La Lucha Continua The Struggle Continues: 1985 & 2017
WANTED: Artists of Conviction to Paint Political Murals. Summer 1985.
Flyers with the above words—posted throughout Manhattan’s East Village (Loisaida) by Artmakers Inc.—announced a May 7, 1985 meeting to plan La Lucha Continua The Struggle Continues. That summer, 34 artists would paint 24 murals on seven walls of the four buildings overlooking La Plaza Cultural community garden, located on Avenue C and extending midblock from East 8th to East 9th Street. In 1986, artists painted two additional murals. Combined, they covered 6,645 square feet of wall and addressed six political issues: gentrification, police brutality, immigration, feminism, and opposition to U.S. intervention in Central America and apartheid in South Africa.
If, by the mid-1980s, much of New York City had emerged from the fiscally bleak years of the 1970s, Loisaida residents remained beset by poverty and drugs, victims of gentrification and displacement and fraught community-police relations. La Plaza Cultural was equally beleaguered. Developed in 1977, the garden by 1985 was neglected and filled with garbage. Except for vagrants and crack addicts, neighborhood gardeners and residents generally avoided it. Of the buildings surrounding La Plaza, most were vacant, some were homesteaded, and a few were taken over by squatters.
Today, the garden is thriving and, while only two of the La Lucha murals still exist—their paint cracked and faded—the issues that informed them remain of deep concern.
Activists continue to lobby for truly affordable living spaces and against the rampant growth of tall buildings that replace older, viable housing. At risk is Roe v. Wade ensuring, since 1973, legal access to abortion, as is funding for reproductive health services for poor women. Immigrants—long residing in the United States and without serious or any criminal record—live in fear of deportation and the potential break-up of their families. The proposed construction of a wall along the Rio Grande River is as misguided as it is outrageously expensive. Stop-and-frisk practices are not equally applied, and minority youth (and adults, too) continue to be killed by police who are not held accountable. Opposition to apartheid in South Africa has morphed into protests against blatant racism in the United States, resulting in the Black Lives Matter movement, as well as the advocacy for Palestinian rights and a two-state solution. Opposition to U.S. interventions in Central America today translates to the rise in militarism and U.S. involvement in ongoing conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, and Yemen.
La Lucha Continua The Struggle Continues: 1985 & 2017 is more than an excavation of the past or an analysis of the social, political, and cultural context in which the murals were created. The exhibition also examines how the murals defined, protected, and rehabilitated a community. It is a lens aimed at today’s Loisaida, focusing on how the issues and the neighborhood have changed over three decades.
Eva Cockcroft, founder of Artmakers, famously said, “Painted images cannot stop wars or win the struggle for justice, but, they are not irrelevant. They fortify and enrich the spirit of those who are committed to the struggle and help educate those who are unaware.”
— Jane Weissman, Exhibition Curator
This exhibition was made possible by a Humanities New York Action Grant. Any views, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed herein do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities which supports Humanities New York.
GENESIS & PLANNING
Early in 1985, Eva Cockcroft—activist, author, founder of Artmakers, and a leader of the national community murals movement—traveled to San Francisco, CA, to visit Balmy Alley in the Mission District.
There, over three dozen artists—organized by Ray Patlán and known as PLACA—had, over the past year, painted 27 murals, transforming fences and garage doors into a gallery of potent images celebrating Mesoamerican indigenous culture and opposing U.S. involvement in Central American wars and the attendant political abuses and human rights violations.
The PLACA murals not only left their mark—a placa in Spanish—on the community; they also inspired Eva to create something similar. The result: “a political art park” in Manhattan’s East Village (Loisaida). The May 7th meeting, held at CHARAS’s El Bohio Community Center, attracted many “artists of conviction.” They joined the artists who, a month earlier, gathered over a spaghetti potluck dinner at Eva’s loft on Lafayette Street. At this dinner, Eva spoke about “the difficult conditions facing people living in Loisaida and elsewhere where the delivery of government services to meet basic needs never arrive,” recalls muralist Rikki Asher. “The conversation soon turned to New York City’s mural organizations no longer offering opportunities to paint political murals.
Eva and other “activist artists” had directed many murals for City arts Workshop, established in 1968 and lauded for addressing social ills. Then, in the late 1970s, its long time funder NYSCA (New York State Council on the Arts) expressed its dissatisfaction with the “aesthetics” of the murals—which Eva and muralist Joe Stephenson considered code for “political content.” It also changed its funding eligibility guidelines, in effect limiting painting opportunities. Describing her frustration that led to the founding of Artmakers, Eva wrote in the Winter 1985 issue of Community Murals Magazine (CMM) of the “desire to return to the organic feeling of the early mural movement when the personal conviction and politics of the artists and the aroused communities coincided.”
