Who are these "individuals from the community" who demanded Alex Donis paintings be removed from the walls of Watts Towers? Oddly, today we still dont know.
At Donis non-art opening in an empty gallery, we were invited to participate in a 90-minute discussion about why the walls around us were bare. Speakers kept referring to "individuals in the community" who had brought down the paintings, but no one would say who they were. These individuals werent at the meeting, or if they were, they didnt stand up and defend their case.
I for one want names and faces. I want them to tell me succinctly why they censored Donis work, and what proof they had that there would be violent controversy had the art remained on the walls. Otherwise, Ill just go on surmising they were motivated by their homophobic and anti-Latino values. Or perhaps the very reason they wont come forward is because then wed find them out.
Eventually at the meeting, one of the funders of Watts Towers who helped carry out the censorship told us that we should be sensitive to the recent tragic events of September 11. This was one of those foggy, nebulous phrases that implied that after the attacks on the World Trade Center "everything had changed" and that we should watch that we dont create another national crisis. It also implied that any art that disrupts the party line, generates thought or heated discussion was suddenly very un-American.
I beg to differ. Now more than ever we need individual artists to help us gain perspective on the complexities of life. Art in that sense is more useful than all of the flag waving in America. Plus, lets keep things in perspective: recent events were tragic, but so is our own governments acts of terrorism and war against other countries.
So if were going to talk recent tragic events, lets talk about the terrorists of art: those who demanded Donis art be dismantled, bullied curators and city officials into doing their bidding, and who then went into hiding, away from public discourse.
Let these individuals come forward, take responsibility for their actions. Anything less than that is an act of cowardice.
Sunday the 16th of September was the scheduled opening of Alex Donis exhibition War at Watts Towers Los Angeles. The reception turned into an impromptu discussion due to the removal of the work from the gallery walls a few days earlier. Over the course of the next hour the curator, Mark Greenfield, began the discussion. He was almost crying, as he tried to express sympathy and support for Alex Donis but at the same time take responsibility and defend his decision to remove Alexs paintings from the gallery walls. The curator spoke about of the numerous threats he had received of violence against his staff and outbursts against Alexs work. He also believed the work would exacerbate the already tenuous relationships between various gangs in the area and the LAPD. He further mentioned the difficulty of having to live and work and run a gallery in a community under the constant threat of gang and police violence. He later mentioned that some influential members of the community who are close to council had said the work was pornographic. Soon after another person stood up in his defense and said that she, as a committee member of the friends of the Watts Towers (who bring funding to the gallery), was responsible for the removal of the work. She also mentioned her support of Alex as she continued on a discussion about needing to create dialogue in the community. She went on about educating the community who were not quite ready or familiar with contemporary art. She further added that she was kind of protecting us outsiders from adverse angry reactions of the community. At this point another woman came to her support, Margie Reese, general manager of the cultural affairs department of the council. She said that she was ultimately responsible for the removal of Alexs work. Im glad there were residents present from the community who expressed their desire to see the work, decide for themselves and create a dialogue rather than be spoken for and have all discussions closed down. It was depressing that a prominent gallery would choose to censor an artist who has lived and worked in their community for much of his life over the intimidation of city officials and funding partners. I guess the curator was at risk of loosing standing and his job if he resisted these pressures. In a different context, like in the commercial scene, I dont think anyone would have batted an eyelid over Alexs show. I was reminded that in other frames there is still very much to fight for.
The unnecessary cockblocker
As an African American male I have always believed in principle over race. The fact that I am discriminated against because of the color of my skin is a historical fact, though I have not accepted it, I have certainly had to make peace with that reality. The horror of dealing with discrimination of any kind is not knowing if you are really being discriminated against or are you just trippin. The mind fuck that goes with the subtleties of discrimination in the 21st century has caused stress and early death of black men who have survived to the age of 55. Back in the 1950 during the civil rights movement the enemy was more than happy to let you know they didnt want niggers in their restaurant, their neighborhood, or talking to their white women. Today that sense of knowing your place has been blurred by the fact that because of Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Rosa Parks and many others it is now against the law to implement this. I never thought I would be writing an article about reversed discrimination and homophobia inflicted by a prominent group of African American religious conservatives who have been chosen to protect the community from images they should not see because the content is deemed pornographic and not healthy for the survival of their constituents.
Alex Donis is an LA-based visual artist who is Latin American, raised in downy California, and who happens to be gay. Alexs show War was scheduled to open at the Watts Towers arts center September 16th and without any clear concise reason other than speculation and hearsay the show was cancelled. This was to mark the reopening of the Watts Towers, complete with photo opps with the new mayor Hahn and black leaders of the community. Shit we cannot have some Latino artist work in back of those photos, shit a fag too, said the fly on the wall. Some say the neighborhood is now predominantly Latino in what once was a historically African American neighborhood. You cannot think of the Watts riots of 1965 without visualizing the struggle of black people and the anger that came along with it. The color has changed and now represents a brown hue of Latin immigrants and that angers and scares some community leaders. This is where money, power and livelihood spill onto the canvas. They called the work pornographic. The War exhibition shows LAPD officers dancing with gang members to the original musical soundscape of 70s disco. Alex Donis work examines and redefines the boundaries set within religion, politics, race and sexuality. The friends of the Watts Community Action Committee see themselves as knowing what is best for the Watts residents just as a mother or father would for their son or daughter. The fear of gang violence was tossed in the pot, to further justify the censorship.
This brings to mind the movie Beloved where a black woman kills her child rather than see that baby be captured by white slave owners. The child Beloved is resurrected not as a baby but as a woman fully grown. Beloved wrecks havoc on the home of her mother and sister and would be suitor, as if she was a three year old with no sense of right or wrong. Toni Morrison, the author of Beloved, was, in my summation, saying to protect too much is in some cases is worse than not protecting at all. To stunt the growth of a person or a community because of your own personal history and fear of being without, is unjust and not your right. The other clear message was that which you have sheltered, stunted the growth of, will undoubtedly come back to kick you in your ass. Whatever the reason for this cancellation, not only were Alex Donis constitutional rights violated but the rights of an entire community to make up their own minds, have their own discourse and to disagree in their own words. This violation happened because of power being in the wrong hands of a selected few. In the wake of September 11 2001 we have to be vigilant about our rights as Americans. I as an American have the right to question our government and its policies, foreign and domestic. I should not be considered less of one because I require information to make up my mind as an individual. That is my right and in fact makes me more of an American because it is me exercising my constitutional rights. Requesting to see Saddam, Bin Laden and George Bush in a debate about the relationship of Afghanistan and the United States and our foreign policies will make me a better American not a subversive. Rather than adopting the reasons the show was cancelled - pornography or reversed racism - give an individual the opportunity to come to his or her own conclusion. As Malcolm X said "if you want to enslave a person dont give them information".
Alex Donis is a Los Angeles born and bred artist of Latino origin and he makes a mean sangira; Denise Uyehara is a performance artist, writer and teacher who is fascinated by Pippy Longstocking; Joel Talbert is a playwrite turned IT wiz and has the fastest computers on the Westside; James Lynch is from Melbourne and the last of nine, likes cheesy house music and Buffy the Vampire Slayer; all are neighbours and friends from 18th Street, Santa Monica.