Protest Art Takes a Quiet Stand in L.A.

Art and politics have long been a noisy pair, but a spate of exhibitions across Los Angeles prove that artists can speak softly while carrying a big stick.

Assemblage artist Timothy Washington is a contemporary of David Hammons and Betye Saar. He combines sculpture, painting, and drawing to create striking abstractions of human figures.
Assemblage artist Timothy Washington is a contemporary of David Hammons and Betye Saar. He combines sculpture, painting, and drawing to create striking abstractions of human figures.
© Timothy Washington

The following article is by Scott Timberg, a long-time Los Angeles arts journalist who took his own life in December at the age of 50 after we had gone to press. Scott’s passing touched us deeply; some of the Alta team had worked closely with him over the decades, namely at the Los Angeles Times and at Los Angeles magazine. The journalism community mourned him with a collective remembrance and created a memorial fund to help his family with expenses and his son’s college education.

We were delighted last Fall when Scott agreed to provide the following preview of Los Angeles art exhibits for the Alta, Winter 2020 issue. His sharp intellect, curiosity, and critical acumen are evident throughout his prolific writing. It is an honor to have published his work, and it breaks our hearts that there won’t be more.

The Editors

Do a quick survey of Los Angeles’s more recent art shows and you’ll see exhibitions that are almost as politically charged as those from the incendiary days of the 1960s and ’70s. This season, work by and about people of color continues to be prominent: there’s a celebration of fresh and diverse talent as well as an urge to recognize artists and projects that were eclipsed for racial or ethnic reasons. Some of the new works possess what appear to be clear political overtones, but a number of the artists involved don’t see their art as being driven by any sort of formal credo.

Take Arizona photographer Tom Kiefer, whose pictures documenting the inhumanity of the U.S.-Mexican border hang at Los Angeles’s Skirball Cultural Center in El Sueño Americano/The American Dream. The project seems to fit neatly into a lineage of protest art. But, says Kiefer, “I don’t like to say it’s political. This work is about people’s hopes and dreams.”

If you try to talk politics with Timothy Washington, a black assemblage artist in his 70s whose show Citizen/Ship is on view at L.A.’s California African American Museum, he quickly changes the subject. “The older I get, the more sensitive I’ve become to the relationship that one object has on another,” Washington says. A usual guiding philosophy for an artist, but hardly a clenched fist.

Artists typically feel the pull of two competing gravities: one in which they are part of a larger movement and one in which they struggle to assert an independent vision. This season, at least in several Southern California art shows, the latter seems to be winning.

Tom Kiefer has spent more than 10 years photographing items—like brushes and combs—that are taken from immigrants at the border.
Tom Kiefer has spent more than 10 years photographing items—like brushes and combs—that are taken from immigrants at the border.


About a decade ago, 60-year-old Kiefer was a midcareer photographer and onetime Angeleno living in Ajo, Arizona, a small former mining town. He worked as a janitor at a U.S. Customs and Border Protection facility as a way of supporting his photography. While he cleaned rooms and emptied trash bins, he was struck by the enormous amount of canned food that migrants brought with them and surrendered to border agents.

But he also began to notice other things—razor blades, shoelaces, books, compact discs of favorite songs—border agents had taken. “Seeing a rosary or a Bible in the trash…,” says Kiefer. “It was shocking.” He knew he needed to capture these glimpses of anonymous lives.

The result is El Sueño Americano/The American Dream, a photo series that Kiefer began in 2007. The ongoing project includes intimate shots of wedding rings and diaper pins as well as larger, more extroverted pieces: a photo of dozens of toothbrushes and toothpaste takes on an almost pop art grandeur, especially if we forget that these items were seized from entirely powerless people.

“I’m photographing personal belongings that were taken away from people,” says Kiefer, who insists his show is not about any particular political administration or border policy. “This is about our own humanity and what we’ve allowed to happen.”

Rather than leave the viewer with a simple message, Kiefer is striving to generate a sense of empathy. The photographer—whose previous work, generally shot outside in natural light, was inspired by Walker Evans’s documentary-style images—labored to find the right techniques with which to honor these lost totems. “I wanted to photograph them in a way that showed my respect and reverence not just for the objects but for the people who carried them,” he says.

Djimon Hounsou poses in a Cross Colours ad that ran in a 1991 issue of Urb magazine.
Djimon Hounsou poses in a Cross Colours ad that ran in a 1991 issue of Urb magazine.


One irony of this current art-world moment is that two of Southern California’s most explicitly political shows this winter were not produced by visual artists. Instead, they look at fashion and film through a political lens.

Cross Colours: Black Fashion in the 20th Century at the California African American Museum explores the heyday of the L.A.-based clothing company Cross Colours, known for its bold hues, loose fits, and African patterns. The brand was featured prominently on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and was worn by everyone from Muhammad Ali and Magic Johnson to Dr. Dre and TLC during the late ’80s and early ’90s. Tyree Boyd-Pates, one of the show’s curators, sees the clothes as deeply political: the baggy cut came from prison fashion; the black-green-and-red color scheme came from the Pan-African flag. “Black youth were getting into history, revisiting Malcolm X’s ‘By any means necessary’ [speech], revisiting Marcus Garvey’s back-to-Africa movement,” he says. Another CAAM show is even more direct in its politics. Making Mammy: A Caricature of Black Womanhood, 1840–1940 examines how the happy black female servant became a cultural stereotype and distorted perceptions of slavery through cultural touchstones like the novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the film Gone with the Wind.

Alongside the political emphasis of these shows, it might seem likely that Citizen/Ship, the CAAM exhibit by Leimert Park–based Washington, would have a clear protest-art orientation. He did, after all, come of age in the aftermath of Los Angeles’s 1965 Watts Rebellion, a six-day riot fueled by tensions between black Angelenos and the Los Angeles Police Department that left dozens dead.

Washington works with cast-off pieces of the city—broken dolls, random hunks of metal, the skull of a hog. His show’s title is provocative, and one of the pieces includes a “hands up” image associated with protests like those in Ferguson, Missouri. But Washington is more eclectic than topical: he points out that the same piece includes a blue jay and an image of Betty Boop. His work is about mystery and paradox rather than a message.

Neither Kiefer nor Washington is opposed to politics or protest. But today, the wider culture is deeply politicized, and an artist can send a message on social media to protest an atrocity rather than come up with a painting or installation about it.

That may be the result of a growing rift between what audiences, curators, and critics want to see and how artists see themselves. Kiefer recalls a recent conversation with a fellow artist. “More and more, people are wanting art to solve our problems,” his friend told him. But, says Kiefer, “that’s not the purpose.” Effective art, he offers, doesn’t always solve problems. But it always “makes you think—it makes you feel.”


• Through Mar. 8
• Skirball Cultural Center, 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles


• Through Mar. 1
• California African American Museum, 600 State Dr., Los Angeles

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below
More From Premium