A controversy that erupted late last year over a mural at Robert F. Kennedy Community Schools in L.A.’s Koreatown has been resolved through a compromise.
The mural depicts actress Ava Gardner and was intended as a tribute to the Ambassador Hotel’s Cocoanut Grove nightclub, which one stood on the site of the school. At issue is the sun-ray motif, which some Korean Americans say is reminiscent of the Imperial Japan battle flag, a reminder of Japan’s decades-long occupation of the Korean Peninsula.
The Los Angeles Unified School District initially agreed to the Wilshire Community Coalition’s demand that the mural be removed, then backtracked. The artist, Beau Stanton, pointed out that the orange-red and blue rays are a different color and thickness from the Japanese flag, and are a common motif.
Artist Shepard Fairey threatened to have his nearby mural of Robert F. Kennedy, who was assassinated at the Ambassador Hotel, removed in solidarity.
Gyopo, a group made up of Korean American artists and community members, said in a letter to LAUSD that those who think the mural isn’t offensive do not understand the pain and trauma that such imagery elicits for victims of wartime Japanese aggression. Members include Nancy Lee, senior manager of public relations at the Hammer Museum, Christine Y. Kim, associate curator of contemporary art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and UC Irvine professor emerita Yong Soo Min, who were not speaking on behalf of their employers.
While acknowledging that Stanton did not mean to offend anyone, Gyopo said it was troubled by “the lack of community involvement in the mural’s selection process, the mural’s imagery itself and its memorialization of a whites-only club, and the ways in which the media has directed these narratives.”
On Thursday, Stanton issued the following statement: “Over the past several months I have had the opportunity to meet with a diverse cross section of stakeholders regarding my mural at the Robert F. Kennedy Community Schools, including students, faculty, fellow artists, and members of the Koreatown community.
“These interactions have allowed me to synthesize a solution that aims to rise above the original binary conversation of ‘keep or remove the mural’ in order to build upon the original work and create something that speaks to the past, present, and future of the RFK campus.
“My proposal involves creating a transformative work utilizing the original mural as a base for layering and weaving additional imagery into the original image much like an urban wall with many historic layers. Parts of the original will remain visible while focusing on themes related to the important conversation that the original work had initiated.
“While I cannot yet speak to the imagery that will become central to the new work, I am interested in hearing from the students and greater K-town community regarding suggestions for symbols that hold positive personal meaning as well as visual reference specific to the area’s diverse history. These contributions will be collected and integrated into an on-campus workshop where I can work with the students of RFK in order to design final work.
“As we move forward with the next chapter of this conversation, I would like to thank fellow muralists Shepard Fairey, Hueman, Cyrcle, Greg Mike, James Bullough, and Jonah Meelan as well as Maxwell Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., and Paul Schrade, who all spoke out in defense of freedom of expression. which was instrumental in creating the space to have this important conversation.
“I would also like to thank Gyopo and other Korean American organizations who shared their valuable perspectives and offered constructive dialogue critical to reaching a solution.
“Lastly, I would like to thank LAUSD for revising their original decision and offering the support necessary for achieving a thoughtful and balanced conclusion.”
LAUSD Local Central Superintendent Roberto Martinez told The Los Angeles Times, “We appreciate everyone’s time and effort on this important issue. This exercise allowed all participants to express their opinions on polarized ideas and listen to all perspectives. It was a great learning experience for us all.”