Reflections on the passing of a great Los Angeles muralist.
by Paul Von Blum
April 27, 2022
For many years, I have told my students that when I started teaching and writing about political art, I had no emotional involvement with the artists whose work I studied. Francisco Goya, Honoré Daumier, Käthe Kollwitz, Dorothea Lange, Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros, Ben Shahn, and many others, were all dead. I did my research by examining primary and secondary sources about their lives, artistic styles, and their political consciousnesses and engagements.
Everything changed when I started writing about contemporary artists, especially Black artists in the Los Angeles area. They were no longer mere subjects; they became and have remained my friends. And when they die, it hurts.
Noni used her talent to call dramatic attention to the historical and political problems besetting her community. She did so with striking clarity, encouraging her viewers of all racial and ethnic backgrounds to take notice of past and present racism.
The recent, unexpected death of Noni Olabisi—one of the nation’s finest and most politically engaged muralists—was devastating, to me personally and to the close-knit community of Black artists in Los Angeles. She was sixty-seven.
Her powerful murals set the standard for socially conscious artists throughout the country and the world. She was deeply committed to her craft and practiced it with consummate skill and technical brilliance. But for Noni, that was never enough.
Like her distinguished predecessors, Noni used her talent to call dramatic attention to the historical and political problems besetting her community. She did so with striking clarity, encouraging her viewers of all racial and ethnic backgrounds to take notice of past and present racism. Her artworks sought to catalyze collective action for political change. That was her mission as an artist and as a human being.
Three of her murals, among many others, stand out for their political militancy and educational value:
“Freedom Won’t Wait” (Figure 1), painted in 1992 following the traumatic Los Angeles rebellion against the outrageous acquittal of the four police officers who savagely beat Rodney King, highlights the historic grievances of Black America. This colorful and aggressive mural features some memorable details that have made it an iconic American work of public political art.
Figure 1: “Freedom Can’t Wait”
The Black men hanging in the left side of the mural are a gruesome historical reminder that all too unnervingly mirror the modern-day killings of Black people including Rodney King, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and George Floyd. Noni’s message is clear: this outrage must be noticed, stopped, and atoned for.
Other details are equally poignant. The major figures, dominated by a Black woman in African garb in the front, reveal screams of pain and anguish, signifying centuries of oppression rooted in white racism. At the right is a young man holding a sign exclaiming “Freedom Won’t Wait,” and wearing a T-shirt bearing the familiar slogan “No Justice, No Peace.” Together, these features captured the underlying rage of millions of Black people, making the mural one of the most widely recognized and reproduced political murals in the past thirty years.
“To Protect and Serve,” (Figure 2), an antiracist artwork that depicted the Black Panther Party positively, generated a storm of controversy and an egregious attempt at preemptive censorship. I served on the committee that in 1994 unanimously awarded her the commission to paint this work. But when it was submitted for routine approval to the Los Angeles Cultural Affairs Commission, it was rejected on plainly political grounds.
Figure 2: “To Protect and Serve”
The commission was dominated by conservative appointees from Mayor Richard Riordan, a Republican. The sponsoring group, the Social and Political Art Resource Center (SPARC), joined Noni and many other leaders in the Black community in mounting a long, contentious, and ultimately successful campaign to get the painting produced. I took a strong role in that struggle and contributed funds, along with many other private contributors, for its ultimate completion.
The work itself is striking and is one of the major political murals in America. In the center are the sympathetically shown figures of Panther leaders Huey Newton and Elaine Brown. The mural also focuses on the Black Panther Party’s distribution of clothing, food, and medical care to members of the Black community in need.
More controversially, the mural depicted brutality and a corrupt judicial system, including its images of lynch-minded KKK members and a bound and gagged Panther leader Bobby Seale during the trial of the Chicago Eight. Even more boldly, Noni painted a strong Black male figure at the extreme left holding a rifle in a quintessential expression of his commitment to self-defense and the protection of his own people.
The third mural masterpiece, “Troubled Island” (Figure 3), was painted in 2003 with the assistance of fellow Black political muralist Charles Freeman at the William Grant Still Art Center, an historic Los Angeles venue for Black visual arts named for the famous conductor/composer Dr. William Grant Still.
Figure 3: “Troubled Island”
The mural is stunningly beautiful, offering viewers a chilling yet hopeful historical vision. It tells the story of the 1791 slave rebellion in Haiti that inspired Still’s opera, also called “Troubled Island.” Viewers first encounter the unspeakable suffering of Haitian slaves when Noni shows the cruelty of women and men marched in chains, packed in suffocating ships, and subjected to merciless whippings.
On the right side, the mural depicts the rise of slave rebellion leader Jean-Jacques Dessalines. One of the top leaders in the history of Black liberation, he became the first ruler of the independent nation of Haiti. Noni’s portrait of him in full regalia is a tribute to his leadership and highlights the turbulent history of Haiti’s struggles for independence and freedom. The mural also contains two images of Still himself. The larger one shows him conducting his famous opera, reflecting his status as a pioneering African American conductor.
Like many socially conscious artists, Noni Olabisi used her art to bring people of color back into public consciousness. I had the distinct honor and pleasure of conducting numerous tours with hundreds of students and community members to see her works. Over the years, Noni herself occasionally came to join us. She was a consummate teacher who believed passionately in the educational value of her artwork.
Noni died far too early, but her life was exceptionally well lived. For artists who seek to combine their talent with a strong political vision, she serves as a model to emulate. Her life, like all Black lives, truly matters enormously.
Paul Von Blum is senior lecturer in African American Studies and Communication at UCLA. He is a longtime civil rights and political activist and the author of many books and articles on political art, expressive culture, education, and law.
April 27, 2022
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Reflections on the passing of a great Los Angeles muralist.