It was one night in July, at around 3am, when political street artist Lydia Emily Archibald, 41, was caught in the act. It’s a hazard of the job, of course, but even she admits that she had been sloppy, overconfident at the time. In the deceptive surge of a caffeine high, Archibald was feeling lucky enough to risk posting her work without her usual second set of eyes present in a wealthy neighborhood where security was tight. She was in the middle of completing a piece on a bus bench when the police sirens went off. At the time it seemed like a strictly catch-and-release affair. Archibald was instructed to sit handcuffed on the ground for about an hour-and-a-half while the LAPD confiscated her prints and pasting equipment from her car. After processing her arrest, they handed her a ticket that read “unspecified amount to be determined at hearing” and sent her on her way.
The following morning, at around 8am, an unmarked police car arrived at the house and dropped off a large file in her mailbox. When Archibald opened the envelope, she found with great dismay that its contents contained numerous incriminating black-and-white photographs of her street activity, dating back as long as three years. The authorities had her in Melrose, Venice, Santa Monica, Compton and San Pedro, the 110 freeway and the 10 freeway. They even had shots from a trip to San Francisco. Fines were attached to each one. $150. $250. $60. The cumulative total racked up to $3,200.
But Archibald, a self-described “den mother” of the scene, is highly respected within a community that tends to look after it’s own. Immediately, a groundswell of artists, a number of whom she had never met, mobilized in support. They sent e-mails, offered donations, and proposed working on collaborations to raise money to pay off her fines. She was moved by the outpouring of love she received but felt uncomfortable about the idea of taking any hand-outs and respectfully declined.
Meanwhile, her attorney advised that she should plead “not guilty” to the charges on the premise that her work constituted “non-violent political protest.” The April opening of the MOCA’s landmark “Art in the Streets” exhibit agitated police concerns toward street art a few terror levels, and by making a public display of Archibald’s arrest her attorney believed that the court was placing her on the altar as the scene’s sacrificial lamb. In the end, she decided to plead guilty to the charges and paid the full amount, unapologetic and unfaltering in her convictions.
“I’ve never hid my face. I believe in what I’m doing. I’m not going to wear one of those fucking scarfs,” she scoffed.
Andy Warhol once said, “Art is what you can get away with.” It’s safe to say that Archibald has built a career on this sentiment. Activism and civil disobedience run in her blood. You could argue that her life was charted from the moment her mother gave birth to her in the hallway of a south Chicago hospital because her parents were poor and the rooms were too full. Hers was not a childhood of Girl Scouts and Goodnight, Moon. Raised by a pair of “hippie” parents, Archibald recalls: “I didn’t learn how to sew. I didn’t learn how to cook. My mother said those were tools of feminist oppression. We had to have apple juice in our cereal because she said milk was ‘cow cancer.’ We might as well have been on a fucking commune.”
Her mother was a passionate civil rights activist who lived in the South and would travel from town to town trying to convince blacks to register to vote, after voting restrictions had been repealed. In one unfortunate incident, she walked into an all-white restaurant with her black friends and refused to leave. They were jailed for their insubordination and the police broke her mother’s arm. Later in life, she would be arrested for protesting the Vietnam War.
“The way I was raised was: ‘Say something.’ There’s a motto in my family which is, ‘Once you know, you can’t not know.”’
An upbringing where she was instilled with a strong social-conscious left a deep impression on Archibald as a young girl. Her desire to pursue art was sealed at 10-years-old upon a life-changing sighting of a piece by influential political artist Robbie Conal.
