Fenced In

This essay appears as part of the exhibition Michael Massenburg: Observer

For over two decades, Michael Massenburg has created artworks in the public sphere. You can find most of these works south of the 10 Freeway in Los Angeles, where his murals guard the entrance to the African-American Firefighters Museum on Central Avenue, stretch across a library wall in Inglewood, and portray the spirit of a performing arts venue Leimert Park. They tell the history, past and present, of Black Los Angeles; a fragmented community that came together in the 19th century, when Biddy Mason established the city’s first African Methodist Episcopal Church, and grew exponentially during the Second Great Migration, between 1940 to 1970, when Black Americans left the Deep South in waves. In California, they hoped to assuage the personal and economic violence experienced in their former communities..

Massenburg’s speciality is collage, and his murals come together with vigorous splashes of color that spread and curl like interlocking fingers. His compositions feature real neighborhood community leaders; an array of poets, mothers, athletes, musicians, and scientists who have defined the electric spirit of South Los Angeles. They primarily inhabit the world inside the artwork, unaware of a life beyond the fourth wall. In Moments Murals, outside The Forum in Inglewood, a businessman gazes fondly towards a singer and his backup dancers on stage. Within Inglewood Stories, a young mother surveys industrial symbols that defined her community throughout multiple generations, among them a trolly, World War II-era airplanes, and a NASA space shuttle.

Sometimes a subject’s eyes meet passersby. A woman looks away from the performances taking place within Leimert Park’s Voices to connect with the public, trying to make us notice the stories Massenburg has chosen to tell. If she captures your attention, it’s difficult not to linger on the world surrounding her and realize that Los Angeles’ identity is built upon Black excellence, shaped from the legacies of people like Etta James, Maxine Waters, Betye Saar, Noah Purifoy, Dorothy Dandridge, Herb Jeffries, and Jackie Robinson.

As the sun slowly bleaches the vibrant pigment that inscribes poet Kamau Daaood’s words around our steely-eyed conduit into Voices, the artwork settles into the permanence of urban infrastructure. Massenburg’s artworks are fused to municipalities, like the concrete block outside the city’s Municipal Service Center that bears the seal of Inglewood, “All-America City,” that Massenburg painted with the students he mentors in the Youth Pledging Project. He grafts new meaning onto what we understand as “public works,” integral city services, by bonding artworks to civic structures. He tells us that Los Angeles could not exist without the base of the black community, that the city itself is built upon its legacy.

Massenburg’s civic presence is reminiscent of an elder repeating family lore at intimate, insular gatherings. They are stories that South Los Angeles residents have been able to relive through the eyes of Massenburg their entire lives. But for newcomers curious about how Central Avenue shaped the sound of jazz, there is little opportunity to see Massenburg’s collages without the deep familiarity of the neighborhoods’ geographies. In addition to the 10 freeway, the boundaries of the 405 and 110 coalesce South Los Angeles into a tight region easily disconnected from the rest of the city. They have been established as unofficial borders, not by the residents they corral--though many rarely venture beyond them--but by those on the other side who choose to ignore the racial and economic violence the borders purport. Though Massenburg infuses the identity of those living in Inglewood, Leimert Park and Watts to city infrastructure, those residents are simultaneously isolated by the structures they adorn.

As a teaching artist and community activist who has done extensive work in South Los Angeles, Massenburg has begun to establish notability for himself. Just as important to his identity as an artist, however, are the narratives he paints for those who are fenced in by freeways. With Observer operating in less restrictive digital space, Sanguine Thomas wants Massenburg’s stories to jump across these lines.