In 1981, when she was just 26-years-old, Barbara Carrasco was commissioned by the Community Redevelopment Agency in Los Angeles to paint a mural.
“They said the theme was anything to do with Los Angeles,” she said.
Carrasco worked for months on the project, consulting historians and researching the history of the area. She decided to base the mural on a woman with long, flowing hair, after the mythical queen of Los Angeles, with panels showing chronological snapshots of Los Angeles’s history.
But when she completed the 16-by-80-foot mural, the redevelopment agency wasn’t happy with every scene she decided to capture. Even though they had previously approved sketches of the piece, they objected, in particular, to the depiction of a Japanese internment camp during World War II.
“They said, in their words, ‘Japanese don’t want to be reminded of the internment camps,’” she said. “And I remember looking at all of them and saying, ‘None of you are Japanese, so let me go ask some of them.’”
She invited three Japanese organizations to see the mural — all of whom wrote letters of support.
Still, the agency was not moved. The conflict attracted national media coverage, and two attorneys represented her pro bono. Eventually, the redevelopment agency decided they had had enough. Wanting out of the controversy, they gave Carrasco possession of the mural and allowed her to keep the $6,000 commission fee. But in the process, she lost the exhibition site to show the mural.
The mural was forced to stay in storage until 1990, when it was displayed for the first time for three weeks at Union Station in Los Angeles as part of the Los Angeles Festival. Sections of it have been on display at various locations for brief periods of time over the years, but by and large it remained in storage until last month, when it went on display at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles, where it will remain until August.
Carrasco’s story is just one featured in a new exhibit, “¡Murales Rebeldes! L.A. Chicano/a Murals under Siege,” which opened Saturday at the California Historical Society (678 Mission St.) and will run through September 16.
The exhibition tells the story of eight censored, whitewashed or destroyed murals in Los Angeles. It was produced in collaboration with the LA Plaza de Cultura y Artes museum in Los Angeles and partially funded by the Getty Foundation.
“Murals are being lost at an alarming rate in Los Angeles, and many of these murals were made during the Chicana Movement. They’re important historical documents of that social justice movement — not to mention stunning works of art,” said Jessica Hough, director of exhibits at the California Historical Society.
She said that even though the works featured in the exhibit are from Los Angeles, she believes audiences will be responsive to a story about murals.
“One of the reasons we were committed to bringing the exhibition here is because there is such a long mural tradition in the Mission District and around San Francisco,” she said. “This mural community in the Mission has struggled as well around preserving murals, but those stories are a little different than some of the stories in Los Angeles.”
“We really hope there will be a dialogue between the artists and people who have been working in the community to protect and preserve the murals,” she added.
Some of those stories featured, like the one of artist Willie F. Herrón III, are incredibly personal.
In 1972, Herrón came home late from a party to find his 15-year-old brother lying in a pool of blood in the alley behind his uncle’s bakery.
After riding with his brother in the ambulance and walking home from the hospital, Herrón painted a mural above the spot where he found his brother, completing it in a single night. Neighbors held flashlights as he worked with paint scrounged from his mother’s garage.
Decades later, in 1998, Herrón learned that the mural had been whitewashed.
“In the 1990s, when graffiti abatement crews are rampant … crews are sent by the county painted over The Wall that Cracked Open,” said Hough.
The whitewashing received national media attention and, in 1999, the Los Angeles Board of Supervisors instructed the Department of Public Works to commission Herrón to restore his own mural. He painstakingly removed the whitewash, and the mural was rededicated in 2000.
Featured in the exhibit are pictures of Herrón’s mural over the years, including the night it was painted, what it looked like after whitewashing, and the careful restoration.
Hough said The California Historical Society will be collaborating with several community groups in the Mission who will be bringing groups of children each week to tour the exhibit. “Afterwards, they’ll get to do an art project where they’ll design a piece of their own mural,” she said.
Correction: An earlier version of this story stated the exhibit was partially funded by the Getty Museum, rather than the Getty Foundation, which is a separate entity.