I recently returned from a short holiday to Spain, where – apart from reminding myself that the sun did in fact exist – I was introduced to the amazing murals of Estapona; a small resort town two hours west of Malaga on the south coast.
The huge arts initiative, which invited painters from all over Spain to revitalise some of Estapona’s forgotten and neglected central districts, was the brainchild of the then mayor and local council back in September 2012, and which has subsequently put this small seaside town firmly on the art tourist map. There are now over 70 murals adorning various high-rise apartment buildings, and while most are decorative, a few attempt to directly link with the town’s past such as Joaquín Aguilera’s ‘Sin Memoria No Hay Historia’ (Without Memory There Is No History), which depicts the daily life of fishermen from the neighbourhood who worked on the sea during the last century. It’s a reminder of how public art can connect with local people and leave a lasting legacy on the place where it’s located.
The murals of another, somewhat larger city, are what interested the French film-maker Agnès Varda when she visited Los Angeles back in 1980, and are the inspiration for her kaleidescopic documentary film Mur Murs (Wall, Walls), released in 1981.
Mur Murs uses Varda’s gifts of invention and curiosity to weave together a rich tapestry of the paintings and painters who were working on the fringes of the art scene at the time; many of whom we meet in short, sometimes uncomfortable, but always engaging interviews. Varda seems less interested in presenting these street artists as well-rehearsed, polished performers—opting instead for the ad-hoc approach of simply allowing their authentic selves to shine through.
A time glitch with Mubi meant that subtitles for the few foreign speaking interviewees were delayed by around 30 seconds, which added another layer of disjointed surrealism to Varda’s oddly hypnotic, meandering journey through a Los Angeles seldom seen onscreen.
The director first wonders whether the widespread application of art to the city’s walls was a result of 1960s flower children wanting to beautify life, the 1968 student uprising which saw walls used as a living canvas for protest, or the artists rebelling against the strictures and perceived hypocrisy of the gallery system and art market. I’d suggest it was all of these as well as the desire for marginalised communities to reaffirm their existence in a city often forgetful of its ancestral past at best, or actively hostile to these communities at its worst.
Varda suggests that although murals can be seen the world over, there is a particularity to those found in Los Angeles. Unlike the hundreds of slyly beckoning commercial billboards that litter LA’s endless sprawl, murals are the imperfect yet captivating art pieces that tell, rather than sell, an alternative story of the city. These are often highly personal and authentic visual protests; admonitions or bold representations of things that matter and are relatable to the communities in which they’re found—providing a colourful backdrop to the daily lives of Los Angelenos from all different backgrounds.
Scratch the surface of this particular creative endeavour and you’ll find murals have always been with us, dating back around 30,000 years to the earliest paintings discovered in France’s Chauvet caves. The Ancient Egyptians ‘muralled’ as did the Pompeians and Minoans, but it was the Italian’s use of painting onto plaster in the 14th century, known as ‘Fresco’, that would lay foundations to the method we’re familiar with today.
The LA Murals seen and discussed in Varda’s film however are a more recent phenomenon. Many are located in ‘Chicano’ neighborhoods the roots of which, according to Varda, can be traced back to the Mexican painting tradition of David Alfaro Siqueiros, Diego Rivera, and José Clemente Orozco, collectively known as Los Tres Grandes who, between the 1920s and 1950s, cultivated a style that defined Mexican identity following the Revolution.
And much in the same way as the Mexican government commissioned artworks to educate the mostly illiterate masses about their history following the 1910 revolution, murals by Los Angelenos of Mexican descent looked to connect their communities with the particular challenges they faced as part of a new migrant experience.
The most powerful of the ones seen in Varda’s film can be found at the Ramona Gardens housing project, where the state provided money in the 1970s for residents to paint under artist direction, or at The Great Wall of Los Angeles—a 2700 foot mural project led by arts educator Judy Francisca Baca and located at the Tujunga Wash in the San Fernando Valley. This monumental artwork, supported by the then newly formed Social and Public Art Resource Center (SPARC), was collaboratively created with local artists and more than 400 young people from different gang, ethnic and community groups during the summers between 1976 and 1983.
A social identity is forged at these locations where the murals address parts of California’s history that have been left out, along with the people it has often excluded. In one interview, the artist Wayne Alenis Healy discusses how he wanted his mural ‘Ghosts of the Barrio’ to portray a more positive representation of his ancestry, and for the people of his neighborhood to feel pride about where they came from.
The film also touches on the way murals can directly relate to the imaginary of place. An interview with celebrated LA mural artist Terry Schoonhoven, who’s apocalyptic ‘Isles of California’ mural depicts a destroyed highway teetering over crashing waves below, provides an insight to the uniqueness of the city as a place for the imagination to flourish:
“I think what’s present in my paintings is present in Los Angeles… it’s what is written all over this place, and if there are any dreams involved it’s everybody dreaming together”.
Kent Twitchell, known for his immense portraits of LA residents, speaks in the film while standing next to a painting commissioned by a local job office. He was asked to paint unemployed people on the side of the building but chose instead to paint local artists—a group he felt deserved some recognition as they are often marginalised and ignored:
“Large paintings have a tendency, if done properly, to humble people… and so I painted these artists as large as I could to remind us of their importance in society”.
The size and scale of murals suggests a permanence which is rarely found in the ever-changing gallery world, but many of the painted walls seen in Varda’s films have since disappeared as the city’s changing urban landscape erases yet another layer of cultural history.
That said, it’s encouraging to see – over 40 years on from the making of Mur Murs – that many of the community led mural projects and those with specific cultural significance are benefitting from LA conservation grants—suggesting the importance these art pieces have to their respective communities and the city as a whole.
While Mur Murs beautifully captures the curiosity of a foreigner’s fascination with the people and art that make LA such an intriguing place, more importantly, the film is a reminder that deeper clues about our culture and our values aren’t just found in galleries, books or (now) on our social media feeds, but are also on the walls around us.
We simply need to take the time and look.
Mur Murs is available to stream on Mubi