First published in the Feb. 11 print issue of the South Pasadena Review.
Pressure has mounted against the City Council to clear the final obstacle for a Black Lives Matter mural that has cleared numerous stages of review and is slated for installation at Orange Grove Park.
That final step is a contract signing between the involved parties, which codifies the location of the mural and includes terms regarding maintenance responsibility and timeframe. Although the council had planned to take up the contract late last year, the movers and shakers behind the mural — the student-led Anti-Bias Club — took issue with the initial terms and had tried since November to get a discussion rolling again.
That frustration reached a zenith when, at last week’s council meeting, more than an hour of public comments were logged addressing the issue, to urge the council to meet the children’s requests.
“You need to make good on your commitment to those kids on that BLM mural,” Elizabeth Anne Bagasao, a member of the Woman’s Club of South Pasadena, told the council last week. “This is an embarrassment. Just get it done. Direct staff to finalize that contract. Make good on that contract.”
Governing bodies are generally prohibited from directly addressing general public comments on topics not on the meeting agenda.
The Anti-Bias Club, led by a group of seniors and juniors at South Pasadena High School, said in an interview that its principal issues with the contract as it was presented were that it was between the city and the South Pasadena Unified School District, and also that the responsibility for maintenance and cleanup, as well as its timeframe, differed significantly from other public arts projects here.
The club aims to have the contract be between the city and artist, Zach Brown, in keeping with other, similar agreements.
“It took the city about two months [after design and location approval] to send us a contract and the contract they sent us was between the city and the school district, which was a little bit weird,” said Noah Kuhn, a senior at SPHS on club leadership. “That wasn’t a viable option for us. Why wouldn’t the contract be between the artist and the city? So that’s what we countered and emailed back with.”
The mural depicts a variety of prominent figures in Black history, ranging from writer James Baldwin, activists Malcolm X, Marsha P. Johnson and Sojourner Truth, journalist Ida B. Wells and astronaut Mae C. Jemison. It also depicts South Pasadena residents Fahren James and London Lang, who gained local prominence for their activist groups and regular demonstrations formed during the national upheaval over George Floyd’s murder in 2020.
“Not only are there more popularly known historical figures, there are also your everyday citizens, to emphasize that anyone can be a part of this movement,” said Maya Turun, another SPHS senior with the club.
Rays of sunlight also factor prominently into the design, as a counter to the city’s past as a Sundown Town, and there is also an open space where people are invited to pose and “join” these other icons in anti-racism, the club and Brown say.
“When we first met with Zach, he brought up the idea of an interactive design,” explained Lulu Talesnick, another senior in the club. “That was a really cool idea to us, and with the mural now located at the park, it’s just a good location for kids and families to go and it’ll be a really nice educational piece for South Pasadena.”
Brown said he chose subjects for the mural to highlight and celebrate their contributions to civil rights movements and Black history, instead of simply featuring those victimized by racism and brutality.
“This is a very positive mural,” Talesnick said. “It’s a mural that’s celebrating human rights, Black rights, saying that every person in this community is valued. I think sometimes people can target different aspects of the mural to try to diminish what it is, but everyone in that mural has been chosen intentionally for their contributions to the Black Lives Matter movement.”
After making five presentations to the city’s Public Art Commission, the design was approved, but its initially slated location on the city-owned wall facing the Chevron parking lot was deemed inappropriate for liability reasons. The city’s Parks and Recreation Commission would eventually approve Orange Grove Park as the spot, which ultimately required some design modification on account of the different dimensions.
After the council delayed the item in November, the club said in late January that it had tried in vain to contact anyone in City Hall about moving forward and adjusting the contract.
Deputy City Manager Domenica Megerdichian told the Review this week that the council planned to have a discussion “regarding public art” on next week’s agenda. (The Review goes to press on Wednesday, before the city published its agenda.)
Based on its review of past public arts contracts, many through the South Pasadena Arts Council or SPARC, the club aims to have the city contract directly with the artist and maintain a joint responsibility to remove graffiti and other vandalism within 30 days.
Through public comments, residents have voiced their support for the mural’s creation and the club’s overall project. Those comments came in the wake of the city’s Black History Month proclamation and prior to the council’s adoption of a Sundown Town resolution, and many callers drew a connection between the resolution’s goals and the creation of this mural.
Including the artist himself.
“I’m sure there are some in the community that don’t support this project, and I would say that is exactly the reason why this project needs to exist,” he told the council last week. “The only cure for ignorance and racism are education and inclusion.”