Eva was active in many organizations, and several La Lucha muralists met her through their political activities at Art Against Apartheid, Artists Call Against Intervention in Central America, Artists for Social Responsibility, National Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression, Political Art Distribution/Documentation (PADD), and the War Resisters League. Responding to Artmakers’ flyer seeking artists to paint political murals, those convening on May 7th were activist, minority, graffiti, and/or East Village artists, the majority women. They left the meeting committed to participating in a neighborhood mural project entitled La Lucha Continua in Central America, South Africa and The Lower East Side. Writing in the same issue of CMM, Eva recognized that “coming on the heels of the Artists Call Against Intervention in Central America and Art Against Apartheid exhibitions in New York, it seemed essential that the project deal with, at least, those two issues. The housing struggle or gentrification is the most important issue in the local neighborhood.”
Eva contacted Carlos “Chino” Garcia, one of the six founders of the housing and cultural organization CHARAS—its name an acronym of their first names—for help. Working with Adopt-A-Building, Chino obtained permissions from building owners to paint the exterior walls. Eva then organized a design selection committee that included Artmakers artists, members of CHARAS and El Bohio Community Center, and other community activists. “The artists presented their ideas, backed up with sketches, drawings, and paintings,” remembers Camille Perrottet. “As we looked at them spread out on the floor, two additional themes emerged—feminism and police brutality.” In 1986, a sixth theme was introduced: immigration. Strategically sited, the murals allowed viewers to see all five themes from any vantage point in La Plaza. This was not always easy to achieve.
According to Tim Drescher, a mural historian based in Berkeley, CA, the “differences [that] emerged in Balmy Alley’s trip east—specifically a political shift from cultural politics (that celebrated Central American cultures and opposed U.S. involvement there) to a more vigorous, aggressive politics (the fight or la lucha). It was an ongoing struggle, not just a celebration. New York’s murals were more confrontational.”
La Plaza Cultural
By the mid-1980s, much of New York City had emerged from the fiscally bleak years of the 1970s. However, in Loisaida, residents remained beset by poverty and drugs, victims of gentrification and displacement, and fraught community-police relations. La Plaza Cultural, too, was equally beleaguered.
In 1977, La Plaza was developed as a community garden and outdoor performance space—a collaboration of the housing and cultural organization CHARAS and the Council on the Environment of New York City (today GrowNYC). Well tended and actively used for many years, by 1985 it was overrun by vagrants and crack addicts. Neighborhood gardeners and residents generally avoided it. Neglected, it filled up with garbage and other debris. Of the buildings surrounding La Plaza, most were vacant, some were homesteaded, and a few were taken over by squatters.
An interview with CHARAS co-founder Chino Garcia—produced by La Lucha muralist Maria Dominguez and conducted by exhibition curator Jane Weissman—can be viewed in the exhibition’s Media Corner.
Karin Batten reflects, “La Plaza was perfect. Yes, the buildings were mostly deserted, but so many walls were available. The community was in favor of [our painting murals] as we promised to clean up what had been a park and now was mostly used for drug dealing. We also promised to welcome community volunteers, especially children wanting to help paint the murals.” Joe Stephenson recalls, “What I remember most clearly were the discarded crack vials and human feces. I told Eva that we needed to have our heads examined to be painting in such conditions. But each day before starting work, the artists put on gloves and picked up the garbage and used needles.” Kristin Reed adds, “It was a pretty depressing site—the garden overgrown and reclaimed by addicts, a bunch of looming bombed-out-looking buildings, Hell’s Angels prowling around. At the same time, we imagined creating 24 colorful murals and turning La Plaza into a center of community pride.”
Not long after the completion of La Lucha, Loisaida residents restored La Plaza. La Lucha muralist Pat Brazill remembers “walking by the newly thriving neighborhood garden and seeing how lovely all the murals looked as a backdrop to the lush greenery.” After a protracted struggle in the late 1980s against its development, La Plaza today is a permanent open space under the aegis of City of New York Parks & Recreation. In 2003 La Plaza was renamed in memory of the community activist Armando Perez who, murdered in 1999, recognized the power of gardens to bring communities together. As Eva wrote in Community Murals Magazine, “An empty lot has become a place of beauty. For myself and the other artists who participated in the project, there was the sense of joy that comes from working successfully with others and the satisfaction of having accomplished something both public and coming directly from the heart.”
THE “DEDICATION FIESTA”
“I still don’t know how we achieved all this [planning and painting the murals] in such a short time, only a few months,” reflects La Lucha muralist Karin Batten. “It was a lot of work but very satisfying, celebrated by a great opening with music, speeches, poetry, food, and dancing.”
The “dedication fiesta” organized by Artmakers and CHARAS took place on a beautiful Saturday afternoon, September 14, 1985. Emceed by Chino Garcia and Bimbo Rivas, it was attended by hundreds of people from both the political art world and the neighborhood, amid many expressions of community unity and a renewed sense of purpose.
The celebration’s buoyant mood and good will was beautifully captured by John Hunt in his half-hour video documentary La Lucha Continua The Struggle Continues. It can be viewed in the exhibition’s Media Corner and on YouTube.
