for dialogue and real conversation was on its way. The problem is that the dialogue is not happening until something pops off, and females are automatically put in the position of defense. Real talk cannot stem from that. We’re supposed to be on the same team.
The content of the mural is troubling but what made me sick to my stomach was seeing how those in defense of the mural — a community of Latino artists, educators and activists — were unwilling to look at themselves, their perception of women and the resulting impact on young people walking home daily from Pacoima Middle School.
After all, if your struggle is somehow related to creating social change or presenting a new perspective through art, would it not have made sense to end the trail of disrespectful comments and begin with, “You know, I’m not sure I understand why this is so upsetting to women or why it has triggered such emotion, but I’d like to try to understand.”
Because if the conversation doesn’t begin in such an honest and open way — if the conversation doesn’t take place at all — then the writing’s on the wall.