It’s very easy to forget the history of American civil rights in Los Angeles. Our city, although with many problems, has so many things that are good and positive and going so well that those struggles—difficulties that were very real twenty years ago—are easily overlooked. Acclaimed photographer Camilo Jose Vergara has embarked on a mission to document the face of civil rights activist Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as it appears painted by neighborhood artists across the country. While Vergara’s work dips into Chicago, New York, and beyond, a bulk of his photos are of Los Angeles murals and art pieces dedicated to Doctor King that keep his work going decades after his passing. It’s a really touching, often heartwarming artistic effort to connect us in Los Angeles back to the American civil rights movement.
Called Standing Witness, the body of work includes sixty six pictures from Los Angeles and other cities. The photos are all of very folksy, often cute (“cute”) paintings on the sides of buildings and cars that feature Doctor King. Some serve multiple purposes as both an advertisement for a business and a political statement while others point toward similar figures in American, Mexican, African, and other cultures who have been treated unfairly. The absolute volume of work (and we know there are tons more than this, too) is so incredible that you will find yourself lost in his photo set wondering if you’ve seen these in person before. The local murals represented (our favorites shown here) range from Vernon to Compton to Mid-City and more: they’re all over. It’d be great to see Vergara translate this to Google Maps so that we all could visit them.
The work is being shared in conjunction with the anniversary of Doctor King’s March on Washington. These photos tell so many stories and are an effort by amateur artists and communities to wear their struggles, their prides, their hopes, and their fears on their faces. It’s a very inspiring project that Vergara accomplished simply by walking from neighborhood to neighborhood in various cities. He notes in a press release we received how the Doctor King figure is used: he’s often replacing Jesus and juxtaposed with Mexican folk symbols. Sometimes a quote from him is written near his picture and other times he is made to look like he is of many ethnicities or of a race completely outside of his own. He is a fascinating figure in American folk art.
Vergara’s body of work is brilliant and we are thrilled to share that you can actually see some of the work at the LA Mission and LAMP Community Center Downtown. The works are being shown in various cities across the nation and venues include city halls, restaurants, abandoned buildings, and homeless shelters, which is the case in LA. The works at the LA Mission will be open to the public in their dining room at 303 East 5th Street while you’ll have to call Hayk Makhuryan at 213.488.9559 to see the works at LAMP. The works will be on view starting August 15 through September 15. We love everything about this and we hope you can support it. You can see all the photos here and read a great article by Vergara about the project here.