Building Faith in the Future Part I: The Rise of the Black Arts Movement in California
By Colony Little
July 4, 2023
At the end of the 1960s, increasingly violent demonstrations erupted across America—including the Watts Rebellion of 1965, the People’s Park Riot of 1969, and the Kent State protests of 1970. This unrest, growing out of the civil rights, free speech, and anti–Vietnam War movements, was particularly felt in Black communities that were fed up with racism, poor living conditions, and police brutality. Disenchanted with the nonviolent strategies of the early civil rights movement, protesters took to the streets in cities like Detroit, Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles, meeting inequity with a closed fist instead of an open hand.
When the smoke cleared, local activists channeled their anger and grief into positive affirmations of identity and self-worth. Forged within this crucible, the Black Arts Movement thrived, using visual art, poetry, dance, and other forms of creative expression to create an aesthetic around Blackness that was detached from the white gaze.
While the movement originated in New York with Black literary activist Amiri Baraka, it quickly gained traction in California, where diverse voices and new mediums were flourishing.
In the Wake of Watts
In the summer of 1966, one year after the Watts Rebellion, Los Angeles’s Black community remained on the precipice of social and economic ruin. The July 15 issue of Life magazine revisited the area in a sobering photo essay titled “The Fire Last Time.” Images of children at play in the rubble of derelict buildings and empty lots revealed a blighted neighborhood and a traumatized community.
To Life’s wide, mainstream readership, the article offered nothing but a fleeting, voyeuristic glimpse of Watts, with few answers to the question of what would come next. In the piece, a young man comments, “We know it don’t do no good to burn Watts again. Maybe next time we go up to Beverly Hills.” This ominous statement, combined with the piece’s stark images, stoked fear in white readers, shaping their perception that there was little hope of meaningful transformation and leaving few inclined to examine the root causes of the rebellion.
Running counter to this perception were local events like the 1966 Watts Summer Festival, a commemoration of the Watts Rebellion held that August. The festival was the brainchild of residents and activists including Booker Griffin, Ron Karenga, Stan Sanders, Billy Tidwell, and Tommy Jacquette. The festival included a parade, an art showcase, and a performance by jazz trumpeter Hugh Masekela at Jordan High School. It shined a light on a community committed to Black unity, social uplift, and renewal that emerged from the ashes of the violence, a place where coalitions of activists, Black nationalists, artists, writers, and musicians were creating spaces to gather, share, and heal.
The Watts Towers Arts Center, the Compton Communicative Arts Academy, the Watts Writers Workshop, and the Pan Afrikan Peoples Arkestra were just a few of the community organizations that arose in response to the physical and emotional damage that remained after the rebellion. Leveraging this network of community groups, visual artists like David Hammons, John Outterbridge, Elliott Pinkney, and Noah Purifoy used their art as an agent of change.
Noah Purifoy and John Outterbridge
In 1966, charred debris from the 1965 rebellion became the foundation of “66 Signs of Neon,” a collection of assemblage works created by Purifoy, founding director of the Watts Towers Arts Center; fellow artist Judson Powell; and eventually six others. The pieces were exhibited at a commemorative for Simon Rodia, a self-taught artist who constructed the Watts Towers over a period of 33 years between 1921 and 1954. “66 Signs of Neon” became a cultural proof of concept for artists and activists working for social change: If art could be created from the remains of destruction, then communities defined by chaos and trauma could be transformed into beacons of hope.
An assemblage artist influenced by Southern folk art, Outterbridge (who would become the director of the Watts Towers Arts Center in 1975) was similarly inspired to transform castoffs into sculpture. And, with Charles Dickson, Willie Ford, Pinkney, and Powell, he formed the Compton Communicative Arts Academy, a collective that turned abandoned buildings into venues for creating and showcasing art.
New Forms of Expression
While the Los Angeles artists rising to prominence in the decades after the Watts Rebellion can be loosely described as members of the Black Arts Movement, they were far from united in their vision of what it meant to create “Black art.” At first, to be sure, it was about rebellion. As art historian Kellie Jones notes in South of Pico, her 2017 book on the Southern California Black Arts Movement, “Black artists were defined by protest in the 1960s and 1970s. They focused on black dissent, which was legible and perhaps easier to manage and understand, rather than configurations that encompassed the abstract and uncategorizable.”
This solidified the importance of creative spaces like the performance collective Studio Z—whose members included Senga Nengudi, Maren Hassinger, Ulysses Jenkins, David Hammons, and Barbara McCollough—that provided safe places for experimentation and expression. While some continued to shun forms of art that did not expressly represent Blackness, this shift ushered in an era of Black avant-garde art informed by Blackness but not expressly legible as such. Black women in particular promoted radical shifts in how art is made and shown, embracing unconventional materials, platforms, processes, and themes as they created bold, innovative work that shaped the contours of Black art today.
In the end, diversity prevailed. Thanks to a broader regional resistance to rigid definitions of art, artists on the West Coast were uniquely positioned to embrace diverse mediums and approaches to express themselves and their experiences with Blackness.