It’s somewhat of a misnomer to call Archibald a “street artist.” A more precise moniker would be “political street fine artist.” Long before she was a street activist, she was a fine artist that painted more traditional folk subjects such as nature and her children. A self-taught painter for 20 years and active on the streets for 3, Archibald displays a style that is both singular and unmistakable: oil paint on meticulously-cut clippings from the Sunday edition of The New York Times, glazed onto canvas. iPhone photos of her works are converted into black-and-white images, sheets are printed and then hand-painted over before they’re ready for the streets. These paintings are usually photorealistic portraits of a political figure, pundit, or theme, among such subjects being President Obama, Hamid Karzai, and Julian Assange. All of them are underlined by a scabrous satirical message that cuts to the marrow of the issue. Her favorite, a depiction of Winston Churchill reads: “Remember when the bad guy died and the war was over?” Churchill’s estate loved it. It was also, unsurprisingly, one of her most controversial works.
No matter the art form, “political” tends to be an investor’s f-word. “Nobody wanted to show political art. Nobody.”
For years Archibald toiled in the trenches of the traditional fine art gallery circuit, being turned down by a number of venues that were leery of the hot potato content of her work. During the occasions when her paintings were accepted for exhibition, a few of them were taken down because Jewish or Muslim patrons were offended. But Archibald felt compelled to get her messages out whether the galleries would hold her or not. Going viral was the only option she could see, and one trip to Kinko’s later her new direction was set out before her. Notoriety followed, and if “political” qualifies as an obscenity to those with the checkbooks, “press” is practically a dinner bell. Suddenly, the galleries started knocking.
She lives in Glendale with her two daughters, ages 11 and 9, the latter of which has autism and requires full-time care. She’s also a cancer survivor, having been diagnosed with cervical cancer 2 years ago. Observing the family, it’s not hard to imagine that her children will carry on the megaphone.
“They’re totally ruined, those kids…I won’t eat meat but they want to eat meat so I say, ‘I’ll cook you a steak. Where’d it come from? Tell me about the factory. Tell me about the working conditions. Tell me about what part of the animal that came from. If you can do all that, fine. I’ll cook that steak for you in a second, because I want it to be your choice.’”
Archibald has a brash, no-nonsense way of speaking and a wickedly barbed sense of humor that initially caught me off guard. “You have a strong need to please everybody. It’s probably because one of your parents didn’t give you enough love,” she once assessed with a sniper’s accuracy. We were talking about a conflict I was having with my roommate, and like she was a magician who had just pulled a grenade out of a hat I didn’t know whether to be impressed or mortified by how efficiently she had disassembled me.
What you quickly learn about Archibald is that statements such as that come from a place of deep compassion. It’s this innately maternal spirit has made her a sobering voice of reason amongst the often bullheaded boy’s club that is the street art scene. “I try to make them get along and make sure they’re all okay. I kind of have grown-up ‘Everything would be better if we sat and talked’ attitude, and when you’re in your 20s it’s hard to think that way with all those raging hormones.”
“C’mon, you take it down to it’s basic level, genetics, you’ve got a village full of boys between the ages of 20 and 35 literally peeing on walls. There’s going to be fucking fights, there’s no way to avoid it. Art is such a personal thing it’s almost like they’re protecting their wives, protecting their girlfriends. It’s a very primal reaction so when they get capped and they go over each other little wars start and it gets really ugly really fast. That’s why it’s good to be a girl,” she laughs.
Besides her fine art background, Archibald’s gender is the most obvious quality that sets her apart from the majority of her contemporaries. I first encountered her at an all-female street artist show held at the LAB ART gallery in Hollywood called “Miss Danger on the Loose.” I had hoped that a veteran like her could offer some perspective on the experiences of female street artists. “Oh, well maybe you should speak to someone else,” she responded. While there are many hills she’s willing to die on, feminism isn’t one of them.
“I don’t wear push-up bras and I don’t stick my ass out, so when I go on an art thing I’m treated with dignity because I demand it, and I dress the way dignity demands and I’m educated. I can get up on a roof with anybody, faster than most kids. It’s about ability, not gender, to me.”
