Walking down Crenshaw near Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, you'll come across plenty of small businesses. But for the people in the neighborhood, it seems like only a matter of time before the area changes drastically, and those business owners and longtime citizens get kicked out.
Among those concerned about the area's imminent gentrification is Lauren Halsey, an artist and recent recipient of the 2017 L.A. Design Festival EDGE award.
Halsey grew up in L.A. and attended El Camino College before heading to California College of the Arts and later Yale. Art wasn’t always her end goal. As a kid in high school, she wanted badly to play for the WNBA. At El Camino, she focused on architecture, and while completing a residency in Harlem, she started thinking a lot about carvings, something she once explored in high school.
Halsey has always loved Parliament-Funkadelic and their “Afro-futurist cosmology.” She slowly grew obsessed with “remixing outer space with ancient Egypt,” and hieroglyphs became important for the way that they mixed history with the future. She especially loved ones that make the viewer feel as if they’re “either walking into history or walking into a potential future of a pharaoh and his afterworld.” She would often sit in the ancient Egyptian section at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and listen to “Mothership Connection” for inspiration.
Hieroglyphs seemed a powerful way to capture a community through visual cues and language. The idea of a community monument slowly began to form in her mind, and she talked to the community about what that might mean. Now, she’s planning to build a public artwork called The Crenshaw District Hieroglyph Project, in order to give the community a space to make their voices heard.
“I wanted it to be its own free-standing building and I was very interested, and I still am, in the question of if I could build a representationally black and Latino hieroglyphic structure and people embody it as an architectural building,” Halsey says via email. “Can people be empowered by it? Because of course people are disempowered by oppressive architecture.”
Halsey launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise money for the project, and by the end of the fundraising period had raised more than $18,000 from 181 backers. Those backers came from all over the United States and beyond. That motivated Halsey even more and made it clear that, while this is an “L.A.-centric project,” the concept of community building through art reaches far beyond the City of Angels.
“It feels affirming that this is a universal project for people, but it still can start from the inside and outside and people who might not have ever been to California, let alone L.A., still find power in it enough to support it,” Halsey says.
Visitors will be able to visit the completed structure and leave their own mark on its wall. Halsey plans to make sure that either she or someone on her team will remain on hand to help people make their marks. Visitors can either learn how to do it themselves — which Halsey says takes some explanation but is ultimately “very easy” — or they can give Halsey and her team a drawing for them to replicate.
“I thought it would be super appropriate and on time to invite people to carve into the record too, so that there wouldn’t be this hierarchy of me as like pharaoh or the scribe telling everyone’s stories,” Halsey says. “With The Crenshaw District Hieroglyph Project, the interior panels will be blank so that people can carve into the walls their own narrative, their own text, their own images, whatever. So by the end of the three-month installation or duration of the installation, we’ll have this tableau or this record coming from us.”
Although she has an idea of what people might want to carve, the content is perhaps less important to Halsey than the action. The marks are definitely important, but the process is the most empowering part of the Hieroglyphs project.
“I think people are super excited about honoring themselves and their world in a country, in a world where we’re strategically made to feel invisible every day,” Halsey says. “I don’t really have a sort of narrative goal or something as far as what the compositions become over time. I just want people to feel autonomy to make their mark.”
Halsey also hopes to make the space a hub for the community; she has programming in mind, as well as plans for a recurring market every weekend. And, most important, she hopes to hire people from the community to help build and maintain the structure. She recently set up a studio in her grandmother’s garage in the neighborhood, where she can work on the carvings “and not have to do it from a distance.”
Halsey sees the project as a stepping stone to other community-based projects — the start of an effort to give communities something they can own.
“Once I finish this one, I’ll understand the tone of what building a public project is, and the next one is going to be super dynamic,” Halsey says. “I want to build a mothership next.”