Curated by UC Berkeley students, Lands of Promise and Peril: Geographies of California maps California’s contradictions as a place of beauty and brutality, prosperity and inequality, sanctuary and exclusion. This exhibition depicts 180 years of continuity and change in the Golden State by exploring geography from environmental, economic, urban, and cultural geographies. In the following reflections, the student organizers connect these curatorial themes outward to contemporary issues, inward to personal histories, and beyond towards the future—all framed by select artworks in the exhibition.
Pirkle Jones: Plate glass window of the Black Panther Party National Headquarters, the morning it was shattered by the bullets of two Oakland policemen, from A Photo Essay on the Black Panthers, September 10, 1968, gelatin silver print; 13 x 9 1/4 in.; BAMPFA, gift of the Pirkle Jones Foundation.
Growing up in the Bay Area, I have been fortunate to live in a culture rooted in the refusal to accept things for how they are, rather than how we think things should be. The organization of people with common beliefs in self-determination and basic human rights, including the Black Panther Party, has been instrumental in spurring change. These groups, however, often become victims of violence in response to their efforts to end it. Learning about these movements feels passive without works that depict the real and harsh reactions to them. Seeing Pirkle Jones’s photograph of the window of the Black Panthers Party’s headquarters shattered by police bullets in an attempt to quell the voices of the oppressed is not only chilling but also extremely disheartening. To me, this image represents something far more complex than an isolated uprising and is instead reminiscent of seemingly unrelated issues around the world. I thought of the Arab Spring revolutions, which encouraged social and political reform but were countered by government forces that ultimately resulted in the deaths and displacement of millions of people in the early-2010s. The recent emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement serves as a reminder that though many praise America for being a “cultural melting pot”, minority groups remain marginalized and subject to violence based on their identity. Discriminatory systems of the past have established rather permanent states, making mobility far more difficult for members of historically persecuted groups.
Joanne Leonard: Three Men on Mr. Piper’s Porch, 1965; gelatin silver print; 10 x 8 in.; BAMPFA, gift of the artist.
Joanne Leonard’s photograph, Three Men on Mr. Piper’s Porch, stood out more and more to me as our BAMPFA project progressed. It shows three men, each on a different step. Leonard immersed herself in the West Oakland community during the 1960s, and one can sense the ease the men have with Leonard behind the lens. I see different generations of history and multiple stories in these men. The textures and high contrast of the image draw me in and make me want to converse with them. The photograph also helps me realize how little I knew of California geography before our project. I believe this stems partially from how similar the people surrounding me are. I also think that stories are slowly being lost and history is fading away because of gentrification and the displacement of working-class people of color. Studying landscape architecture, one often hears that everyone is pursuing a career in design rather than in maintenance. A maintenance person may not have the cultural cache of a designer, but maintenance has an equally important role in the creation and perseverance of a landscape. Maintenance of historical and cultural geography is so important because what remains from the past is often irreplaceable and sometimes much more important than the new.
Richard Misrach: Untitled (OF 104-91: Swimming Pool), from 1991: The Oakland-Berkeley Fire Aftermath, 1991; archival pigment print; 59 1/2 x 75 in.; BAMPFA, gift of the artist.
My hometown of Santa Clarita, California is threatened by wildfires each and every year. Our dry climate, high winds, and desiccated vegetation create perfect conditions for destructive fires. A single spark can cause an enduring blaze. My home is in constant danger, making me wonder why such a desirable location is so vulnerable. Richard Misrach’s photograph, with its annihilated house, blackened trees, and post-apocalyptic feeling, reminds me of scenes I have witnessed firsthand. It brings back the feelings of fear and uncertainty as we could do nothing but wait anxiously for updates, praying our homes are still standing and thanking the first responders for doing all they can. The previously clear pool, now clouded with debris is a perfect symbol of how uncertain the future is when all that can be seen is bleak and grim. It can be hard to hold on to hope when everything around you seems to be perishing in flames. It truly captures the perils of seemingly promising life in California.
Fire season has only intensified in recent years because of climate change. Rising temperatures dry out bushes and grass, making them easier to ignite and increasing the likelihood of another conflagration. Santa Ana winds fan the flames and increase the damage. Record-breaking autumn temperatures make it seem like rain will never come. I’ve never had a snow day, but I’ve experienced fire days galore.
Brian D. Tripp: They think they own the place, from News from Native California, 1992; mixed media; 29 x 22 1/4 in.; BAMPFA, gift of the artist.
The metallic and crinkly silver material in Brian Tripp’s artwork, They think they own the place, reminds me of the aluminum-colored blankets ICE agents give children and families currently incarcerated in ICE detention centers. Children who are separated from their families continue to suffer and experience trauma every day, while some politicians and other elite accumulate wealth and ruin the true meaning of the American Dream: Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness. The words “They think they own the place” remind me that the battle is not over. History does not repeat itself but it continues to rhyme in different forms of oppression in California: from Native Californian genocide and dispossession, to gentrification and displacement, to separating children from parents with no official remorse or appropriate compensation. For centuries we have lived with racial injustices and today we continue to fight the same battles my ancestors fought.
