Docents at the famed Getty, one of the cultural jewels of Los Angeles, often have to atone for the nearly omnipresent marine layer that obscures the coastline’s most coveted views. “On a clear day,” they lament, “you can see {fill in the blank} from here.”  

It was such a line, referencing Catalina Island and said to artist Mercedes Dorame ’03 during a tour of the Getty two years ago, that sparked an idea. If you couldn’t see Catalina from the Getty, she thought, perhaps you could bring Catalina to the Getty.

Hence her inaugural installation for the center’s “Rotunda Commission,” a series intended to “animate” the museum’s stately entrance with culturally relevant activations. Titled “Woshaa’axre Yaang’aro (Looking Back),” the installation features giant abalone shells suspended from the ceiling; a 180-degree painted canvas drum; and iridescent drapes over the curved windows directly below. To experience the work is to plunge into an ideological underwater scene off Catalina’s shores, looking back at the range of the Tongva coastline from southern Malibu to northern Orange County.

Rebecca Vera-Martinez | Courtesy of J. Paul Getty Trust
Woshaa’axre Yaang’aro (Looking Back): Dorame’s giant abalone shells, suspended from the ceiling, welcome visitors into the stately rotunda at the Getty. 

A member of the Gabrielino Tongva Indians of California, Dorame was inspired by her participation in “Unseen California,” a field research initiative utilizing the arts to reframe cultural histories at nature reserve sites stewarded by the University of California. She photographed landscapes of the northern Channel Islands, land originally inhabited by the Chumash peoples, and thought about the idea of a reserve as it relates to land and access — questions, she says, she’s been asking her whole career. “There’s really a lot of politics around the conservancies and how they operate on different islands,” she says. 

Cassia Davis | Courtesy of J. Paul Getty Trust
Dorame at work in her studio. Bringing the beauty of Tongva culture to the masses, she says, is the beginning of an engagement.

Dorame had also worked with Tongva artists to curate an exhibition at the Catalina Museum for Art & History — a first on the island, which had been long inhabited by the Tongva people, whose name for the island was Pimugna. It’s all part of a mission to bring awareness of the Tongva — their culture, their history, their contributions to the world around us — to more people. 

“There is a moment where you have to acknowledge that this has been a very absent voice,” the artist says. “But it’s the beginning of an engagement.”

“Looking Back” is on display at the Getty Center through July 28, 2024.

Read more from UCLA Magazine’s Spring 2024 issue.