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Artist and Gallerist Dale Brockman Davis Reflects on the Watts Uprising

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Dale B. Davis working at Brockman Gallery, Los Angeles, CA. | Photo: Courtesy of the Brockman Gallery Archive.
Dale B. Davis working at Brockman Gallery, Los Angeles, CA. | Photo: Courtesy of the Brockman Gallery Archive.

Situated in historic Leimert Park, a nondescript commercial building plays host to the Art + Practice space -- a contemporary exhibition program dedicated to artists-in-residence, which provides studio space for influential local artists.

Among the artists-in-residences is Dale Brockman Davis, a multidisciplinary artist, curator, activist, and educator. His work has been displayed in numerous exhibitions, galleries and contemporary art spaces that include the Hammer Museum, the Watts Tower Arts Center, and the California African American Museum. Yet, Davis may be best known for his contribution to Leimert Park with the historic Brockman Gallery -- a cultural institution that lasted 20 years and provided a platform for African American artists and other artists of color. Today, the Brockman space has been inhabited with a newcomer to the area, the Papillion Gallery.

Davis and his brother, Alonzo founded the venue in 1967 during an era of activism following the Watts uprising, and coinciding with the nation's burgeoning civil rights movement. His role in the Leimert Park's cultural epicenter created new opportunities for African American artists to showcase their work -- many of them went on to have robust careers, including David Hammons, Noah Purifoy, Elizabeth Catlett, Betye Saar.

On the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the 1965 Watts uprising, Artbound met with Davis to reflect on the origins of the Brockman Gallery, the cultural landscape of South L.A., and the effects the discord had on the area's artistic communities.

Dale Brockman Davis in his studio. | Photo: Ana Luisa Gonzalez.
Dale Brockman Davis in his studio. | Photo: Ana Luisa Gonzalez.

On his memory of the 1965 uprising

I was not a resident of Watts, but I was affected immediately because of the curfew area, and the border that was basically cornered off with guards. It went from Watts, and it went all the way to Crenshaw and it was called Santa Barbara at the time, which is Crenshaw and King Boulevard. Basically, you had to show ID to go home, to go to school. At the time I was a student at LACC and I had no idea that I would be subject to that kind of lockdown. It was a big surprise. You know, I was young, relatively innocent. It meant to me that because of the incident on Central, all the African Americans in the city were subject to the same kind of issues and stereotypes that were happening on Central.

Opening night at Brockman Gallery, 1967. | Photo: Courtesy of the Brockman Gallery Archive.
Opening night at Brockman Gallery, 1967. | Photo: Courtesy of the Brockman Gallery Archive.

On South L.A. before the uprising

Before, it was somewhat the way it is now: you have a lot of economic disparities. This side of town, this zip code -- which happens to be 90008 -- was more of a middle class enclave. There were working class people, as well as a number of high professionals -- you know, doctors and lawyers and things like that. But Leimert Park in particular was in a state of flux, in that the land [restrictions] had been removed so that you could have African American people buy houses and rent homes in this area. Before that, it was a law: you couldn't sell to minorities, you couldn't sell to Chicanos, or anyone that was classified as an "other." Even though it was on the books earlier, it didn't open up for minorities until somewhere between 1955 and 1956.

[The uprising] brought attention to redlining. It brought attention to the fact that you're really not wanted at a certain demarcation line. It was a hard reality -- you're young and innocent and you're thinking, "I live here, everything is okay." But everything is really not okay.

Here was a great build-up in tension within the community. There was lack of trust based on police abuse and an overreaching arm that kept people on edge. You just expected to be stopped at random. Sad to say, but we're kind of in that cyclical phase where a lot of those issues have returned with stereotyping, in particular with black males. But it's not just African American males, but minorities in general. There's a lot of tension.

West Coast Black Artists, March 17, 1975 -- April 4, 1975 at University Union Gallery, Cal Poly University, Pomona, CA. | Image: Courtesy of the Brockman Gallery Archive.
West Coast Black Artists, March 17, 1975-April 4, 1975 at University Union Gallery, Cal Poly University, Pomona, CA. | Image: Courtesy of the Brockman Gallery Archive.

On South L.A. cultural institutions of 1965

[There were] all the conflicting African American groups and subgroups. So, if you look back at that period you have to realize that this was an institution-building period. You had CORE, you had Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, you had NAACP, you had the Urban League, the Black Panther Party, you had the Weather Underground, the Communist Party, you name it. All of those entities were present, and all of those entities were vying for credibility and attention. So we were in the mix, and it wasn't always comfortable because there were conflicting philosophies and we decided that we would stay focused on the artists in the community, even though we had a lot of shows that were very political.

Working class people are working, and they come home, and they take care of their children. And so art is such an extra. I was very fortunate in that I had those opportunities needed to know about the museum. I am an artist, and so I would ask myself, "Where are you going to show your work?"

On the sparse opportunities for African American artists before 1965

One of the reasons that we opened the gallery is because we were told as art students that we had best get teaching credentials because there would be no opportunities for African American artists to show -- that there were no galleries that would be open to us. And so, we decided to take the challenge and open up a gallery in 1967. My brother Alonzo and I were originally raised in the South, where we were used to overt prejudice. One of the gifts that my mom gave us when we moved out here (our parents split up) was: "Don't make the false assumption that because you are in California, those kind of issues don't still exist." It was just more institutionalized.