I was born in Jalisco, Mexico and raised in Oakland, California. Thanks to my parents’ sacrifices crossing the border and managing to pay all legal fees, I am now a resident and a scholar who can navigate through the system, represent my community, and fight for humanitarian rights globally. I was not one of the children in cages, but I am someone who can speak about this issue because I could’ve been one of those kids, who just want a brighter future. It is important to acknowledge trauma and address the injustices generated by the politics of immigrant criminalization. Numerous potential laws and reforms could provide a better future for all members of society but vulnerable people continue to experience injustices generated by fear and xenophobia. Basic human rights are God-given for all people on earth.
May the beautiful souls who have died at the hands of the ICE agents rest in peace.
John Haley: Torchbearer, c. 1930–37; lithograph; 19 1/4 x 14 in.; BAMPFA, WPA Federal Art Project: transferred from UC Berkeley Art Department.
John Haley’s Torchbearer is an essential addition to our exhibition, in a political moment when interest in the New Deal is ascendant. Haley’s piece reminds us of all that was innovative about the New Deal. But our assessment of the New Deal in California must also recognize the racial injustices that accompanied it.
I am not a Californian. My experience of this state spans only three months. But the pervasiveness of the New Deal has struck me during my time here and in my study of California historical geography. Its monuments hide in plain sight throughout the Bay Area; during the New Deal, the federal government funded the Berkeley Rose Garden, the Berkeley Marina, and a litany of other projects, more than could possibly be listed here. Interested readers should explore the Living New Deal (livingnewdeal.org), which documents New Deal projects in California and the country at large.
John Haley’s Torchbearer reminds us of what was trailblazing about the New Deal. He foregrounds the skilled worker, celebrating labor as innovative, fulfilling, and futuristic. His message is clear: the worker, not the boss, drove New Deal economic development. The New Deal also celebrated art. Federal funding and support enabled works such as Torchbearer, at a time when economic hardship made art an otherwise unviable profession.
As we continue to consider a Green New Deal, we must acknowledge the racial injustices tied into the New Deal. In a discriminatory practice known as redlining, New Deal agencies extended affordable loans and mortgages to predominantly white neighborhoods, while denying these opportunities to African Americans. This has had enduring economic consequences. Today, the average net worth of white families is around ten times that of black families, largely due to overtly discriminatory housing markets before 1968. We must acknowledge this injustice as we consider the Green New Deal for California, the only structural response to climate warming that has thus far been proposed by any US policymaker. By recognizing the benefits and consequences of Roosevelt’s New Deal, we can create something equally enduring and significant today, but absent of racial injustice.
Bill Owens: Untitled (couple in meadow below Half Dome), c. 1970–73; gelatin silver print; 9 1/2 x 7 3/8 in.; BAMPFA, gift of Robert Harshorn Shimshak and Marion Brenner.
Bill Owens’s photograph is significant to me because it reminds me of my time spent in Yosemite. The scenery, accentuated by Half Dome in the background, is unadorned yet stunning. Though a black-and-white photograph, I can picture the lush grass and the vivid sky. The two people laying on the grass look idyllic with nature’s accompaniment.
Growing up in Singapore, a metropolitan island nation, I became used to tall buildings, night lights, and convenience stores at every corner. When I moved to a suburban town in California, I faced a big adjustment. The pace of life was slower and buildings shorter. However, I started frequenting the extensive network of regional, state and national parks in California. At age of seventeen, I went on a two-week backpacking trip in Yosemite that utterly changed my life. I learned to seek joy in each single minute and celebrate every babbling muddy creek and jagged rock, as well as the waning moon at night. We spent much of our trip simply relaxing, especially taking “nature naps” after hearty meadow frolics.
My easy access to nature in California allowed for numerous adventures and learning experiences. I felt the most whole and authentic when I was outdoors. There is not enough conversation, however, about how my enjoyment of idyllic nature hinges on Yosemite’s violent past. In Yosemite Museum, we learned that people settled in Yosemite thousands of years ago. But the intense and often violent confrontations for land that began with the gold rush are largely skimmed over. The Mariposa Battalion, for example, violently displaced the indigenous Ahwahneechee people from Yosemite. I want to challenge myself to not just see contemporary nature but also understand its complex interactions with people in the past. I want to learn the full history and continue to become aware of how our abundance lays in many sacrifices in the past.
Bill Owens: Livermore High School, Scholarship Winners, c. 1970s; gelatin silver print; 8 x 10 in.; BAMPFA, gift of Robert Harshorn Shimshak and Marion Brenner.
Empowering young women is essential for the growth of communities. These young women from Livermore High School who won scholarships in the 1970s are clear examples that education is essential for success. I immediately saw myself reflected in Bill Owens’ photograph. While a student at Compton Early College, I learned that education is granted to many but also taken for granted by many. I worked hard for several scholarships, including one from Girls Build LA, an organization that empowers females while benefiting their communities through year-long projects. This program motivated me to attend UC Berkeley in a field dominated by men. Today, for example, women occupy less then one-fourth of all seats in the US Congress.
