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Newsletter: Essential Arts: Pizza or gun? The benign objects at the heart of police shootings

A mural of George Floyd on the side of a building is illuminated at night
A mural of George Floyd by artist Misteralek as seen in Watts in June of last year.
(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

Greetings, fellow travelers. I’m Carolina A. Miranda, the Los Angeles Times columnist — not the telenovela actress — and I’m here with the week’s essential culture news:

It wasn’t a gun

This week marks a year since George Floyd was murdered on a Minneapolis street — a year of protest and grief and reckoning with histories many would rather suppress. There have been many essays and anniversary reports.

Times columnist LZ Granderson had a particularly poignant piece that examines what has changed in the year since Floyd’s life was so brutally taken from him. The short answer: not enough.

As he writes: “Malcolm X once said, ‘If you stick a knife in my back nine inches and pull it out six inches, there’s no progress. If you pull it all the way out, that’s not progress. The progress is healing the wound that the blow made...’ For 365 days I have been thinking about George Floyd because that knife won’t let me move on.”

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Boston Globe culture columnist Jeneé Osterheldt has a remarkable essay that is both marvelously poetic and brutally visceral. It starts with the opening sentence: “America always meant for our murders to go viral. They used to put lynchings on postcards.”

The essay’s title, “I, Too, Rage America,” nods to the words of Langston Hughes.

The book "This Is Not a Gun" — produced all in white — is shown against a stark black background.
“This Is Not a Gun,” edited by Cara Levine, reflects on police shootings.
(Sming Sming Books)

I’ve been thinking about Floyd a lot recently because of the anniversary — but also because of a small publication that came across my desk a few months ago and which I dip into regularly. “This Is Not a Gun” began as a simple art project by L.A.-based artist Cara Levine, then snowballed into a compelling series of collaborations between artists and activists that now have been recorded in book form.

The artwork began as a reaction to a list published by Harper’s magazine in 2016, which featured 23 objects that had been mistaken for guns by police in shootings of unarmed civilians over a period of 15 years. The majority of those victims were Black; the objects they carried were quotidian: a slice of pizza, a pair of sunglasses, a bottle of beer, a bible.

In response, Levine set out to sculpt the objects out of wood. “Often my work comes from a problem that I can’t reconcile, that I’m working over in my head, like, how do I understand this?” she told the Guardian of the undertaking.

She later hosted workshops with artists, activists and others, to recreate the objects in clay. Helping lead these sessions was fellow artist Angela Hennessy.

A photograph shows a tidy grid of clay objects that include a slice of pizza, sunglasses, a hairbrush and an iPod
Cara Levine, in collaboration with others, employed clay to recreate objects mistaken as guns by police officers in deadly shootings.
(Sming Sming Books)

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Images of these clay objects form the through-line of the book version of “This Is Not a Gun,” which was published by Sming Sming Books late last year. In addition to showing the sculptures, the book also features reactions to them from a wide gamut of cultural figures. Their responses are deeply affecting, arriving in the form of drawings, diagrams, poems, essays and hybrid forms in between.

New York-based arts administrator Jessica Angima composes a poem inspired by the bottle of beer that Louis Jiles, an 18-year-old Massachusetts man was holding when he was shot in the wrist by police in 2008. Father Gregory Boyle, the founder of L.A.'s Homeboy Industries, recalls the way in which a flashlight had once appeared to him in a dream; it was a flashlight that Cody Devine was carrying when he was killed by police in Reno in 2014.

Particularly moving is an entry by Bay Area artist and curator Leila Weefur, who created a diagrammatic poem in response to a set of keys — for which a young man named Joseph Fennell was shot by police in San Antonio in 2006: “MY KEYS / SOLID METAL AND / COLD / DON’T MAKE THAT SOUND / THEY JINGLE LIKE / CHIMES / MINE ARE DINGY / THEY DON’T / QUITE SHINE LIKE / A 45.”

Which brings me back to Floyd.

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He wasn’t shot. Nor was anything he carried confused for a gun. But the scenario that led to his tragic death played out in the same fated way as the encounters articulated by “This Is Not A Gun.” A Black person, doing (or holding) something mundane, is injured or killed after being perceived as criminal or as a threat.

Floyd’s story begins with $20 and a pack of cigarettes. It also ends there.