“Over the weeks as we worked, we developed a camaraderie and exchanged ideas and reflections of each other’s work and our artistic processes,” recalls Susan Ackoff Ortega. “Creating work dedicated to people’s struggles in the U.S. and around the world was an energizing experience, both for me and, I’m sure, all the artists who took part in this historic project.”
Joining the artists, poets, musicians, and singers—and validating the topicality of the South African and Central American murals—were Neo Mnumzana, the representative of the African National Congress to the United Nations, and Roberto Vargas, cultural attaché of the Nicaraguan embassy.
La Lucha’s Legacy
La Lucha Continua The Struggle Continues was the catalyst for other Artmakers collaborations and projects, and it inspired one equally grand project by another artist.
La Lucha was Kristin Reed’s “first experience doing community murals and I went on to do many more afterward, including a second collaboration with Robin Michals—The Enchanted Garden (1986) a few blocks away on East 4th Street. We had another priceless Artmakers experience where the connections and friends we made during La Lucha served as invaluab
le connections and friends for our safety and productivity. Meeting Eva and becoming involved with Artmakers changed my life in so many ways.”
Dina Bursztyn had a similar experience: “La Lucha introduced me to street/community/public art and, in the process, I made new friends. It also sparked many other projects including Gargoyles to Scare the Developers (1987, 1988). The 29 bas reliefs installed on buildings throughout Loisaida were viewed as protectors of the community. They declared that these buildings and their residents were not for sale.”
Following the La Lucha model, Artmakers issued a call for proposals for an installation in the Broadway/Lafayette subway station, a project sponsored by the Metropolitan Transit Authority Arts for Transit program. Six La Lucha alumnae—Eva, Kristin Reed, Karin Batten, Thérèse Bimka, Dina Bursztyn, and Camille Perrottet—were among the 19 artists who created the collective mural and ten individual pieces that made up The Changing Face of Soho (1988).
That same year, La Lucha muralist Maria Dominguez directed a six-mural cluster at El Bohio, the community center run by CHARAS. She and Eva were among the artists who, in their individual styles, painted murals in the building’s recessed panels, all speaking to the Loisaida experience.
La Lucha Continua covered 26 walls, offering 6,645 square feet of powerful imagery. In 1988, Mike Alewitz began Pathfinder Mural in Manhattan’s West Village—a two-year project that, at 6,715 square feet, was hailed as “one of the largest political murals in the world.” Gathering 80 artists from 20 countries—including La Lucha alumni Eva and Keith Christensen—the mural presented a history of the international labor movement and national liberation struggles whose leaders were honored by individual portraits issuing from a large red printing press.
Pathfinder’s printing press, in turn, inspired the 35’ tall image of Shirley Chisholm astride a golden steed that anchors Artmakers’ When Women Pursue Justice (2005). Directed by Janet Braun-Reinitz, 12 principal artists (including La Lucha’s Rikki Asher, Maria Dominguez, and Kristin Reed), five interns, and 30 volunteers painted the 45’ x 72’ mural that celebrates 90 women who, risking life and liberty, worked for social change in the United States from the mid-19th century to the present day. At the top, a portrait of Eva—based on a photograph of her working on La Lucha—is rendered a little bigger than all the others.
So completes the circle that begins with the PLACA murals in San Francisco’s Balmy Alley, works its way to La Lucha Continua and Pathfinder Mural, and ends with When Women Pursue Justice.
EVA COCKCROFT (1936-99)
“Eva was always thinking, constantly creating ideas and designs for murals,” reflected mural historianTim Drescher, recalling in a letter to the exhibition curator his many “fascinating telephone conversations” with her. “She always saw the murals as part of a larger struggle, whatever the spec8ifics may have been. She wrote in the Winter 1985 issue of Community Murals Magazine that, ‘the [La Lucha] dedication did not signify an end to the project. In a sense, it is only a beginning.’
“La Lucha was just one achievement in the middle of Eva’s long and productive career of activist art. I don’t think,” Tim continued, “she considered her involvement with La Lucha a career move, but simply one project among many that contributed to informing audiences about important issues while, at the same time, brightening their lives and demonstrating original artworks to them.”
Elaborating, Tim pointed out “the seriousness and skill with which Eva managed La Lucha. Most memorable to those who knew her personally, was the delight with which she took on such challenges. Her face lit up when she talked about this gathering of artists and that idea. Bringing together usually separated artists gave her joy.”
Eva died in 1999, following a long struggle with breast cancer. Her life and accomplishments are celebrated in Artmakers’ Homage to Eva: La Lucha Continua (2002), which still graces the corner of East 3rd Street and Avenue B, a few blocks from La Plaza Cultural.
Thirty-two years after La Lucha’s dedication, the participating artists have again gathered together, their words animating this exhibition. Indebted to Eva for opportunity, inspiration, and finding their artistic voices, “they may have temporarily lost touch with each other, but never with Eva’s memory and the continued struggle to make ours a better world, even a decent one, for everybody. That was,” Tim reminds us, “Eva’s challenge to us all.”