Art in public spaces can serve as a means of shared identity, of connecting residents and visitors to the community, and creating a sense of ownership and respect in a shared space; to spark imagination, conversation, dialogue, and reflection; and to provide beautification and aesthetics. Perhaps you have seen the extraordinary architectural details and public art in our Central Library in person or in images.
But did you know a number of our library branches also have public art (murals, sculptures, and other artworks) installed or on display?
The Angeles Mesa Branch Library is home to the mural Education is a Basic Right (1998) by Alma López and Noni Olabisi (Homegirl Productions). The Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs (DCA) funded the mural through its City Art Collection (Public Art Division) and it was permanently installed at the library in 1998.
The DCA was formed in 1925 and the City Art Collection has continued its goal “to enhance the climate for artistic creativity, promote understanding and awareness of the visual arts, and heighten the artistic heritage of the City of Los Angeles...Artwork from the Collection are also permanently sited and can be found in parks, libraries, and municipal buildings”.
Federally funded public art programs began in the United States in 1933 with the creation of the Public Works of Art Project (PWAP), as part of the New Deal during the Great Depression. This program was succeeded by the Works Progress Administration (WPA), which included the Federal Art Project, in 1935. From 1967-1995, the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) program Art in Public Places funded the creation of more than 700 works of art, giving federal tax funds to arts on the local levels.
In 1995, the DCA invited more than 3,000 artists to submit a proposal for the library mural. Artists Alma López and Noni Olabisi (1954-2022) secured the commission. López and Olabisi collaborated on three public art mural projects in South Los Angeles as Homegirl Productions: the Angeles Mesa Branch Library (Education is a Basic Right), the Central Avenue Constituent Services Center, and the Gilbert Lindsay Recreation Center (It Takes a Village to Raise a Child).
Alma López Gaspar de Alba is a visual artist known as the “Digital Diva” and is a Lecturer in the Cesar E. Chavez Department of Chicana/o and Central American Studies and LGBTQ Studies Program at UCLA. Her work “raises questions about popular Mexican icons filtered through a radical Chicana feminist lesbian lens” (almalopez.com). Her digital photograph Our Lady (2001)—a controversial rendering of the Virgin of Guadalupe—raised both religious and cultural furor and outrage when it was displayed in the Museum of International Folk Art in Santa Fe.
Noni Olabisi is perhaps best known for her murals Freedom Won’t Wait (1992)—which depicts the pain of the Black community at the time of the Los Angeles riots (The Good Fred Barbershop, 1815 West 54th Street)—and To Protect and Serve (1996), which chronicles the history of the Black Panther Party with scenes of their Free Breakfast for School Children program, institutional racism, and police brutality (11th Avenue and Jefferson Boulevard). Olabisi died in March of 2022 and had just completed an urban artist residency in South Los Angeles at the time of her death.
Both López and Olabisi are known for their provocative work and so they were no strangers to controversy when objections to their mural concept were raised at a public meeting at the Angeles Mesa Library Branch on April 9, 1997. According to a Wave newspaper article: “Artists Alma López and Noni Olabisi received an earful of criticism April 9 on their proposed mural for the library interior from community residents, library staff and the Friends of the Angeles Mesa library, a nonprofit support group...In response to criticism, Olabisi defended: ‘this is not something that we fabricated; this is history. That is the importance of using historical images because we did not create this madness!’”
“Of primary focus is how books, learning, and education are a positive influence in the lives of the children and their families in terms of an awareness of self, culture and history”—Homegirl Productions: Alma López & Noni Olabisi
The mural is composed of three sections over the branch’s ceramic tile fireplace, located in the children’s area. (The branch was built in 1929 and designed by architect Royal Dana.) The top section depicts in black and white the desegregation cases of African American (Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka) and Latino (Mendez v. Westminster School District of Orange County) families, reflecting the predominantly African American and Latino community around the library.
Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka desegregated public schools in the United States (1954-55) and Mendez v. Westminster School District of Orange County desegregated schools in California (1947). The second section is in color and features protesting African American and Latino/a children. A Latino boy with a raised fist wears a placard with the words “Respect My Human Rights”; a Latina girl with a raised fist holds up a sign with “209” with a red line through it (referring to “No on Proposition 209,” an anti-affirmative action ballot proposition in 1996); and a Latino boy holds up a sign reading “Schools Not Prisons.”
The largest figures are a Latina girl holding an American flag with the words “Education is a Basic Human Right” and an African American boy holding up his fist over the flag, which features an African American woman and Latino man picking cotton and lettuce in black and white. The third section features a black and brown hand holding open a blue book on a red background on the lintel over the fireplace.
On either side of the ceramic tile fireplace are an African American girl and a Latino boy reading open books. A celebration of the completion of the mural was held at the Angeles Mesa branch on Tuesday, December 8, 1998.
Art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time.―Thomas Merton, No Man Is an Island
Come to the branch and see this powerful, thought-provoking work in person and the next time you are visiting a library, be sure to look around and see if you can spot any public art in the space. Take note, also, of the architectural details. Ask the librarian for information! Why not participate in the Library Foundation of Los Angeles (LFLA) 30th Anniversary Passport Challenge? Visit 30 of our libraries during 2022, collect stamps at each library, submit your passport via email or mail to receive a special gift from the LFLA, and see some amazing libraries and artwork in the process.
Check out our beautiful and historic main library and the book by Stephen Gee, Los Angeles Central Library: A History of Its Art and Architecture, attend a docent tour downtown, or check out the Central Library’s 360° tour.