In March, Archibald will debut her first solo show at LAB ART, whose owners approached her after a successful history of showcasing her work. Fortunately, LAB ART had no interest in putting a muzzle on her, allowing free reign to express her vision. From the outset, Archibald knew that she wanted the show to focus on a specific region and issue, and that the theme wouldn’t be the presidential race, the Occupy movement or any number of expected topics that already achieve media saturation. It had to be a subject that wasn’t sufficiently illustrated by pictures and sound-bites, or prepackaged with a catchy title and its own theme music. For this reason, the plight of the Tibetan people, who have been the victims of Chinese tyranny for more than half a century, seemed ripe for exposure.
“The cause of the Tibetan people, and the people who are in exile from Tibet is so uncovered, and every once in awhile the Beastie Boys will do an album or somebody will say something and it will come back and people will say, ‘Oh, is that still going on?’”
It’s no secret that the viral society of China keeps close tabs on the diffusion of information within and without their country. No one can enter or travel around Tibet without a government-appointed guide, while foreign media is subject to intense scrutiny and confiscation. All the while the Tibetans’ land is being desecrated by the encroachment of big businesses with their shopping malls. Women are subjected to mandatory hysterectomies. Every day people are being raped or murdered, with no way of accounting for the names and bodies. It’s Darfur, it’s Rwanda, it’s insert-ethnic-cleansing-here, and the Chinese government redacts their crimes from historical record, thus wiping their chins of their deeds.
What Archibald believes the Tibetan people need is a spokesperson. “[The Tibetan monks] don’t have Facebook pages saying “Look at our monk-iness!”. They don’t draw that kind of fashionable viral US attention to themselves. And there should be a Facebook Tibetan revolution. There should be a Twitter Tibetan revolution, but because there’s no Twitter and no Facebook and nothing there, nobody cares.”
It’s time to take notice. The old guard has passed. We’re in the middle of a global paradigm shift in power in which a country with a historically low standard of living is suddenly the second-largest economy and the dominant influence in the world. Archibald believes Tibet is only the beginning. The Chinese have spent years colonizing Africa, integrating into their culture with more subtlety and adaptability than Western imperialists have been able to achieve. Were the atrocities in Tibet occurring in the Middle East our country might be inclined to pick up the hammer, yet it’s an unfortunate reality that the United States is lacking in moral fiber against a country it cannot withstand.
“I don’t want to be fatalistic, but if you don’t fight for something it goes away. If I am not engaged in what it is that I love, it will die. And what is happening in China will grow as they grow, and the Africans will see it and then we will see it and I don’t want that to happen.”
It’s become the stuff of cinema legend that during the 1929 premiere of Luis Bunuel and Salvador Dali’s avant-garde short Un Chien Andalou they hid behind the screen with stones in their pockets in anticipation of a militantly negative reaction to the film. As I listened to her speak about her views and intentions for the show, I couldn’t help the sense that Archibald should start gathering stones. “At the school that my kids go to I’ve already had two Chinese parents- they won’t even say ‘hi’ to me, anymore.”
Already, the rest of the world is starting to take notice. To promote the show, she shot a minute-and-a-half video with her friends Septerhed and Leba in which her kids shave the three of them’s heads as they hold signs that read “Freedom to Protest” and “Freedom to Pray.” It’s rather sweet, actually. Good luck trying to find it on your iPhone. The tentacles of Chinese censorship extend beyond their own soil and no matter how many times the promo gets posted on YouTube, it doesn’t take long for it to get flagged and taken down.
How to get flagged on the internet:
Archibald wants to make it clear that the show isn’t purely an exercise in indignant saber-rattling. It was never intended to be one big red scare, or a lesson in memorizing unpronounceable names. There’s nothing people like less than being guilt-tripped about the luxuries they enjoy and they especially don’t like being told something they don’t know. What she hopes is that her work can contextualize these remote figures, the Tibetan monks, in a way that seems relatable to the American experience.
“I made a portrait of a monk making out with an American girl with blue hair and tattoos and I wanted to do that because I want you to stand there and say, ‘Do monks do that? Do they make out?’ I want people to ask! No one’s even asking! ‘Do they drink?’ ‘How do they get food?’ ‘Do they work?’ ‘Who supplies the temples with food?’ ‘Do they have temples?’ ‘Are Americans allowed to donate money to build temples?’ All these questions.”
