Korean-American protests lead to changes in school murals

One early morning before the students arrived, school principal Kate Sohn stood outside the gymnasium and looked at the reimagined version of the mural that had sparked so much controversy three years ago that she was almost destroyed.

Sohn, a Korean immigrant, focused on the hibiscus flower, South Korea’s national flower. The principal of the Ambassador School of Global Leadership, one of six schools on the Robert F. Kennedy Community Schools site, saw not only her students and the Koreatown community reflected in the many symbols in the mural, but she saw herself.

“It was very, very touching. I feel validated, ”Sohn said during the unveiling of the mural on Wednesday morning. “I feel like this really represents inclusion in our community.”

The public unveiling ended a three-year ordeal that began with the intention of honoring the site’s famous past, but erupted into protests from the community and accusations of insensitivity from some members of the Korean American community surrounding the school. Others in this community have found no fault with the mural.

After delays related to the pandemic, the public artwork has been altered to reflect additional elements of the neighborhood’s rich history.

As before, the mural is dominated by the likeness of actress Ava Gardner, who frequented the Cocoanut Grove nightclub at the Ambassador Hotel. when it was a gathering place for the Hollywood elite. The hotel, which stood on the school site until 2005, was demolished after historic curators lost a battle to preserve the 85-year-old structure. The Grove has been replaced by a 565-seat theater with the same name.

The artwork was part of a 2016 project to place murals around the campus. Two years later, the Wilshire Community Coalition, a group led by American Koreans, spoke out against the rays of the sun that were prominently radiating from Gardner’s profile. Its members associated the rays with those of the rising sun of the Japanese Imperial Battle Flag used during World War II, when Japanese forces committed atrocities against Koreans and others.

At the time, Korean groups said the symbol was as offensive as a swastika would be to Jews or a burning cross would be to blacks. Artist Beau Stanton has denied any connection between his piece and the Japanese battle flag; the rays of the sun appear frequently in Stanton’s work, and the rays on the flag differ in number, thickness and color from the rays on the mural.

Los Angeles Unified School District officials quickly agreed to paint over the mural after coalition members threatened legal action, but the neighborhood reversed its decision amid protests from artists.

Shepard Fairey said he would insist on removing his own mural from the campus of Robert F. Kennedy, who was assassinated in 1968 at the Ambassador Hotel, if Stanton’s was destroyed. Some members of the Kennedy family also objected to the removal of Stanton’s mural.

Stanton said he could have stood firm by not revising the mural on principle, but instead decided to take an alternate path that would allow him to maintain his artistic integrity while building on the connections he had. tied with members of the community.

The new elements of the fresco come from students and members of the Koreatown community. An initiative to collect submissions was led by GYOPO, a collective of Korean artists from the diaspora in Los Angeles.

“This process and initial public conversation around the original mural has been an inspiring and ultimately positive experience,” Stanton wrote in an email to The Times. “I sincerely hope that this saga can serve as a constructive example of how to balance the contribution of local stakeholders with creative free expression in public art.

The sun’s rays are still integrated into the background but are subdued in color – changing from a bright red to an orangey yellow – and are less in the center of the image. Gardner is now crowned with flowers specific to the national origins of many students whose families have emigrated from Mexico, Korea, Guatemala, El Salvador and other parts of Latin America.

The Korean motif of a phoenix, whose tail feathers curl along the upper left side of the mural, is a symbol of rebirth and reinvention, Stanton said. A farm worker stands on a ladder in the center, harvesting oranges from a historic photograph that captured one of central LA’s first citrus groves. A uniformed hotel worker from Koreatown, based on a 1935 photograph taken at the site, is shown to the right of Gardner’s profile.

Roberto Martinez, the senior school district administrator who helped lead the wall review effort, thanked the Korean American community.

“Three years ago we entered a space where we had no idea what was going to happen when we were told about the impact the mural had had on our community, on our Korean community,” Martinez said. . “You taught us what the word community means, what leadership means… We have created a space of love and respect. “

The revised illustration was acceptable to Chan Yong “Jake” Jeong, who staged protests and insisted that the original be taken down.

“I appreciate that Beau, LAUSD and the community were able to discuss and resolve the issue with respect, care and mutual understanding with integrity,” Jeong said.

Kisuk Jun, president of Wilshire Center Koreatown Neighborhood Council, cradled a bouquet of flowers in his arms as he stood in front of the mural on Wednesday. In 2018, he collected over 1,400 signatures for a petition to paint on the mural.

Jun brought the flowers for Stanton, who was unable to attend the ceremony.

“We got together,” he said, “And now it’s more beautiful – because it symbolizes Los Angeles.”

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About Margaret L. Portillo

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