At LA art show, immigrant portraits draw record attendance

When Bay Area artist Monica Lundy and Los Angeles gallery-owner Walter Maciel organized the massive group exhibition “With Liberty and Justice for Some,” they had no idea how prescient it was. The show of 113 artists, which opened in January with the highest attendance Maciel has seen in his 11 years of operation, centers around a group of 8-by-8-inch portraits of immigrants arranged to resemble an American flag. The symbolism is unavoidable.

Back when Donald Trump was still the President-elect, long before his Jan. 27 executive order became a flash point for pro-immigrant rallies at airports across the nation, Lundy, like many in her artistic community, felt both helpless and determined to do something in response to Trump’s presidency.

“We wanted the project to be supportive of some of the communities under attack by this incoming administration,” Lundy told KQED Arts. “That Mexicans are being threatened with deportation, and Muslims, of being shut out, it reminds me of the history of bigotry in this country.”

She found a willing partner for the project in Maciel, and the call for portraits of immigrants took shape quickly. Bay Area artists involved in the show include longtime Mills College professor and Chinese-born painter Hung Liu, Phillip Hua, Yulia Pinkusevich, Rodney Ewing, Dave Kim and Soad Kader. Each chose to represent either a close friend or family member, or in the case of Ewing, personal hero and pan-Africanist Marcus Garvey.

Immigrants represented in the 158 total portraits on view at Walter Maciel Gallery include well-known figures more regularly defined by their contributions to American society than their foreign birthplaces: former Secretary of State Madeline Albright, Albert Einstein, Stokely Carmichael, Bela Lugosi, and naturalist John Muir.

Alongside the easily recognized faces are the immigrants known only to those who lovingly rendered their portraits: artists’ parents, neighbors, teachers and loved ones. Immigrants are ubiquitous, the portraits emphasize, and to delegitimize their presence in the United States tears at the fabric of democracy.

Putting, as Maciel says, their money where their mouths are, the gallery is donating 30 percent of all artwork sales to the ACLU, The Trevor Project, the Center for Reproductive Rights, Planned Parenthood, the Los Angeles LGBT Center and the San Francisco LGBT Center. Twenty portraits have sold so far. “We are using our strength and capabilities to make a statement, but also directly supporting those organizations on the front line of taking on this administration,” says Maciel.

Video by Kelly Whalen, Text by Sarah Hotchkiss

This report originally appeared on PBS member station KQEDLocal Beat is an ongoing series on Art Beat that features arts and culture stories from PBS member stations around the nation.

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