Sandra Hale Schulman
Special to Indian Country Today
A new collection of artwork billboards offers Los Angeles drivers a new perspective on the region they call home: It’s Tongva land.
The seven billboards, seeded by the NDN Collective’s Radical Imagination grant program, are composed of photographs, digital composites and paintings featuring six Indigenous artists as part of an effort to recognize and promote social justice for the Tongva people.
The billboard installation was in place beginning Aug. 28 and will continue through Sept. 2, though some billboards will remain up through Sept. 29. Each billboard will contain the hashtag #Tongvaland to drive viewers to the social media message.
Photographer and artist Cara Romero received a $50,000 grant from the NDN Collective in October 2020 to produce a collection of artwork for display in highly visible public art spaces. She said she decided to reach out to Tongva people to help produce the #Tongvaland project.
“As a Chemehuevi Indian woman who was born in LA, I wanted to pay homage to the people of the city I love, the original caretakers of Tovaangar,” Romero said on her website.
“I set out to explore themes of invisibility, survivance and belonging to a place, from an Indigenous perspective,” she said. “I wanted to explore the complexity of urban spaces, where the original caretakers of the land are so often a minority among the displaced urban Indian population. I wanted to convey that LA is a Native space; that the Tongva People are here, and that it is our responsibility — whether we ourselves are Native or not — to educate ourselves about whose land we are on.”
Romero contributed three billboards to the project, featuring photographs of Tongvan artists Weshoyot Alvitre, Mercedes Dorame and Miztlayolxochitl Aguilera.
Alvitre also contributed a billboard to the project of a 2019 illustration she did of "TONGVALAND," as did Indigenous artists River Garza, Tongva, and L. Frank Manriquez, Tongva/Ajachmem, who signs her work as L. Frank.
Romero said the imagery evokes the American Indian Movement adage, “We are still here,” and creates a dialogue among Indigenous Californians, urban Indian transplants, and settlers.
In 1800, California’s Indigenous population was more than 200,000; by 1900, genocide perpetrated by white settlers left an estimated 15,000, she said.
“Most Californians do not know this history, and do not understand modern Native struggles for recognition and cultural landscape preservation,” Romero told Hyperallergic, an online forum that fosters discussion about the arts.
“We are literally invisible.”
Profile of the artists
Romero’s photographs have been widely seen in the past few years, as billboard art in Desert X 2019 and in the Heard Museum’s blockbuster show “Larger Than Memory” in 2020. Her art graces the cover of August’s Native American Art Magazine and she had a solo show during Indian Market in Santa Fe.
The display provides increased visibility for the LandBack movement, which is pushing for lands to be returned to the Indigenous people who inhabited them. The Desert X 2021 installation in Palm Springs, California, also included a LandBack message, with artwork by Nicholas Galanin that displays of series of signs spelling out INDIAN LAND.
One of Romero's new billboards, “Mercedes at Kuruvungna,” depicts a woman floating with arms open wide in the Kuruvungna Sacred Springs near West Los Angeles. The name means “the place where we are in the sun,” according to the Santa Monica Conservancy website.
“There are places where the waters bubble up from the Earth that have been flowing for thousands of years and where Tongva descendants can come and feel closeness with their ancestors,” Romero said on her website.
“These places are rightfully theirs,” she said. “We came to visit the springs and took the day to play in the waters and commune with the place. In many Native cultures, it is the women who hold the power to commune with Mother Earth and heal and keep the spaces.”
Another of Romero’s billboards, “Miztla at Puvungna,” features Aguilera standing amid palm trees in traditional clothing with a jetliner coming in for a landing in the background.
Alvitre is the subject of another of Romero’s billboards in addition to contributing her own, iconic billboard, “Tongvaland.”
Alvitre said she already was familiar with Romero’s work through social media.
“One day she reached out to me to say she was a recipient of the Radical Imagination grant from NDN Collective,” she said. “She explained wanting to do work centered around the Los Angeles Basin tribal peoples and what it means to live here and not have any recognition or public awareness of the complicated issues of being a federally unrecognized tribe on some of the most valuable real estate in the country.
