Three pink squares cover a billboard near the interchange of Santa Monica Boulevard and the Hollywood Freeway in Los Angeles. The cheerful color belies the sobering artwork featured on them, particularly the center portrait of an unsmiling baby girl propped up by an adult hand, her name written on a mugshot letter board. She has the same surname as the man in the billboard to the right. His head is tilted, his brows slightly furrowed, and his stare direct. But a third billboard tells a different story. It shows a man in a T-shirt and a baseball cap proudly flashing a tattoo on his fingers that reads "Chef Life."
Each of these images, initially rendered on pink doughnut boxes by artist Phung Huynh, highlights the diverse experiences of Southeast Asian refugees. Huynh is the baby girl in the center image, and her father is in the image to her right. The third portrait is of Chef Visoth Tarak Ouk, widely known as "Chef T," a refugee who fell into gang activity after moving to Long Beach's Cambodia Town as a child. Ouk ultimately left that life behind, but his story speaks to the intergenerational trauma that untold numbers of Southeast Asian refugees in the United States have experienced, according to Huynh.
"That series of work is about my family's journey and those in my community as well," Huynh explained of the billboards, part of arts nonprofit the Billboard Creative's 2021 exhibition featuring the work of 30 artists on billboards across L.A. — from the Eastside to the Westside — through April 30. "My father is Cambodian; he survived the genocide in Cambodia in the 1970s," Huynh continued. "He fled to Vietnam to seek asylum where my mom and I were both born. So we're actually war refugees, and we settled in the United States in 1978."
Since 2014, the Billboard Creative (TBC) has held billboard exhibitions to highlight the work of both established and emerging artists. For new artists, especially, the exposure puts them on the radar of both the public and the gallery owners who could jumpstart their careers. The project also gives the Angelenos who otherwise wouldn't seek out art or feel comfortable visiting a museum or a gallery the opportunity to see fine art outdoors in their communities. After a year of the COVID-19 pandemic keeping Angelenos inside and galleries and museums closed (though the city is now starting to reopen), outdoor exhibitions remain one of the few ways for the public to engage in art.
As Huynh's pieces demonstrate, the billboards in TBC's 2021 show don't shy away from the current socio-political moment. Curated by Victoria Burns, they address issues such as immigration, the environment, race, gender and domestic violence — reportedly on the rise during the pandemic. The political nature of nearly each billboard, which can also be accessed through TBC's website and interactive map, is no accident.
"I was definitely looking for a unifying theme, and what really started to happen for me was thinking about the issues of our day," explained Burns, co-founder of the Angeles Art Fund, which provides grants to arts organizations and projects with a social justice focus. "So, definitely Black Lives Matter, immigration, the environment, COVID, the military. I was looking for a way in which to tie this together so that the pieces on the website would look interesting and cohesive, but one by one, they also looked good as billboards."
Explore the Interactive Map to Locate All of the Billboards in TBC's 2021 Show
Huynh was, in part, inspired to focus on the Southeast Asian refugee experience because former President Donald Trump's immigration policy led to mass deportations of refugees. There's also the fact that he referred to the coronavirus as the "China virus" and the "Wuhan virus," comments that leaders in the Asian American community say have contributed to a spike in hate crimes. The national dialog about rising anti-Asian violence makes her work all the more pertinent, Huynh contends, and the exposure the billboards give allow her pieces to reach more community members than she would have if the art had been privately showcased.
"We needed to deconstruct the ivory tower of how artists perceive and experience," Huynh said. "My parents didn't take me to museums and galleries growing up. I didn't take art classes. My introduction to art was learning from my grandparents and my parents — sewing, and our culture through food and dance and stories. This [TBC] program does that. It allows everybody to engage in art and participate in it despite class, gender or race."
Artist Narsiso Martinez agrees. Born and raised in Mexico, he said that he found U.S. art museums and galleries intimidating, despite being drawn to art since childhood. So, when he decided to pursue a higher education, Martinez studied art, earning undergraduate and graduate degrees in the discipline from California State University, Long Beach. A former farmworker, he uses his expertise in drawing, painting, sculpture and mixed media to draw attention to the laborers who toil in the fields to pick the nation's food. He not only centers farmworkers in his art but includes agricultural landscapes and discarded produce boxes from grocery stores as well.
His billboard near Fairfax Avenue and Santa Monica Boulevard shows two farmworkers superimposed against piles of produce and the wooden crates used to transport them. Martinez said that farmworkers are too often out of sight and out of mind for the public. While purchasing fruits and vegetables, grocery store shoppers tend not to think about the people who harvest their food.
"For me, this was a way of highlighting our [farmworkers'] contributions to the nation, not only in food production, but also to the economy," Martinez said of his project. "I was excited about this idea of bringing farmworkers to the community and sharing with the community what farmworkers look like."
Martinez is far from alone in his effort to draw focus to the essential labor that farmworkers perform. Currently, three bills sit in Congress that would fast-track a path to citizenship for undocumented farmworkers or grant them legal status after a period of time. The coronavirus pandemic has shed light on the vital role they play in the U.S. food supply.
While Martinez wants to give farmworkers more recognition, artist Humaira Abid aims to use her work to direct attention to gender oppression, particularly in the Middle East and South Asia. The Pakistani American's powerful billboard, near Highland and De Longpre avenues, show a woman's reflection in a car's rear view mirror. Wearing a niqab, the woman's eyes are the only visible part of her face, and one eye bears a noticeable bruise. The work references Saudi Arabia's infamous ban on women drivers, a law overturned in 2018, as well as a 2014 law prohibiting women from enhancing their eyes with makeup or having "tempting eyes."
"I'm interested in women's issues, social issues and taboos," Abid said of her work. After Saudi Arabia lifted its ban on women drivers, she actually visited the country to drive a car there, an act for which women activists had previously been jailed. "There are such basic rights that women are not able to practice in certain parts of the world, whereas in other parts of the world, we take such things for granted," Abid added.
The woman in Abid's billboard has a bruised eye to raise awareness about domestic violence, an issue that she calls "hidden," even as coronavirus lockdowns led cases to rise domestically and globally. "A lot of women are going through domestic abuse and not able to do anything about it because often they're not able to leave and go to a different place," Abid said. "So I'm trying to highlight two different issues, including domestic abuse, and what I'm aiming for is that it will bring attention to these issues, and people will talk about them. When we talk about different issues, it's a step towards resolution and change."
Viewable by car or by foot, the billboards in TBC's 2021 exhibition might stop Angelenos in their tracks, Burns predicts. She said they are "content-rich" to make an impression that inspires the public to learn more. Unlike commercial billboards, this series isn't trying to sell a product to people but to promote ideas.
"These ideas, these issues, are so in the ethos that it's like poetry and music and books," Burns said. The artists "are so informed by what's happening in our world that you can't turn away [from the billboards]. You have to engage, and you may not like every single one of the issues or the artists or the works, but at least it causes you to think."