The education system is still pretty “rigged” and unless we address disparities in places where we hope to increase “diversity,” it is difficult to achieve equality. With the help of feminism movements, we have made progress in women’s education. Females are increasingly present in fields typically dominated by men. It is exceedingly important to me that women are represented and given the same opportunities as men to succeed. It makes sense that women continue to be involved in politics in order to change such disparities and continue to fight for female rights.
Arthur Tress: Underground Arsenal, 1992; vintage Cibachrome print; 20 x 16 in.; BAMPFA, gift of Steven (class of 1978), Quynh, Jared, A.J. and Juliet Spile.
At first glance of Arther Tress’s Underground Arsenal, I thought the work depicted the ammunition storage bunkers of the Concord Naval Weapons Station near Concord, California. The underground fortifications create a surreal landscape of doors scattered against a hillside directly adjacent to suburban homes and Concord High School. During World War II and the Korean, Vietnam, and Gulf wars, the station housed thousands of tons of ammunition for transport across the Pacific Ocean. The 1944 Port Chicago Disaster, an accidental munitions explosion that killed 320 people, mostly African American sailors, also occurred at this station. This tragedy sparked massive protests about the unfair treatment of black servicemen and aided in the desegregation of the Navy. The station was again the site of protests in 1982 when the government used the facility to ship weapons to Central America in order to suppress leftist revolutions. US-backed counter-revolutionary forces committed many atrocities, including the massacre of indigenous civilians. In response, activists held daily demonstrations outside the Naval Station. Publicity grew when peace activist Brian Willson lost both legs after being run-over by a Navy munitions train. Thousands of people then began participating in the protests and dismantled hundreds of feet of train tracks outside the base.
The actual site of Underground Arsenal remains ambiguous, yet the artwork reflects many sites across California. The semi-transparent layers of the photographic print highlight the close relationship between California lifestyles and the military industries. This relationship is often concealed, which Tress referenced by the stereotypical California residents layered above the arsenal. Today, Concord Naval Weapons Station is a superfund site but remains open to redevelopment as a regional park, housing development, or new California State University campus. These redevelopment possibilities echo Tress’s layering and will continue to conceal many of the dark events of California’s past.
Jack Birns: A woman in a fur coat passes a billboard image of Hollywood star Lana Turner, from the series Assignment Shanghai: Photographs on the Eve of Revolution, 1948; gelatin silver print; 10 1/2 x 10 1/8 in.; BAMPFA, transfer from the University of California, Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism.
A bustling city street. Women with perfectly coiffed hair and gloved hands; men with downturned brims. And—most glaringly—a sunlit Hollywood starlet towering above the masses in a soap advertisement.
She also has coiffed hair.
Historically, the billboard is just a backdrop; the greater significance lies in the timing of the photo, as Birns took it in Shanghai just before the Communist Revolution threw China into upheaval. Visually, too, the ad is part of the background. But even in black and white, the woman is bright, commanding more attention than the dark-clad figures on the sidewalk. And while no one walking gives the advertisement a glance, it’s all I can see. Bright, white American culture.
The soap ad appeared during a period of growing global dominance for the US, and though such international fusion brought economic benefits, it also created more homogenous societies and raised the threat of cultural imperialism. Although America’s ads have advanced from the all-white Hollywood of the ’40s, the ideal of whiteness remains. It is no longer socially acceptable to have only white models in ads, yet non-white models often meet Eurocentric beauty standards.
Perhaps the photograph captured my attention because I know what it’s like to walk down a street where no one in a window looks like me. I couldn’t tell you the last time I saw an Indian model on a billboard. But I do see ads full of ideals I could aspire to—the “coiffed-hair” homogenization of the 21st century.
Dorothea Lange: Tomato Picker, Coachella Valley, 1935; gelatin silver print; 10 1/4 x 13 1/4 in.; BAMPFA, gift of Michael and Gabrielle Boyd.
When given the opportunity to reflect on a piece of art from our exhibition, Dorothea Lange’s Tomato Picker, Coachella Valley immediately came to mind. I picked this photograph because it demonstrates how many Latinx people in California are represented. They are often shown working in the fields, so this type of image is what the audience may recall when they picture a Latinx person. Due to images like this, people have categorized and continue to categorize Latinx people as agricultural workers, though of course this isn’t always the case. Such representation is integral to the construction of race. Race is created by people; it is not biological.
I have a strong connection to this image. It is meaningful to me both because I am Hispanic and because I am from Cathedral City, which is very close to where Lange took this picture. This photograph demonstrates the hard work that people of color endure on a daily basis, which is exploitative due to unfair labor practices. To this day, the Coachella Valley is largely populated by Latinx people and is a center of California agriculture. Unlike pictures that depict Latinx people working in the fields, however, Latinx people are working in hard-earned jobs due to their high achievement, often despite a lack of access to opportunities.
Visit Cal Conversations / Lands of Promise and Peril: Geographies of California through April 26, 2020. Dive deeper into the exhibition with related programs, including gallery talks by the student curators and a reading by award-winning author Susan Straight.