We were trying to maintain an independent, quality art gallery which hadn't existed. It was quite a challenge, and I was doing this at a very young age: I was doing this at 20 years old, and my brother at the time was 24. Those kinds of things happen for a reason, and one of the reasons is that we had parents that expected us to make a difference in the world. This was the chosen path for us. We were both artists, and we both became teachers. My brother stepped away from secondary teaching to work on a master's degree at Otis, and I maintained employment with L.A. city schools for the major part of my life. For 35 years, I taught at Dorsey High School which is in this community and with a minority-based population.

Photo: Courtesy of Art + Practice.

On how his upbringing in the segregated South influenced the art showcased at Brockman Gallery

Because we came here from the South so young, we weren't truly aware of the discrepancies here. We were from Tuskegee, a segregated town, but a college town: we saw black professionals on a regular basis, even though we were children. We had the great fortune to be in a town that was an education-based town. We had this museum that was part of the institution that had the work and experiments of George Washington Carver -- life changing. We didn't know it, we were just innocent kids walking through a lab-type situation with vials with blue dye and red dye -- with specimens. We were innocently there, being a part of history but not knowing it. It's experiences like that. You carry them inside of you, they gestate, and come back out later. Suddenly you realize, "Whoa, this is part of my history."

The other part of this is: my brother and I drove in a Volkswagen bug cross-country to be a part of the March on Jackson, a major civil rights march. These same institutions that were part of the political spectrum were all there. We were there for that experience, which was something you never forget. We walked highways with other young people -- the so-called carpetbaggers, the troublemakers -- but we were there to help implement change. As part of that trip, we also visited other black schools, visited galleries, talked to professors who taught there -- professors who were artists themselves -- and we realized that maybe we can make this experience a part of our mission. We went through the South, up the East Coast to D.C., New York, across the top of the United States, through Canada into Detroit, and eventually down and back into L.A. So, by the time we finished that trip we were pretty motivated to try to do this thing that was going to be called Brockman Gallery.

On the opening of Brockman Gallery

Through almost a stand-alone kind of quality; we were here, we were open, we were friendly, we had business hours that were kept. We had the commitment to make it a professional venue the way that any young entrepreneur would want to have it -- we waited for the growth. It was a learning process; we never had a business. We were old kids, essentially: I'm 20, my brother's 24, we have no experience in business.

Noah Purifoy and David Hammons, February 5, 1969  --  March 2, 1969 at Brockman Gallery, Los Angeles, CA. | Image: Courtesy of the Brockman Gallery Archive.

On how other galleries responded to the Brockman Gallery opening in 1967

for the first few years we had no competition. There were no other legitimate art galleries that were showing and promoting minority artists.

We were here for the under-served art and artist community. We had shows with Latino artists, we had shows with Japanese artists, and we had shows with Korean artists before the big wave of Koreans came here. What's wonderful about this archive is that we have the documents to prove what we did, and when we did it. And there were white artists under-served that we worked with. That history is here, in this room with us. This is an artists-in-residency based on archiving the history of Brockman Gallery, which was a 20-year project and business. So, we have tens of thousands of documents that relate to the history of Brockman. We have over 3,000 color slides of the works of artists who came to us and worked with us. This will be a real entry into the history of Los Angeles and California.

On artists whose works reflected on the uprising

For some of the primary people like Noah Purifoy, Judson Powell, John Outterbridge, John Riddle: right place, right time. But I could list numerable artists who were influenced by the riots, and by those artists. Think about one of the early exhibits that took place in 1966 in Rogers Park, which was part of the Watts festival: now, you have a major art exhibit that took place in Rogers Park gymnasium, you had high school students that were involved, you had those artists who I mentioned that were involved, and now you have this cross cultural, cross socioeconomic happening that enlightened everybody. You had people like Richard Wyatt, an artist whose name probably won't come up in relationship to this conversation because he was just so young. I think he must have been 10 -- maybe 12 -- when he won the Watts Chalk-In. And now, he is one of the prominent muralists in Los Angeles. That situation brought about a major awareness for artists of color in particular.

On the impact the L.A. uprising had on the aesthetic of African American artists

I would also say that many of the professional artists who had a style of their own -- depending on how the riots influence them -- added another level to their work. There were a lot of artists that only wanted to do controversial work, socially-oriented work. And there were people within these groups of artists who felt that if you are not doing socially conscious work, then you are not an artist, you are not doing what you are supposed to be doing. That's where you start getting tension between artists. People ask, "Who are you to tell me how to vision my work?" It wasn't all smooth within the artist community; there was a lot of tension.

There were artists who were blackballed because their art were not political, and who were not allowed to be part of the Black Artist Association or the Black Arts Council. Now, just because you have "black" in the title, it doesn't mean that you would necessarily be subjected to that limited look at how you should be doing your art. But there were those kinds of tensions that took place -- there were demonstrations by black artists at the L.A. County museum who felt as though it was a put-down to have three of the most prominent artists from our community have a show at the L.A. County museum, which was maybe the first of its kind.

The artists who were selected happened to be extremely talented, but my brother and I had to cross the picket line, which was a tense situation. When the people on the picket line are looking just like you, and are part of your group, that's very challenging. The exhibit that I'm referring to is an exhibit with Charles White, David Hammons and Timothy Washington. The people who challenged us at the picket line -- this was their prerogative. But it wasn't cute; there was a lot of tension. It took a lot of time to be accepted back into the fold, when you have those kinds of major confrontations. But, you know, you have to stand up for what you believe in.

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Top image: Dale B. Davis working at Brockman Gallery, Los Angeles, CA. | Photo: Courtesy of the Brockman Gallery Archive.

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