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Artist Beau Stanton’s mural of Ava Gardner in Los Angeles’s Koreatown.

Mural in Los Angeles’s Koreatown Reignites Debate Over Censorship, Japanese Colonialism

The Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) has postponed its controversial decision to paint over a mural—which depicts American actress Ava Gardner’s profile against a backdrop of blue and orange stripes emanating from her like sunbeams—in Los Angeles’s Koreatown after it sparked a contentious debate over censorship, the Los Angeles Times reports.

Critics and protestors of the mural—which was painted by Brooklyn artist Beau Stanton on the Robert F. Kennedy Community Schools complex two years ago—have petitioned for its removal because of the sun motif’s likeness to the imperial Japanese rising-sun flag, which was used during Japan’s colonial occupation of Korea from 1910 through the end of World War II in 1945.

“This flag symbolizes the Japanese military aggression which resulted in [some] of the most horrendous and gruesome crimes against humanity in human history,” Chan Yong (Jake) Jeong, president of the Wilshire Community Coalition, wrote in a letter to the school system in November.

Among those demanding that the work be taken down or altered are several artists of the Korea diaspora, as well as Christine Y. Kim, associate curator of contemporary art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art; Yong Soon Min, artist and University of California, Irvine, professor emerita; Esther Varet Kim, owner of the gallery Various Small Fires; Eric Kim, cofounder of the nonprofit arts space Human Resources Los Angeles; Nancy Lee, senior manager of public relations at the Hammer Museum; and Kibum Kim, associate director and head of art business at the Sotheby’s Institute of Art Los Angeles.

In December, when LAUSD agreed to remove the mural, it started to face backlash. Christopher Knight of the Los Angeles Times penned a piece titled, “LAUSD Caves to Claims of Racism on a School Mural. It’s Deplorable.” In the article, he argued that “an innocent artist is being smeared as a promoter of hate speech, his work unfairly attacked for something it is not.”

Other cultural figures who have defended the mural include artists Shepard Fairey, James Bullough, Allison Torneros, and Cyrcle, as well as the Los Angeles–based artist-duo David Leavitt and David Torres, who all have public works on the school’s property; the Oakland-based Korean American artist Dave Young Kim; and Philip Ahn Cuddy, cohost of a podcast produced by Korean American Heritage. Stanton has also argued that the work does not resemble the Japanese flag and said that the piece is a tribute to the historic Cocoanut Grove nightclub, which was favored by Hollywood producers and starlets.

LAUSD’s Monday announcement that it would put off making a decision about the mural until a later date prompted Gyopo—a group of Korean American artists and arts professionals—to send a letter to the district that acknowledges Stanton did not intend to evoke the imperial Japanese flag and expresses that the group is troubled by “the lack of community involvement in the mural’s selection process, the mural’s imagery itself and its memorialization of a whites-only club, and the ways in which the media has directed these narratives.”

LACMA’s Kim, a Gyopo cofounder, told the Los Angeles Times: “It’s been framed as ‘censorship versus artistic integrity’ in the press. It’s a framing that may grab headlines or attention, but it dismisses cultural and individual pain and trauma that’s very real that’s elicited from an artwork that’s displayed in a very public manner, in a place where there are thousands of students, young people and community members who see it every day.”

Jennifer Moon, an artist and member of Gyopo, also noted the issue that many of those criticizing the district for originally deciding to whitewash the piece are artists who are neither from the Koreatown community nor of Korean descent. “The issue,” Moon said, “is someone comes in who’s not from this history and says that’s not traumatic and people listen. And to me, that replicates a system where white men, historically, their voices are seen as authority. And historically, I think Asian voices are not heard, there’s this silence or invisibility that happens.”

Moon claims that the group’s calls are not censorship, but a request “to look at these systemic issues of power and for a conversation about, and an acknowledgement of, trauma. . . . It’s a more intersectional conversation: What’s the race, class, gender or sexuality of the artist, of those affected by the art, of the authoritative voice guiding the discussion?”

The letter calls for a swift response from LAUSD superintendent Roberto Martinez and board president Monica Garcia; members of Gyopo have noted that, while media coverage of the event has died down in recent months, the school’s silence over the work’s fate is troubling.

A spokesperson from the school district responded with the following statement: “We appreciate the comments we have received from the community regarding the RFK mural project. Over the past few weeks, we have been involved in a number of informative discussions. We hope to make a decision in the near future.”

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