Great Wall of Los Angeles, 1976-1983

By Levi Clancy for לוי on

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Painted between 1976 and 1983, the Great Wall of Los Angeles (originally titled History of California) is a 2,754 foot mural (the mural is approximately 15 feet high) whose execution was overseen by artist Judith "Judy" Baca.

The mural is located on a wall of the Tujunga Flood Control Channel, a concrete, channelized river with an industrial, practical aesthetic (or lack thereof). The mural can only be appreciated from above and across the channel. Direct access to the channel is blocked on penalty of trespassing, but there is a narrow park along the river to provide clear perspectives. Over thirty years since the most recent panel was completed, restorations have ensured that the mural remains in spectacularly good, vivid condition. Seasonal vicissitudes in water levels, including the occasional all-out flood, have not appeared to cause chips, losses nor discoloration; and climate exposure has not brutalized the mural yet, either.

The mural was not a singular effort, but its conception does have an individual genesis. Judith Baca endeavored to create a mural that united urban children across boundaries of race and gender, to work on a mural that told their racial histories in California and especially Los Angeles. With this concept in mind, funding was secured for materials as well as stipends for the children and other artists. Artists were given sections within which to design a mural that fit into a broader narrative of California history spanning pre-history to 1910. Ten artists designed as many panels, including one by Baca herself, spanning a total of 1,000 feet. (Additional panels would be added in the coming years, and there are efforts underway to continue expansion.)

First summer

First 1000 feet, painted in the summer of 1976, cover pre-history to the conclusion of the 19th century.

How is this section of social history represented? Do not recount the narrative or storyline. List the scenes as identified in the mural with labels.

The large, horizontal space lends itself to a linear, modularized telling of California history. There are ten panels. For pre-human history, the Wall takes a zoological and botanical perspective. For non-recorded human history, an anthropological perspective is used. Entering into recorded (ie, Anglo-European era) history, a sociological conflict perspective is used to frame the events. The mural communicates stories based on racial lines; beginning with the Spanish arrival, race is never far away from the mural's content. For example, the Gold Rush is largely shown as an influx of Southerners and their Jim Crow policies.

How are these events represented? What artistic techniques are being used to bring the events to life? How does the style of the mural related to the format (large, horizontal space)? Has a cinemtaogrpahic style been adopted or is it more like reading a newspaper? In what ways? Think about how film works and how a story-telling mural works. Fins similarities and diffrences as if you were discussing camera shots and angles. Is the section visually effective? Is it easy to read and to understand?

Panels are integrated with one another at transition points that unify the sequences, as opposed to the use of harsh boundaries between one and another designer's content. Forced perspective is used to animate the mural and give it a cinematographic style. Figures are always in motion, with content filling out many depth planes, and figures passing from one plane to another. This helps break the mural away from a columnar, episodic newspaper-like style; instead, it resembles more of a collage/

Technically, traditional techniques war used to execute the mural.

Judith Baca using any of the styles and techniques of River, Orozco or Siqueiros to tell this story?

Diego Rivera set a precedent for condensing panoramic looks at history and society into understandable murals. Rivera's La Historia de México navigates centuries, a similar change presented to the Wall. However, his Detroit Industry Murals are also relevant to the Wall's development because they demonstrate the power of representation in political and social conflicts. Rivera's Historia de la Medicina is thus perhaps the most germane in its blend of history, minority representation, political expression and sociological structural functionalism (see the Wall's Tomas Alva Edison panel for an example). Of note, Rivera was a profound influence to Works Progress Administration (WPA) publicly funded muralists, and the Coit Tower murals include a depiction of citrus farmers that resembles the Wall's California Citrus Industry panel. Surely, there are many other instances where Rivera percolated through intermediaries into the Wall.

While connections to Rivera seem intrinsic to the mural's very nature, its stylistic content is not as closely related to his work. The Wall heavily uses forced perspective, unlike Rivera's work. Instead, Orozco's explosive, vigorous movements; flowing shadows and lines that sometimes bend into crashing swirls; and an acerbic, critical political energy all find their way into the Wall at various points. In this manner, the Wall especially fits into the legacy of Siqueiros, who incorporated all these same characteristics but was much more direct in his use of highly stylized, sometimes even surreal imagery to communicate direct political messages. While the Wall draws upon both Orozco and Siqueiros in the visual vocabulary of its politics, the Wall more closely aligns with Siqueiros because it does not exude the sort of unique personal, emotional connections that Orozco imbued; for example, el hombre en fuego (perhaps himself) in his Epic of American Civilization or the skeletal academics in the same mural. Instead, the Anglo-European hand clenching the Chumash man in the Wall's transition to the Anglo-European arrival recalls Siquieros' Echo of a Scream.