He had paid for a pack of cigarettes — quite possibly unknowingly — with what may have been a counterfeit bill. It’s why the shop owner called the police. Moments after the cops arrived, Floyd was face-down on the street. Minutes later he was dead.

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He was never a threat. All he’d wanted was a pack of smokes.

You can learn more about “This Is Not A Gun” on the project website (thisisnotagun.com). The book ($32) is available from Sming Sming Books.

Institutions, one year later

In the wake of Floyd’s death last year, many cultural institutions made a lot of promises about working on institutional equity. Culture writers Deborah Vankin and Makeda Easter examine how those promises have held up in the area where it counts most: the almighty boards of trustees. They surveyed 20 cultural institutions in Los Angeles to get a sense of diversity on museum boards. The big picture? It’s not very good.

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On a related note: The Huntington Library (whose diversity issues I wrote about earlier this year) has added eight new members to its board of governors, including historians Natalia Molina and Brenda Stevenson and Dana Gioia, poet, writer and former chair of the National Endowment for the Arts.

Institutional shake-ups

Michael A. Sheppard was terminated as artistic director at Celebration Theatre, the city’s largest LGBTQ theater, after an internal investigation found accusations of sexual misconduct against him to be credible. Sheppard’s lawyer Jordan Susman said in a statement, “Michael categorically denies any and all allegations of misconduct and laments the absence of due process that led to Celebration Theatre’s decision.”

In a lengthy report — that includes interviews with Sheppard, his co-workers and two accusers — The Times’ Jessica Gelt examines the case. The allegations burst into the public eye last month when actor Andrew Diego wrote a Facebook post saying Sheppard had harassed him. In interviews with Gelt, he and another actor allege unwanted touching, sexual solicitation and overly intimate confessions.

Diego told Gelt that Sheppard’s behavior contradicted “someone who professes to be a champion of social justice.” Sheppard responded that the theater was “a sex-positive, queer safe space” and that any behavior was consensual.

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Actor Andrew Diego wears black and stands before an earth colored wall in late afternoon light
Andrew Diego has alleged sexual misconduct by the artistic director of Celebration Theatre.
(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

In December, Robert L. Lynch, the leader of Americans for the Arts, was put on leave as the organization investigated complaints about race and equity in the workplace. This week, the organization announced that he would retire from the post he has held for 35 years. Lynch had served on the Biden-Harris transition team for the arts and humanities and was thought to be a top candidate to lead the National Endowment for the Arts.

His retirement comes in the wake of a report in the Washington Post in which activists called for his resignation amid allegations of an organization that “condoned a hostile work environment” and did not take seriously calls for racial equity.

Plus, President Biden named four new members to the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts, which oversees the design and architecture of federal buildings in Washington, D.C. They are Peter Cook, a principal at HGA Architects; Hazel Ruth Edwards, chair of Howard University’s Department of Architecture; Justin Garrett Moore, of the Humanities in Place Program at the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation; and Billie Tsien, partner at Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects.

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They replace the all-white panel installed by President Trump that included Justin Shubow, who had repeatedly pushed for Neoclassical designs.

Plays and players

Reality TV is the point of inspiration for “This American Wife,” the new livestream production by the theater company Fake Friends that was co-produced by playwright Jeremy O. Harris. The show offers a queer deconstruction of “Real Housewives” and Times theater critic Charles McNulty writes that it “is as much a philosophical inquiry disguised as a love letter as it is a love letter disguised as a philosophical inquiry.”

Three actors wear pink and gesture at each other in a granite-lined kitchen
Michael Breslin, Jakeem Dante Powell and Patrick Foley star in “This American Wife.”
(Nina Goodheart)

“Hadestown” confirms a return to Broadway — among the first shows to do so. The Tony-winning musical will also launch a North American tour.

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Plus, in new broadcast moves, the Tony Awards, scheduled for late September, will be presented on the streaming service Paramount+ instead of its usual home on CBS. Afterward, CBS will host a live concert with the broadcast presentation of just three Tony Awards: best musical, best play and best revival of a play.

L.A. — We. See. You!

I’m thrilled to see the words of Ismail Muhammad, a writer I admire, popping up in The Times’ new Image magazine, whose second issue features a series of L.A. stories.

