Judith F. Baca’s The History of California, better known as the Great Wall of Los Angeles, is an epic mural cycle that envisions history from the perspective of Indigenous, Black, Latinx, and Asian people, who have historically been pushed to the margins of mainstream versions of L.A. history centering white politicians, activists, and more. In the work, Baca highlights the important—and painful—moments to which these communities have bore witness over the centuries. But the work has never charted the recent past—its focus has cut off at the 1950s since 1983, when the mural was completed.
That will all change following a $5 million Mellon Foundation grant that will allow Baca and the arts nonprofit she cofounded, the Social and Public Art Resource Center (SPARC), to extend the imagery of the Great Wall to include happenings over the past 70 years through 2021. Once Baca’s additions are complete, the mural will span all the way from visions of California’s pre-historic flora and fauna to scenes reflecting on the coronavirus pandemic. The Great Wall’s expansion is expected to be completed by 2028, in time for the L.A. Olympics that year.
“It’s going to put those historical moments in the context of the time we’re living in—an interpretation of history from 2020 and 2021,” Baca told ARTnews. “These have been extraordinary years in American history, and it will color the ways in which we look at all of this.”
The grant will also help support the completion of a 90-foot bridge that will go cross the Tujunga Wash, the concrete-paved area of the L.A. River where the mural is located, allowing people to get a closer look at the mural than previously possible. The additions to the mural will face the current portion of the mural and bring the Great Wall’s length to being a full mile long. On the bridge will be placards bearing information about “the relationship between the environmental history of the destruction of the river and the social history of destruction of the stories of people in this country,” Baca said.
As is typical with Baca’s process for the Great Wall and her other murals, she and her team will undertake extensive research and conduct interviews with experts to learn about lesser-known historical moments. Those interviewees will be both scholars on the moments in question and members of the communities that have been deeply impacted by the events depicted.
Among the topics that Baca plans to focus on are anti–Vietnam War protests like the Chicano Moratorium, the Freedom Riders in L.A., the rise of the women’s liberation and gay rights movements, recent waves of migration, the separation of families along the U.S.-Mexico border, and the current pandemic, with a focus on how Covid-19 has reshaped the communities that live closest to the Great Wall.
“I have memories of these moments, so I have the perspective of having been there, which will be interesting to interpret,” Baca said.
For the execution of the new portion of the mural, Baca will continue to hire young artists interested in learning about muralism techniques; she also plans to ask alumni of previous Great Wall teams to come back. Some of those alumni helped create the Great Wall between 1976 and 1983, when workers faced the threat of sweltering heat, flash floods, and more.
Now, Baca has devised a method that will allow for the team to work on the Great Wall year-round, primarily indoors, before the finished work is mounted to the Tujunga Wash’s walls. Initially, workers will print sketches at-scale, eliminating the extra labor of the gridding technique that was once required when scaling up a drawing. Once the sketches are printed, the team will go through a five-part color application to bring the work to life. Baca has also developed various substrates that will be applied to the murals throughout their creation that will not only help the portable murals adhere but also help reinforce the concrete walls, which were built in the 1930s and are beginning to show signs of age.
These advances in printing sketches and images at large scale, combined with high-tech Phase One cameras that have captured the Great Wall at the highest quality, will allow for SPARC to print reproductions of various scenes from the Great Wall. Now, the work can travel as well. These reproductions will be sent across the country, from community centers to nonprofit organizations to schools, broadening the impact that this revised vision of history can have.
“We’ll be disseminating material from our research that will be about training another generation of activists, another group of people who are going to be able to think about how they stand on the shoulders of those that preceded them,” Baca said. “We’re looking at a way of activating people and being able to use the content of their own history, to see what others do and how they can learn from it.”
Reflecting on a project that she started 45 years ago, Baca said, “For me, it’s a dream come true because it’s going to be done in my lifetime. I put the Great Wall in the humblest place—what people called the sewer, what had become a place for trash. But I thought, What if we put a resilient and powerful voice inside of it? And from that humble place, we had a powerful voice.”