Thursday, 27 February 2014

Birds Don't Recognise Borders

It was an honour, a privilege and a challenge to create a new mural in the grounds of SPARC during the last days of my residency.

The design developed quickly from a fairly vague idea of using birds as a representation of the positive multiculturalism of Los Angeles to a piece which hopefully speaks to the physical barriers thousands of people around the world are forced to negotiate on a daily basis. Barriers erected along racial, religious or economic grounds separating families and friends, all to often more than they separate enemies.
Here is the first design.

The design evolved through conversations I had with Judy Baca and was influenced from the conversations I have had with Los Angelenos over the last few weeks. I had not expected to be designing a whole wall and thought I would perhaps have the opportunity to help paint someone else's composition but as there were none in production it worked out this way.
I had help painting from several students and staff members from SPARC who also contributed content ideas. I am extremely grateful for their help. Especially to Daniel for the shelter/provisions, Michael for the Israel/Palestine section and Claribel for the skyline and repeat visits, juggling childcare and her studies to help on a number of occasions.

I thought borders was an appropriate theme to explore as it is my belief that forced separation of communities, often but not solely, as a result of British and American Imperialism (see the Middle East from the fall of the Ottoman Empire until today) creates many more problems than it solves. The restriction of movement and forcible displacement of people builds resentment amongst populations that are also often economically oppressed. This hostility towards them understandably leads to hostility from them. Those who profit from military machines know this. I would suggest that the majority of barriers installed around the world were done so for economic reasons, created by those who stand to profit the most.
At present the United Kingdom is about to go through a potentially irreversible change that will affect it's internal borders. The people of Scotland, a country of just 4.5 million people, will be asked to vote on September 18th 2014 as to whether they wish to remain park of the UK or to be an independent country. Having watched the debate in the media back home whilst here, my attitude has hardened and I am more in favour of independence than I was previously. Mainly down to the threats, the increasingly right wing agenda of Westminster and the fact that there is very little between the three main UK parties, illustrated by their decision to stand together to reject the idea of a currency union with Scotland, thus damaging business interests on both sides of the border in order to scare people into a No vote.
This issue has made me consider that even though things have begun to get nasty in terms of rhetoric at home, there are no calls for the erection of walls and there are no weapons involved, for this we should be thankful and we must work hard to keep it this way.

The composition starts, from left to right, with a representation of the Wall separating Israel and Palestine and a helicopter from a previous SPARC show pasted in the sky above the West Bank. A billboard featuring Scarlett Johansen advertising Sodascream looms over the town, she recently decided she liked the taste of Soda stream more than working for the charity Oxfam, so became the face of a company who has factories in occupied Palestine.
The desert in front of the wall represents all natural physical barriers that separate people with a specific reference to the divide between Mexico/US. The twisted metal wall was sourced from a barrier which had been pulled down between Israel and Palestine but it can also stand for all walls. In front of the metal barrier there is a painting of a bald eagle, symbol of the United States and of Mexico, devouring a bloodied quetzal, a beautiful bird hunted almost to extinction for it's tail feathers and a powerful symbol of Mexico)

The next fence is the Mexico US border fence, in front of which stands an open veterinary cage, representing prisons and detention centres. This was originally to have an image of detained families inside it but I thought a more positive image would be more appropriate so the birds are flying from the cage in a multi-ethnic flock; a pigeon (universal survivor scavenger and subject of one of my favourite hiphop tracks, Pigeon by Cannibal Ox), a green parrot (flocks of whom can be seen all over Southern California, made up of escaped or released pets, considered a pest by some, they are now endangered in their original habitats but thrive in Cali) and a common sandpiper (there used to be thousands of these wee birds along the shore of Venice beach, where I was staying in LA, but there numbers are now greatly reduced).
Below the parrot the wall is sourced from Belfast and is representative of a city divided along religious grounds. Above which is a US lookout tower on the Syrian border. The Belfast wall is attached in the painting to the border between Spain and Morocco/ Europe and Africa, the skyline has come to represent all cities.

I hope that this mural evolves over time. The billboard space can be changed by SPARC employees, students and guests depending on the issues of the day. Pastiches of consumer and celebrity culture with a cynical undertone would probably work best.
Items could be left in the dessert areas, e.g., split water cans, as a nod to those who traverse hostile and too often fatally treacherous landscapes in pursuit of a 'better' life for themselves.
I would also like it if more birds and a monarch butterfly were to appear in the foreground of the piece over the burning city. Silhouettes of oppressive buildings could be added to the skyline next to Dungavel Detention Centre (where Scotland locks up 'illegal' migrant families). Perhaps some Olympic or World Cup stadia erected in countries where there are oppressive regimes that perhaps had to decant local populations in order to do so or condoned the persecution of people due to their sexual persuasion... I think we could all think of a few places where this applies.
One wee thing I'd better make clear...

...I am not condoning fire raising. That would be irresponsible, particularly when next door to the decent folk of the Venice Fire Dept who were so encouraging when we were creating it. What I am suggesting is that this forced separation and oppression leads to tinderbox situations and it is no wonder that riots and civil wars occur when people are marginalised. It is always only a matter of time.

In keeping with the location of the mural within the grounds of SPARC I thought it was important that I tried techniques and materials that were new to me; rendering a vector file of the digital sketch through Adobe illustrator, producing a paper stencil to transfer a dotted outline of the main compositional elements on to the wall with chalk through an age old mural technique called pouncing, using Nova color acrylic paint with 206 medium and a gesso primer on an outdoor wall (usually our budget and the expected lifespan of our productions make this an impossibility and the sunlight levels are considerably less in Scotland). I have also cut in using spray paint and a paper stencil more that previously.

I am happy with (most of) it considering the time restraints, the use of new methods and the hot weather! I am hoping it evolves and that folk do add to it as suggested above, if not I may have to come back to finish it....

There are more images and the text of an email I sent to Judy Baca on the SPARC website here. 


  1. Thank you Richie! it was a pleasure having you at SPARC and to have your new mural grace our walls. Love your thoughtful comments. You are always welcome at the old Venice Jail.
    xo Judy Baca

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  3. Thanks for having me Judy, I hope people feel they can add to the wall (and maybe fix the eagle's face, I'm really not happy with it! Been giving me nightmares Ha ha.)
    I hope to get back across sometime and you're all more than welcome over here. I'm plotting possibilities already.

  4. This is completely brilliant - inspiring and magnificent. I love how you've written about it too - really thoughtful, gentle and interesting. A huge Yay and big congratulations for such an awesome project!