How do you think the mural serves the community of LA College, Valley Glen, the world.

Unfortunately, the Mural does not optimally serve the community. There is no direct access to the mural, nor is it in a highly visible location; it is tucked between two noisy, narrow strips of park. There are no activity spaces -- not even a basketball court -- in which to spend time in view of the mural. While the Mural could have the potential to be a tremendous cultural asset for Los Angeles Valley College, the neighborhood and the world, it is a cruel irony that a mural so devoted to representation of minorities is itself underrepresented and tucked out of sight. While it aims to create civic, historic, cultural and racial pride, the mural ultimately fails because it is on a lonely stretch of channel while Anglo-European artistry is getting its own massive museum campus in Los Angeles' most prime real estate (the upcoming Broad Museum). Chicana artist Judith Baca oversees the creation of the world's longest mural, a solid half-mile of bursting, harmonizing imagery that captures the history of California and coalesced adults and youth in an inter-generational, multiracial creative force; her work is left without even any access, and some viewing areas are obscured by overgrown shrubbery. Meanwhile, Anglo-European artist Michael Heizer literally moves a rock from one place to another (his Levitated Mass) and was not even born in Los Angeles, nor live in the state; he is granted total control over miles of streets while his work is being transported and gets an entire lawn at the LA County Museum of Art. The Wall does not even have any street-level signage. For this reason, for all its majesty, the Wall's place in society ultimately reinforces the devaluation of contributions from anybody who is not Anglo-European.

Pre-historic California

Natural life
designed by Kristi Lucas

The first segment of the Wall is designed by Kristi Lucas and transitions to the next panel at the prayer wheel. Reaching back into an era known only through academic study, Lucas tries to reconstruct an honest depiction of flora, fauna and a Chumash village. This panel lacks granularity. Its captions are broad spectra: Pre-historic California 20,000 BC; the La Brea Tar Pits; Chumash village 1,000 AD; and indigenous plants. It is difficult to engage with the content because it is so broad. Above its lofty caption for indigenous plants, there appears to be nothing more than a yucca, poppy and opuntia. This sort of passionate but ultimately unfocused attitude toward pre-history is ultimately an uninspired introduction to the mural.

Chumash life
designed by Christina Schlesinger

Designed by Christina Schlesinger, this segment transitions at the white hand rising from the sea. It is even less focused than the preceding panel, with just one caption: Chumash animal spirits. There is no other depiction of Chumash rituals, from steam purification at birth to cremation at death. Instead, a few animals float midair around a figure seated at a fire.

Spanish arrival

Spanish arrival
designed by Judith Baca

Designed by Judith Baca, this panel transitions at the soldiers raising the Spanish flag. Its captions are Portola Expedition 1769; Legend of Califa; Indigenous perspective; Junipero Serra; Founders of Los Angeles 1781 mulatto & mestizo descent; Mexican rule 1822; missions; Californios; Mexican hacienda; and Mexican-American War (where the panel transitions into the Mexican era). The historicity seems a bit confused, with the famously pedestrian Junipero Serra shown galavanting on horseback. That quibble aside, the mural focus on fairly sparse, expansive vistas with a few prominent figures except for the depiction of the Pobladores. The early Pueblo is rendered very finely, as are the Pobladores; this detail with the brush strokes complements the historical granularity, as the most detail yet is offered with a caption that details the racial background of the Pobladores. This establishes that the Wall would focus mostly on race, viewed from a contemporary conflict perspective. (While the Pobladores' races might have been fairly irrelevant to them in the Pueblo, it is of great significance and interest today due to strict, institutional Anglo-Eurocentrism.)

Mexican era
designed by Judith Hernandez

Designed by Judith Hernandez, this panel begins with the battle between the Mexican and United States militaries.

1848 - 1910

1848 Bandaide
designed by Ulysses Jenkins

designed by Gary Takamoto

From the Mountains to the Shore
designed by Charlie Brown

New Immigrants
designed by Isabel Castro

Begins with immigrants amid the flags.


Third summer

Fourth summer

Fifth summer