Chandra Frank

I spent the majority of my summer in Los Angeles. New to the city as I was, I had no idea of what to expect besides the ominous presence of road rage-inducing traffic. With exclusive access to LA’s underused side streets, I escaped the traffic and found myself front and center for a surprising amount of excellent art shows. LA’s expanding arts scene has led to a myriad of galleries popping up. While this makes the city an interesting place for art lovers, it also reveals the contentious relationship between art and gentrification. Yet, places such as The Underground Museum, a Black-owned exhibition space in the working class West Adams/Crenshaw District, subverts this relationship by offering an important radical cultural center. Sadly, its founder, Noah Davis, recently passed away, leaving an invaluable legacy behind that will continue to showcase exhibitions. The Underground Museum’s current exhibition, Journey to the Moon by South African artist William Kentridge, shows the caliber of this relatively new space. The exhibition is a video installation that incorporates Kentridge’s own performances and working processes inside his studio. Kentridge is displayed reworking and erasing pieces, a meditation on shifting narratives and impermanence in artmaking.

William Kentridge, 7 Fragments for George Méliès (2003). Edition 1/8, video + DVD transfer. William Kentridge, drawing, photography, and direction. Catherine Meyburgh, editing

It just so happened that my greatest education about LA’s intricate history came from exhibitions at three of the city’s main arts institutions. These exhibitions offered a non-traditional and unconventional view of Black Los Angeles. There was the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) on Grand Avenue showing Kahlil Joseph: Double Conscience; the Pacific Design Center MOCA location presenting Tongues Untied, a multimedia exhibition titled after Marlon Riggs’ seminal film about the intersections of Blackness and queerness; and the Hammer Museum exhibiting Mark Bradford’s Scorched Earth, providing a captivating glance into the connection between LA’s history and broader global conversations about Blackness, bodies as ethical and political sites of resistance, and the HIV/AIDS epidemic.

Bradford, a Los Angeles-born and based Black queer artist/activist, directly centers the body in relation to the city’s history. After multiple national and international solo exhibitions, this is his first solo show on home ground. In Scorched Earth, Bradford addresses the 1992 riots that he witnessed from his Leimert Park studio and their visible legacies today. The show included 12 paintings and a sound installation entitled “Spiderman.” The installation is Bradford’s response to Eddy Murphy’s 1983 film Delirious in which he makes homophobic comments that Bradford takes on in this piece. The landscape of the riots quite literally encompasses the body in crisis in Bradford’s work. His paintings demonstrate a longstanding interest in geography and mapping, influenced by scale and abstraction. They portray the body and its cellular structure through organic and fluid lines, conveying transformation and the literal open wounds of LA’s legacy of violence. Bradford uses this notion in conjunction with his own experiences of these historical sites and moments.

Test 2, 2015. Mixed media on canvas. 62 x 48 in. (157.5 x 121.9 cm).   Courtesy of the artist and Hauser & Wirth. Photo by Joshua White

Installation view of Mark Bradford: Scorched Earth, Hammer Museum, Los Angeles, June 20–September 27, 2015. Photo by Brian Forrest.


Mark Bradford. The Next Hot Line 2015. Mixed media on canvas. 84 x 108 in. (213.4 x 274.3 cm). Courtesy of the artist and Hauser & Wirth. Photo by Joshua White.)

In Finding Barry (2015), Bradford draws on United States census data from 2009 detailing the percentages of people living with AIDS in every state. The data is represented within a mural map of the United States. Instead of using paint, Bradford chose to render the piece on a wall of the Hammer Museum using only a power sander, exposing fragments of past works and giving the mural a distinct palimpsestic quality. The older and outdated data is purposefully used in order to function as a “metaphor for how we receive, but never really fully comprehend the massiveness of these kinds of numbers and information.”

In a talk between Bradford and law professor Anita Hill on August 2nd, Hill suggested that Bradford’s work moves from the map, representing the bigger picture, to the cell. This transition seems to represent the tension between the numbers and statistics on HIV/AIDS and the various experiences of those living with the virus. Bradford explained that he vacillates between macro and micro, delighting in explicit “right-up-close conversations” prompted by his work, but also in the freedoms and ambiguities that abstraction can offer.