Muhammad has a beautiful meditation on the work of the late L.A. assemblage artist Noah Purifoy that also serves as a meditation on the landscapes of Black Los Angeles. “I have this feeling that what Purifoy was searching for with his assemblages was the social life of junk — not only inanimate objects but also all of us castoff people who were formerly things and must continue to function as things for the world to continue on as it does.”

Also in the magazine is a great interview with the writer/artist duo Sesshu Foster and Arturo Romo by E. Tammy Kim. Foster and Romo collaborated on the new book “ELADATL: A History of the East Los Angeles Dirigible Transport Lines” (published by City Lights), which offers a fantastical view of the city that is nonetheless grounded in its landscape. Says Romo: “We need new ancestors because the ones that we’re taught to emulate are not the right ones for us, and I think the book is kind of about that too.”

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Sesshu Foster, standing, and Arturo Romo, seated, pose in a home whose walls are painted red
Sesshu Foster, standing, and Arturo Romo, authors of “ELADATL: A History of the East Los Angeles Dirigible Air Transport Lines.”
(Tracy Nguyen / For The Times)

Essential happenings

Matt Cooper has rounded up the Memorial Day weekend’s best events, including plenty of dance. This includes a kid-friendly “dance playground” in downtown L.A. as well as a performance by Benjamin Millepied’s L.A. Dance Project at the company’s open-air stage.

Dancers on a dimly-lit set perform before a backdrop of geometric shapes
Dancers perform “Night Bloom,” a new work by New York City Ballet principal dancer Janie Taylor for L.A. Dance Project.
(Josh S. Rose / L.A. Dance Project)

Passages

Anna Halprin, a choreographer known for her commitment to experimentation and improvisation and for influencing a generation of movement artists, including Simone Forti, Meredith Monk and Trisha Brown, has died at the age of 100 in Marin County. Halprin was a founder of the San Francisco Dancers’ Workshop and the Tamalpa Institute and also appeared in Michelangelo Antonioni’s “Zabriskie Point.”

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Carla Fracci, a prima ballerina for La Scala renowned for dancing alongside stars such as Rudolf Nureyev and Mikhail Baryshnikov, has died at 84.

Cornelia Hahn Oberlander, a Canadian landscape architect who was a proponent of rewilding and pedestrian-centric design, and worked with architects such as Louis Kahn, Arthur Erickson, Shigeru Ban and Moshe Safdie, is dead at 99.

Pritzker Prize-winning architect Paulo Mendes da Rocha, part of a high-profile group of Brazilian architects working in brutalist concrete, is dead at 92.

In other news

— A thousand-year-old Arabic script has made a comeback to circumvent what many activists describe as the censorship of pro-Palestinian voices on social media.
— A home designed by L.A. architect Gregory Ain that went on view at MoMA in 1950 quickly slid into obscurity after it was shown. Thanks to historian George Smart, the structure has been tracked down in New York’s Hudson Valley.
— Tokyo’s Nakagin Capsule Tower, designed by Kisho Kurokawa, and a prime example of the Japanese Metabolism movement, faces increased threats of demolition.
— “Wrecking the Thompson Center robs Chicago of a one-of-a-kind building.” Chicago Sun-Times columnist Lee Bey on why it’s important to preserve Helmut Jahn’s PoMo government tower.
A thoughtful essay by Dana Kopel on whether museums can be reformed.
— Cuban artists have asked that their work be removed from Havana’s Museum of Fine Arts in protest of the government’s detention of dissident artist Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara.
— Plus, a group of high-profile international cultural figures, including painter Julie Mehretu and novelist Edwidge Danticat, published an open letter in the New York Review of Books to protest Otero Alcántara’s ongoing detention.
— “I’m addressing Black folks, but everyone gets to listen in.” This is a great profile of artist and filmmaker Arthur Jafa by Siddhartha Mitter, on the occasion of the artist’s first retrospective in Denmark.
— Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey’s nonprofit #StartSmall has contributed $3.5 million to a pilot program that guarantees income for artists.
— And the L.A. Art Recovery Fund has contributed more than $36 million to support 90 cultural nonprofits around Los Angeles.
— The Times’ Allen J. Schaben has a photo essay that shows the rising Michael Maltzan-designed 6th Street Bridge.

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And last but not least ...

I am slavishly devoted to comedian Jonathan Chavez’s Latina mom impressions on Instagram.


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