Giants surround you in Gabe Gault’s studio. Large, vibrant portraits of celebrities and politicians lean against the walls — Spike Lee, Anthony Bourdain, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and others occupy the space.
But for the centennial exhibit UCLA: Our Stories, Our Impact, Gault and artists Ernesto Yerena and Mer Young were commissioned to give the star treatment to 10 lesser-known but deserving subjects: Bruins who have advanced and shaped social movements.
The project’s lead curator is Abel Valenzuela Jr., professor of Chicano studies, urban planning and labor studies; director of the UCLA Institute for Research on Labor and Employment; and special advisor to the chancellor on immigration policy. “Our exhibit focused on showcasing the work of activists who may be less recognized, yet they have dedicated their lives and careers to just causes that have transformed our communities and our world. And the activists usually make connections to their own formative training and experiences related to college and UCLA in the ethnic or labor studies departments or units,” he notes.
Compelling portraits, videos and a website highlighting additional honorees comprise the multimedia project, which showcases the role of UCLA and its community in advancing equity and equality in America.
Gault’s four paintings combine portraiture with decorative backgrounds laden with meaning. In one, Patrisse Cullors ’12, a co-founder of the Black Lives Matter movement, appears amidst a backdrop of blackberries. Gault explains that the berries were once considered “a black omen, but now they’re a sought-after fruit. For me, it represents bringing a sweeter fruit for black people.”
Yerena’s powerful portraits are spray-painted stencils over mixed-media collages of imagery from the activists’ lives, while Young’s digital collages capture both the visage and essence of her subjects.
At the campus opening in October, students cluster around Gault’s portrait of labor organizer John Delloro ’94, M.A. ’96. Some take selfies with their right fists raised high — as Delloro is depicted in his portrait.
Janna Shadduck-Hernández, project director at the UCLA Center for Labor Research and Education, looks on approvingly. “He was such a beautiful person,” she says, “and he made such an impact on all of the students he worked with, particularly with his commitment to bringing a voice to Asian American [and] Pacific Islander organizers and youth.”
A History of UCLA Protest
Choosing who would be portrayed in the exhibit was no small feat, since UCLA’s 100-year history is marked by numerous, significant achievements in activism, going back as far as 1934, when Bruins filled Royce Quad to protest the university’s decision to suspend five students for “communistic” activities. The ’60s and ’70s saw sit-ins, peace demonstrations and demands for greater diversity throughout the university, with the latter helping to inspire the creation of the UCLA Institute of American Cultures and its four ethnic studies research centers: the UCLA American Indian Studies Center, UCLA Asian American Studies Center, Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies at UCLA and UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center. Additionally, the Center for Labor Research and Education was established to address pressing issues requiring labor-university collaboration.
Today, UCLA’s global connections expand its reach, enabling Bruins to address some of the most profound issues of our time: poverty, immigration, employment, incarceration, racism, environmental inequities, health care and education access, along with the importance of culture and art in social justice work.
“We wanted to focus on lesser-known folk to showcase that anybody can make a difference, and that in many ways UCLA is a part of aiding past and future generations to obtain the skills and the tools to go and change the world for the better,” Valenzuela explains.
The Our Stories, Our Impact exhibit is led by the UCLA Institute for Research on Labor and Employment, the UCLA Labor Center and the Chancellor’s Advisory Council on Immigration Policy, in partnership with the UCLA Institute of American Cultures, the UCLA American Indian Studies Center, the UCLA Asian American Studies Center, the Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies at UCLA and the UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center. To see the traveling exhibit, check out the schedule below:
Jan. 22 to Feb. 27
Mercado La Paloma (South Los Angeles)
Feb. 10 to March 16
UCLA Community School at Robert F. Kennedy complex, Fiat Lux Course
April 1 to 30
Social and Public Art Resource Center (Venice)
May 4 to 29 Self Help Graphics & Art (East Los Angeles)