One of her most provocative statements concerned a painting of the Dalai Llama: “I took a picture of the Dalai Llama and put a jail tack on him for one of the largest Chinese prisons and nobody notices it, but I painted him white. I softened his flat nose. I made it a little more pointy. And I took all of the yellow and tan out of his skin and made it white and pink, because I thought if you looked at him, as Americans, and you saw a little bit- ‘Oh he looks like my Dad.’- If you saw a little more of yourself in him, then you would care more.” The painting was warmly received and sold right away.
My knee-jerk reaction is to call BS on this claim, but I’m intrigued by the fact that I hadn’t noticed his lighter complexion or more Caucasian features, either. I asked if she believes her audience responded to the depiction on a subconscious level. Archibald responded that she produced a more true-to-life version for contrast. “I’ve actually had people say to me, ‘You should put more color in his face. He just looks a little brown. The other one looks so life-like.’” Close friends and family are saying this.
Within an age characterized by ailing morale and a system whose wheels are coming out of their spokes, the question of whether or not art matters looms greater than ever. Archibald believes that it is the only weapon that we have, but I sometimes wonder if it’s just tantamount to shouting with your mouth sewn shut. This viewpoint, she would argue, is a large part of the problem. The way Archibald looks at it, there’s no use in casting condemnation upon the slack-witted sloths who lounge in their complacency. Her ire is reserved for the would-be heroes, the Economist-reading, CNN-addict armchair activists who are smart enough to have an opinion but too self-involved to pick up a pen or open a checkbook.
“I feel like so many people ride the fence, are not McDonald’s-eating sheep and are not political activists and stay at home and whine and wax about the problems and say ‘Oh, I’m so above it, but I’m not going to do anything’ and those are the people I’m mad at the most. The McDonald’s-eating sheep at the mall? I’m not mad at them. I’m mad at the people who have to ability to say something and only say it in their house.”
“For people to say to me that a group of people can’t change anything I say, ‘Well, let’s talk about Egypt for awhile.’”
She’s right, of course. Last year, the world watched in astonishment as a courageous campaign of civil resistance overthrew an oppressive and stagnant regime, where social media proved to be a vital tool for social reform. Indeed, the exposure offered by digital media has given Archibald a way of reaching a previously unthinkable global audience.
“I get letters from people in Africa who are like, ‘I am a Muslim. I am a woman. And it’s powerful to know that there is somebody in America, a white woman, who doesn’t have to burden herself with these problems, and she’s speaking for me.’ They don’t feel like anybody outside their country cares. They can’t come here and look, they don’t know that there are a few of us around and it touches them and that’s fucking crazy, don’t you think? It’s insane!”
Archibald hasn’t hit the streets of Los Angeles in the months following her arrest. Any of her works that you see around town are the favors of friends. Since her sentence was passed, she has painted on legal walls in cities such as San Francisco, Oakland, Phoenix, and San Diego. Even after everything she has a voice that will not remain in her own home.
“Churchill- whoever said it, ‘With fame and with press comes an obligation to your social environment.’ If I can put something on a wall and I don’t take that as an opportunity to speak out against the injustices of the world or question my government that wall is wasted, to me. And that’s a hard statement to make because everyone who does naked women is going to be pissed off, but I’m not talking about what they should do, I’m talking about what I need to do. I don’t do political art because I want to, I do it because I have to. I do it because every action has a reaction somewhere in the world. It’s not spiritual, it’s fucking chemistry.”
To see more of her artwork and purchase them online, head over to Lydia Emily’s website.
“Bamboo Curtain” begins at LAB ART on Thursday, March 15th and runs until Saturday, April 14th.
Featured photo by Birdman.
“Bamboo Curtain” promo by Heather Hoxsey.
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