Collaborative project shines artistic light on neighborhood history
By Bridgette M. Redman
There are many ways to tell the story of a place, but first there have to be people willing to find, capture and share that story. 18th Street Arts Center has been collecting stories as part of its Cultural Mapping project, and supporting and inspiring the artists that want to tell the stories of the people and neighborhoods of Santa Monica.
In an exhibit that will soon close on October 2, Danish artist Maj Hasager partnered with Carolyne and Bill Edwards of the Quinn Research Center in a years-long collaboration to share Black stories from the Broadway neighborhood before they are erased or lost.
The exhibition at 18th Street’s Propeller Gallery, “Three Structures Touching,” features a sculpture that guests can climb or sit on, five banners of community that display historic pictures, news articles and other artifacts and two films. It is what Hasager hopes is just the start of her work in the neighborhood as she is committed to long-term relationships that involve re-thinking history, conversations and an immersion in community.
The two films are “Three Structures Touching” and “A Broadway Tour.” Both feature the Edwards — the first has them talking about their longstanding engagement with archiving African American history from the Venice bay and Santa Monica area and their efforts to have this area recognized as a heritage district. The other features the Edwards taking the audience on a tour of the Broadway region that features its historic buildings. The structure in the center of the exhibition space is an outline of the 90404 district, but it can be climbed and engaged with in different ways.
“The form of art I’m practicing is an engaged form of art, which I think is highly relevant to really unpack this rich material and talk about what it means to remember a place,” Hasager said. “What does it mean to create cultural significance? What does it mean to preserve? What does it mean to look at an archive and look at these stories that have not been visible to a wider public? Those are some of the things I’ve been really interested in with this exhibition.”
Hasager spent six months at the 18th Street Arts Center as an artist in residence. After COVID-19 hit, she worked on the project remotely from her home in Denmark. Carolyne said that when she and her husband first met Hasager, they all hit it off — like it was a bond that was meant to happen.
“We ended up sharing similar ideas and feelings, and the way of getting people to recognize culture and history,” Carolyne said. “It’s an uncanny kind of relationship whereby we all think along the same lines. Even though she’s now in another country, we still correspond and we still are great partners. We are able to think alike and get things such as this exhibition on the map and get people to really appreciate the work we are trying to do.”
The Edwards are researchers that are out in the field collecting stories, oral histories and primary source artifacts. Their primary objective started out as collecting, but as time went on, they started thinking in terms of what to do with all their material and stories. Sue Yank, deputy director at 18th Street Arts Center, said that exhibitions like this spark curiosity with their audiences.
“They kind of have more of a curiosity about where do I live? What happened here before? Who were the other people who lived here? What were the communities they formed? That’s a piece of it too,” Yank said.
Hasager explained that she has a long history of working in different areas, but what she is really interested in is a long-term commitment to people and places, which is something she feels 18th Street Arts Center represents. Their Cultural Mapping project was one of the reasons she wanted to do a residency there, a residency that was supported by the Danish Art Foundation.
“I will ask different questions because I’m not a native Santa Monican,” Hasager said. “I come with a very different perspective of being a European. I ask different questions. I was really curious about the stories and really just liked the pleasure of spending time together and thinking together. We had this wonderful conversation around different places and what it means to be in different places in different times with different people. That was definitely the starting point that came out of it.”
Springing out of those conversations was the plan to make films and to digitize some of the material to preserve it. There was also the contrast between what it means to preserve things in the U.S. and what it means in Europe. Hasager pointed out that in a Danish context, 100 years is not very old. She also said that in the U.S. there is a tendency for forgetfulness and erasing culture. It is why, she said, that the work the Edwards are doing is the foundation to the exhibition and hers is more of a support structure.
“I’m trying to facilitate and put into form and raise a different discussion because art can do that,” Hasager said. “Art can ask different generations to engage with content they wouldn’t have accessed. Maybe they wouldn’t enter a historic museum, but this more playful engagement is a platform that can help raise awareness about a place and a history.”
Carolyne pointed out that the history is escaping every day, which is why she and her husband are committed to getting it down on paper before it is totally lost.
“Every time a person passes on, they take a lot of history with them,” Carolyne said. “We were very fortunate because my family and Bill’s family in Texas were collectors. We happened to have a large archive to begin with. We’ve been adding to it every day. A lot of these materials spark your interest and curiosity, and you want to start digging into it and finding out more and more. There is more to history than just buildings and architecture. There are stories and feelings that people have sacrificed and done without, cooperated with each other. There are all these intricate pieces to the puzzle that make a wonderful community which we discovered in Broadway. It’s a magnificent story. We just encourage people to come out and find out everything there is to know about it.”
While Carolyne is native to Santa Monica, Bill arrived in 1956 knowing only that Santa Monica existed, but nothing about its history. It wasn’t until 1964 that he started asking questions about why there were so many different nationalities and especially Blacks in certain areas of Santa Monica.
“Old Route 66 was instrumental in bringing a lot of Picos from Arkansas, Texas and Louisiana,” Bill said. “They wanted to come to the Pacific Ocean and they said, ‘Hey, I like the weather. It was cool here. I’m going to stay, I’m not going back.’ I tell the younger generation if you listen you might learn something. I’m still learning something about Santa Monica.”
It is that sort of curiosity that drew Hasager to the Edwards and got her really thinking about migratory strands — how people moved and how they were displaced. It was especially disconcerting to her because she comes from a welfare society with free education and free health care and the inequity in a wealthy city like Santa Monica really struck her. She said if you are born in a particular place in Santa Monica, it can be very difficult to raise out of a particular class.
“That is a continued interest in all my projects no matter where I am,” Hasager said. “This sort of invisibility and displacement and then the lack of narration about narratives. You need to find them in mutual respect and relationship where you want to engage. I expect us to be in this conversation ten years from now, really engaging in the long run. Usually, you see artists do something and then move on. This is not my kind of practice.”
Hasager said she hopes the two short films displayed in the exhibition will be the starting point for a longer, feature film. She is hoping to re-enter the U.S. when the entry ban lifts and be able to continue the work.
Until then, visitors can come to 18th Street Arts Center and see the beginnings of the project and learn about the people and places of Santa Monica that are often hidden and unseen..”
Three Structures Touching Maj Hasager, 18th Street Arts Center, Quinn Research Center and the Danish Arts Foundation
18th Street Arts Center, Airport Campus, 3026 Airport Ave., Santa Monica
Now until October 2, Monday – Friday 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., Saturday 12 to 5 p.m.