In 1941, artist Stanton Macdonald-Wright, a longtime resident of Santa Monica who headed FDR's Work Projects Administration in Southern California, completed a mural called History of Santa Monica and the Bay District. Painted through a process that liquefied and mixed materials such as crushed tile, marble and granite, the mural has adorned the high walls of the foyer of Santa Monica City Hall for decades. Politically and artistically, it's less Diego Rivera and more Thomas Hart Benton.
Its supporters say the work depicts the legendary encounter of Spanish explorers and Native Americans from which Santa Monica derives its name. Opponents say it sanitizes a violent chapter of history and propagates a notion of white supremacy — and they want it removed.
The mural spreads across the west and north walls inside the entrance to City Hall. Against a background of surf and mountains, five men are gathered at a freshwater stream: a friar in Franciscan cowl and two Spanish conquistadors face two Native American men in loincloths, one seated and the other kneeling, both sipping water from the stream.
Community activists including students from Santa Monica College marched on City Hall on two occasions earlier this month. One of the chants was: “Racist mural, bring it down.”
The call for city leaders to remove the mural began two years ago and has gained momentum in recent weeks, after the deadly white-supremacist demonstration in Charlottesville, Virginia, prompted the removal of Confederate statues and monuments throughout the country, including in Los Angeles.
“The parallels are very obvious to us,” says Santa Monica activist Oscar de la Torre, a school board member, founder of the Pico Youth & Family Center and a prominent leader of the campaign to remove the mural. “The European conquistadors, they practiced slavery. There was rape. There was murder. There was genocide.”
At a rally in 2015, De la Torre called the mural “the Santa Monica confederate flag.”
City officials have said they welcome the renewed controversy as an opportunity to update the city's public art collection, making it more representative of the diversity of Santa Monica. But they also fear that removing the mural would be an act of censorship.
Roger Genser, a Santa Monica arts commissioner, stated his objection to the removal of the mural at a public meeting on Sept. 18: “My concern fundamentally is that this is an important artist's work, it's in the City Hall, it's a character-defining feature of a landmark, and I think that the interpretation of it is just wrong.”
He added: “It's not about colonialism, it's not about racism — it's about water. Water is the central theme of the mural, and it's essential to the development of the city. We are a city because we have water.”
Carol Lemlein, president of the Santa Monica Conservancy, who opposes removing the mural, told the Weekly: “I think that many of us recognize that our public art collection does not necessarily reflect the diversity of the community at this point in time. But that is not a reason to tear [the mural] down but to encourage other representations of art to be established.”
Lemlein and Genser have suggested as an alternative that a new city services building planned near City Hall include art with a more contemporary depiction of Santa Monica.
The imagery in the mural was inspired by an episode from the diary of Father Juan Crespi, a member of the Portola expedition of 1769 to present-day California. As the legend goes, the encounter with the natives occurred on the feast day of Saint Monica, Aug. 27; Father Crespi commented that the droplets of the spring reminded him of the tears of Saint Monica, the mother of Saint Augustine, whose early life as a wayward young man caused his mother some grief.
Lemlein says the Native Americans escorted the Spanish to the freshwater spring as a gesture of kindness. “Our understanding is they were greeted warmly,” she says of the Spanish expeditionaries. “This was not a confrontation.”
Will South, author of Color, Myth & Music: Stanton Macdonald-Wright & Synchromism, published an opinion piece in the Santa Monica Lookout defending the depiction in the mural: “One Native American sits in a casual pose, neither fearful nor paying homage to the standing figures. The second Native American is kneeling as he drinks, not the activity of one who kneels subserviently.”
South added: “Removing this mural, if it were to happen, could be declared an act of righteousness. Or, an act of censorship.”
In response, art historian and Santa Monica activist Noah Arthur Bardach wrote that South missed the point of the protests: “No one is advocating taking a hammer to these works of art! There is no proposed censorship! Simply put, the murals, with their racially insensitive message, have no place greeting visitors to our City Hall.”
Bardach added: “Macdonald-Wright’s murals are a part of our history, and they belong with other precious artifacts from our past, in a museum.”
De la Torre says the push to remove the mural is part of an effort to address what he says is a deep racial divide in Santa Monica. The Pico Neighborhood Association, of which De la Torre is co-chair, sued Santa Monica in 2016 alleging the city's at-large election system discriminates against black and Latino candidates. A judge ruled against the city's attempt to have the case dismissed, and it is scheduled to go to trial Oct. 30.
Six of the seven current members of the Santa Monica City Council are white. According to Mapping L.A., the population of the city is 71.3 percent white, 13.5 percent Latino, 7.1 percent Asian and 3.5 percent African-American.
The Santa Monica Lookout reported that De La Torre ran for a council seat in last November’s election and came in sixth out of a 10-candidate field for four seats. His wife, Maria Loya, a plaintiff in the voting rights lawsuit, ran unsuccessfully for council in 2004.
“The mural is symbolic of how people of color have been treated historically and also in the present, specifically in Santa Monica,” he says.
De la Torre says the group advocating for the mural's removal has sent a request to the city manager asking that the mural be replaced with “an image that respects the diversity of our city.” But removing the Macdonald-Wright mural won't be easy.
Like the City Hall building itself, the mural is a city landmark — meaning the landmarks commission would have to approve its removal, with the City Council authorized to rule on any appeal, says Shannon Daut, the city's cultural affairs manager.
Daut says as a next step city leaders are planning to host additional public meetings to foster dialogue on the art controversy. “It's rely touched on something important nationally and locally,” she says.