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City Hall Murals Are Not Who We Aspire To Be

By Jeff Gordon

The City Council has voted to temporarily cover two racially charged, flawed murals in the entrance of City Hall while there are ongoing discussions about what, if anything, to do about them ("Council Votes to Cover Historic Mural in City Hall Lobby," May 14, 2021)

I believe it is vital that we first see if we can agree on the problem with these murals and what they represent. This is necessary because some do not think we have a serious problem or believe that any issue can be easily corrected.

While we have much to be proud of, there are two underlying realities which I think are critical:

1. Our country is in the midst of a racial justice reckoning. Locally what we were taught about California and U.S. history often ignored the devastation of indigenous people and a foul history of anti-Asian, Black and Latinx acts. Certain public art and statues that passed before, are no longer okay. And this is good.

2. The U.S., California, and yes, Santa Monica have troubled racial pasts and presents, painful histories of racism and inequality which are still a part of daily life. Locally, at the time these murals were painted, there was redlining. The I-10 freeway was later built that destroyed a largely Black neighborhood. There were serious—ongoing— limits on basic justice, employment and business opportunities.

These murals, painted in the late 1930s, are public art. Each two stories high, they are set prominently in the entrance to our government seat of power, City Hall. They were meant to be seen and to say who we were and are.

City Hall mural depicting naming of Santa Monica City Hall mural depicting upscale lifestyle

The mural on the left, Historic Santa Monica, shows two kneeling indigenous people before a mission Friar and two conquistadors. Yet the missions and the conquistadors largely weren’t the friends of indigenous people, so many of whom nationwide were driven from their lands, slaughtered or enslaved.

This mural is meant to portray an alleged historical moment of indigenous people generously showing where water is to be found --leading to the founding of our city. Of course, many acts of generosity by Native Americans were far from reciprocated.

Unfortunately the mural distorts history and subverts our values. The mural does not portray a meeting of equals. The indigenous people are kneeling, subservient, drinking at the stream. The Friar is standing over, not kneeling or tasting the water.

And why is a conquistador looming over with a sword by his side, and only his horse joining in tasting the water? Why are the faces of the Friar and conquistadors shown fully, but not those of the indigenous people?

The leader of the Gabrielino band of Indians, Andrew Salas, says the mural misrepresents history, ignores the real heroes who resisted oppression and it should be the settlers who are kneeling, drinking in thanks, not the opposite.

The mural on the right (the Recreational Mural) was to depict sports in our current City. But it only depicts white, richly dressed individuals, largely playing the sports of the then wealthy white elite: polo most prominently, car racing, tennis.

No people of color or sports played by those who are workers are portrayed. Indigenous people mysteriously disappear between the two murals. They’ve become invisible. Assigned to history, while they are still very much here.

Yet this is what confronts visitors when they enter City Hall. We should not underestimate the qualitative impact of a constant barrage of racially tinged messages and images on all of us, especially the young. (Not surprisingly, only one of the 10 people in the two murals is a woman.)

Historical preservation is very important. Even more so is artistic freedom. But we do not accept either as excusing racially charged public messages, for example confederate generals mounted in city squares extolling their leadership of insurrectionist troops supporting slavery.

No matter the fame or the quality of the artist or the supposed truth of the moment, many people throughout our country do not want their community defined by these works.

Taken together these two most prominent public murals do not tell the story of Santa Monica as it should be told. They do not represent who we really are, our purported values or the serious challenges we still face. Who we aspire to be.

Remember, we proclaim ourselves a city of progressive values, inclusiveness and equal justice. We should not resist change, but be in the forefront. All this requires a difficult and frank community discussion.

Jeff Gordon is a long time Santa Monica resident and member of the Board of the North of Montana Association (NOMA)

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