“I thought it was bold for someone to want to have this discussion from outside our community,” she said. “Most people don't want to even touch this subject due to its complicated nature. I felt her desire to try to uplift our voices through the work she does as admirable and honest.”
They arranged an underwater shoot in Long Beach, California, with Alvitre floating underwater with nets and baskets.
Romero said she is grateful to Alvitre for participating in the photoshoot.
“Thank you, Weshoyot, for trusting me to take your portrait, to learn about you as a person and all the stories and the ancestors you carry with you,” Romero said. “It was an honor to spend hours free diving with you, creating a moment in the cosmos that carries so much of you and of me — tying our collective consciousness together.”
Alvitre used her skills as an illustrator to create her own art billboard, “TONGVALAND,” which plays off the HOLLYWOOD sign.
Alvitre, who is of Tongva and Scottish descent, is a comic book artist and illustrator. She was born in the Santa Monica Mountains on the property of Satwiwa, a cultural center started by her father, Art Alvitre. She grew up close to the land and was raised with traditional knowledge.
She has been working as an illustrator for more than 15 years and has contributed to numerous award-winning books. She has illustrated numerous pieces in support of the NODAPL movement for Standing Rock; protecting Puvungna, an ancient Tongvan village where California State University, Long Beach, now sits; Mauna Kea; and against the border wall on Indigenous lands.
“While most of my work is generally in the field of illustrations or comics, I also work in a lot of other mediums,” she said in an email to Indian Country Today. “The TONGVALAND billboard was done as a response to the lack of recognition that my people, the Tongva, are given on their own lands. I did this photocollage in 2019 as land acknowledgements and reference to the Tongva had increased due to awareness in social media.
“I was trying to deliberately bring attention to the often-disregarded fact that the Hollywood hills, the city of lights, was built on unceded tribal lands,” she said. “The original sign was an advertisement for new buildings. The sign we identify with lights, famous people and movies was actually made to advertise a new housing development to affluent white culture in 1923. The village of Kaweenga (Cahuenga) is located in these hills.
“The purpose of this piece was to put a place name everyone knows, the famous Hollywood sign (which originally said ‘Hollywoodland’) and inform people that we are still here and this land is still our land.”
Two other artists are also contributing art billboards to the project.
Garza describes his work on his website as drawing “on traditional Indigenous aesthetics, Southern California Indigenous maritime culture, skateboarding, graffiti, Mexican culture and low rider culture.”
He said his work creates spaces to help the Tongva people reclaim their rights as “original peoples of the land.”
His billboard, “What the City Gave Us,” features a collage of images and words that include Native mascots, Indigenous women, oil wells, headlines, a buffalo and a cowboy.
“My artistic practice is inseparable from my Tongva heritage,” he said on the website. “I am an amalgamation of centuries of resistance, forced assimilation, and resettlement and my work reflects those disjointments of memory, tradition, and identity.
“My practice focuses on how differential treatment under settler governments construct Indigenous identities.”
Manriquez, who signs her work as simply L. Frank, is an artist, writer, cartoonist and advocate for Indigenous languages.
Her billboard art, “Coyote Drops the Goblet,” features a coyote dressed as a priest with a church and religious symbols in the background.
Sending a message
Romero said she wants the art billboards to help people in the region understand the underlying issues.
“I hope that the relationships made through my conversations, and the resultant dialogue between the art pieces, will be mirrored in the larger society that we all critically explore what it means to live on someone’s ancestral sacred land,” she said on the website, “that these conversations will be sparked beyond a land acknowledgement to #LandBack.”
“I hope first and foremost, it makes people think about who the Original people of this land were and ARE,” Alvitre said. “I hope people use the hashtag as a means to educate themselves further and provide support to us as a community by acknowledging the land that they live and work are on. I hope the website grows into a means to support our community by providing a space where we can educate through our own words, as too often we are spoken for by people who are non-Native or outside our community.
“I hope these art pieces also encourage people to work alongside members of our community and to reach out to us to find more ways to be inclusive of Native people in the Los Angeles basin,” she said. “A land acknowledgement doesn't mean much unless there are continual efforts behind it to not only protect our ancestors, our sacred sites and archeological sites, but also in support all of the amazing people within our community who are constantly doing work to continue our paths to heal and move forward in a positive way.”
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