Kahlil Joseph, another LA-based artist who made the film m.A.A.d for Kendrick Lamar’s 2012 album Good Kid, M.a.a.d. City, works in conversation with Bradford. The film’s two-screen installation is a representation of a contemporary Black Los Angeles in a post ‘92 riots context. The soundtrack by Kendrick Lamar pulls the viewer further into everyday Black life and movement in the city of Compton. Joseph’s work does not present a clear-cut linear narrative but takes the viewer on a mesmerizing visual journey and includes time-stamped home video material from 1992. The aftermath of the riots is present, though in an indirect way. In a dreamlike landscape we see horses galloping, a marching band, underwater scenes, a barbershop, a man hanging upside down from a streetlight and young women trying on hats. Joseph’s depictions of Compton’s joy, triumph and sadness make the 15-minute piece a visceral and varied experience and a tribute to Black Los Angeles. The work of Joseph and Bradford are not confined to the pains of state violence. Both artists offer hope and radical joy at a much-needed time.

In the 1980s, Mark Bradford felt inspired by James Baldwin and had a strong urge to escape the tumultuous era of crack and AIDS that gripped many urban centers in the US. He travelled to Europe for the first time, landing in Amsterdam. From that point forward, Bradford divided his time between Europe and Los Angeles. His work and Marlon Riggs’ Tongues Untied attest to an important Black queer archive that links present day social activism with that of the 1980s and vice versa. Tongues Untied is an autobiographical performance piece on gender, race and identity in America. The 1989 film includes dance, poetry, prose and archival material, reflecting on Black men loving Black men. Tongues Untied came at the height of the AIDS crisis and is a revolutionary historical document of its time. Alongside Riggs’s film, MOCA displayed works from John Boskovich, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, and Adam Rolston.

The urgency and active presence of this archive becomes clear through the independent scholarship being done by a fellow survivor of the Los Angeles crack era, DJ/Scholar Lynnée Denise. Denise launched The Global 80s, a multi-city performative artwork and research project in development. Her project includes a total of nine cities—Amsterdam, Berlin, London, Kingston, Lagos, New York, Chicago, Detroit, and Washington DC—chosen because of their historical relationship to the arts used as a tool to navigate difficult social terrain.

Denise, who recently moved back home to LA, sees the city as a poignant flagship city for The Global 80s project because she witnessed the multiple ways that crack cocaine entered the landscape. She explains: “California was the first state to learn of and use crack cocaine, and the devastating impact it had on my community and in my home for that matter shaped my artistic interests and overall analysis.” The Global 80s uses aspects of electronic music culture, literature and digital media to acknowledge the countless bodies that disappeared from global urban communities for reasons that include HIV/AIDs, addiction and displacement related to immigration policy. Similar to Bradford and Kahlil Joseph, Lynnée Denise uses her own relationship to the 80s as a gateway to address broader issues. “As members of my family battled a crack addiction in the 1980s, I spent the majority of my time alone listening to music for hours. This music functioned, as Chuck D of Public Enemy said, like the ‘people’s CNN.’ So many of us were left alone and in the absence of our crack addicted parents found truth in the radical lyrics of rap artists from the Golden Era of hip-hop, and found refuge in the soulful sounds of new wave, LA freestyle music and house.”

The disappearing bodies in the 80s play an important role in reconstructing a Black archive. Especially, as Denise brings up, because of the limited information on the stories behind these disappearing bodies. The Global 80s is a catalyst for a deeper analysis of present day issues. She contends that “Mark Bradford’s role in it is crucial to understanding the living legacies of the 80s and can be used as a tool to have more nuanced discussions around the war on drugs, mass incarceration and the preoccupation with Black queer men on the ‘down low’ rather than the discussion about the insidious ways in which homophobia breeds fear into those who dare to live authentically.” Important to Denise is the urgency of their work. “Mark is not only a Black queer artist who revels in the abstract, but he, like Baldwin, uses his experience as a witness to move the discussion into its necessary place of urgency.”

A common theme that arises out of the work of Bradford and the artistic research Denise is undertaking is the tension between the body in crisis and hope. Los Angeles, as becomes clear through all these key exhibitions, is a place where Black artistic expression is strong and present, but not often hailed. In response to this proposed tension, Denise says that “Black public culture in general lives in the underground institutions that are safe havens for personal experiences with white supremacy and everyday racism in the United States. With Bradford’s work and hopefully with mine, a more intersectional lens can be used to unearth the stories and voices of people who sit on the margins of acceptable history—therein lies the hope, the creation of a multi layered and unapologetically inclusive narrative.”

Chandra Frank is an independent curator, writer and PhD Candidate at Goldsmiths College in London. She is interested in feminism, race, heritage, resistance and the role of the archive.