Personal Voices/Cultural Visions: Conversations in the Visual Arts Community, Los Angeles 1994-1996
produced and published by the Southern California Women’s Caucus for Art and edited by Ann Isolde
By Betty Ann Brown
Remember, remember always, that all of us, and you and I especially, are descended from immigrants and revolutionists. ~Franklin D. Roosevelt
We have all heard Edmund Bourke’s famous statement, “Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it.” I would add that those who don’t know history are bound to forget their personal relationship to history, which is to say, they are bound to forget their own stories. And this collective forgetting diminishes all of us, by erasing awareness of our shared roots and our linked identities.
Personal Voices/Cultural Visions: Conversations in the Visual Arts Community, Los Angeles 1994-1996 is an important exercise in recording and remembering our histories. The volume was produced and published by the Southern California Women’s Caucus for Art and edited by Ann Isolde. An artist and arts administrator herself, Isolde interviewed eighteen Los Angeles artists and art historians in the mid-1990s. Some artists were interviewed pairs (Cecil Fergerson, Samella Lewis and June Wayne); others were interviewed in groups (various members of the Latino, Asian American, and African American communities were interviewed in groups of three or four.) Isolde was joined by Noreen Dean Dresser in one interview, by Betty Schoenberg in another. The edited transcripts of those interviews was published in 2018,on the occasion of the Annual Meetings of the College Art Association/Women’s Caucus for Art here in Southern California.
This book is stunningly important for everyone who wants to know about the history of art and art organizations in Los Angeles. Artists, specifically women artists and artists of color, have been meeting, organizing, and speaking out about racial and gender inequities in the art world for decades. Several decades, in fact. The book begins with the testimony of Cecil Fergerson, who was one of the first artists to organize for equity of representation in museums. Fergerson began working at the California Museum of Natural History, Science, and Art in 1948 (before the city divided its public museum into three, moving the art to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art on Wilshire Boulevard.) He was instrumental in forming the Black Arts Council in 1968, in large part because he realized very few African Americans were active in the city’s art world. The Council organized a three-part lecture series featuring Samella Lewis, Bernie Casey and Charles White, that was very well attended. At about that time, Fergerson curated an exhibition for the tennis court of the AME Church. He remembers that when LA Times critic William Wilson wrote about the show, he focused on the people, not the art, telling Fergerson, “Well, Cecil, black art is just social commentary. It’s too political.” In other words, Wilson believed black art was propaganda, not “real” or “quality” art. One wonders if the critic ever realized how racist he was being. Fergerson’s first interview was done with artist John Outterbridge, the first director of the Watts Towers Arts Center and long-time activist artist; and Dale Davis, co-founder of Brockman Gallery in Leimert Park.
The next chapter, which records the Isolde’s interview with six Asian American women–Kyung Sun Cho, Karin Higa, Candace Lee, Ann Page, Kim Yasuda, and May Sun–includes discussion of how each of the featured artists had grappled with her identity as Asian or Asian American, as woman, and as artist or curator. The chapter includes discussion of Godzilla, an Asian American visual arts network and advocacy group founded in New York in 1990. Among many other activities, Godzilla members protested concerns about the “politically correct” (and therefore wildly controversial) Whitney Biennial of 1993.
The fourth conversation was conducted with Roberto Bedoya, Charles Canales, Martha Abeytia Canales, Barbara Carrasco, Yreina D. Cervantez, Harry Gamboa, Jr., and Sybil Venegas. Their conversation ranged over issues of identity, Chicano arts organizations, educational institutions, and important exhibitions (especially CARA, Chicano Art: Resistance and Affirmation, UCLA, 1991). They also discussed murals, work with the UFW (United Farms Workers), and creative collaborations like Los Four (Almaraz, de la Rocha, Lujan and Romero.)
This brief and partial summary is merely skimming over the top of the deep and foundational issues addressed in the book. All of the interviews are wide-ranging and informative. Taken together, they portray a Los Angeles art world riddled by bias yet sustained by committed activism, revolutionary protest, and continued creativity.
Southern California Women’s Caucus for Art
We are pleased to let you know that Personal Voices / Cultural Visions: Conversations in the Visual Arts Community, Los Angeles 1994 -1996 is now available on Amazon.