“I wanted the wall to scream.”
Noni Olabisi, a visual artist whose provocative murals such as “To Protect and Serve,” with its powerful portrait of the Black Panthers, galvanized communities in South Los Angeles, has died. She was 67.
The cause of her death last month at her home in South Los Angeles is unknown, but the artistic community was shocked — especially as Olabisi had just completed one of the few urban artist residencies in South Los Angeles with Arts at Blue Roof. Lisa Diane Wedgeworth, executive director at Blue Roof Studios, had the difficult task of breaking the news to the network of artists, peers and collaborators who had just seen Olabisi’s most recent works.
The Room of One’s Own artist-in-residency program was created for female artists who live and work in L.A. City Council District 9. For Olabisi, who had an associate arts degree from Los Angeles Southwest College, the residency was a gift — albeit an anxiety-producing one, Wedgeworth said.
“Noni told me she didn’t know what was expected from her, because she had never been in a space like this before,” Wedgeworth added. “For her, it took a while to fully connect to the space, and when she did, she embraced the unfamiliar. She had told one of the curators we work with here that she was hopeful and ready to let the little girl within [her] free to play.”
Olabisi was renowned for her powerful style of expressive figurations of Blackness. Murals such as 1992’s “Freedom Won’t Wait” (on the wall of Good Fred’s barbershop at 1815 W. 54th St., where Olabisi cut hair part-time) features close-ups of Black figures, their faces wincing in pain. They were Olabisi’s service to a community desperate to be heard after the 1992 unrest that tore through their very neighborhoods.
In the mid-1990s, Olabisi’s most noted mural became a point of contention among power brokers and collective stakeholders in Los Angeles. “To Protect and Serve” was one of the first murals to address the history of police brutality; it showed a bound and gagged Bobby Seale, co-founder of the Black Panther Party and a defendant in the 1969 Chicago Eight trial (later the Chicago Seven trial after Seale’s case was severed from that of the other defendants), under the hardened stare of presiding Judge Julius Hoffman, flanked by white robed Klansmen. It is also an homage to Black radical organizing embodied by Huey Newton, Angela Davis and other members of the Black Panthers.
The title, which is also the official motto of the LAPD and its police academy, made then-Councilman Nate Holden nervous that the mural itself would incite violence. It was eventually funded solely by public donations and by the Social and Public Art Resource Center, because “the city’s stipulations on the mural were dangerously close to censorship,” according to SPARC’s website.
For Debra J.T. Padilla, the then-executive director of SPARC who commissioned many of Olabisi’s murals, the artist held a “special place in [her] heart.” Padilla wrote on Instagram that Olabisi “taught [her] so much about standing by your convictions and truth. When we fought to make sure she could paint her ‘To Protect and Serve’ mural it was a triumphant moment for all of us who believed in the power of art to transform and make real our stories.”
Olabisi was born in St. Louis in 1954 but left shortly after her mother died when she was 4. Her father took Olabisi, her sister and brother to Arkansas, where they lived for five years before relocating to Los Angeles, along with a woman Olabisi’s father had married who had five children of her own.
In a series of interviews with Isabel Rojas-Williams, a curator and former executive director of the Mural Conservancy of Los Angeles, Olabisi said she was first encouraged to make art while attending Horace Mann Junior High School, on South Saint Andrews Place. There, one of her teachers said: “‘Here, you take this big sheet of paper,’ and they would give everybody else the little sheet of paper,” Olabisi recalled. “They said, ‘You do what you want to do.’”
Olabisi’s first break happened serendipitously, when an actress friend suggested she fill out a questionnaire for emerging muralists. Olabisi, who hadn’t yet had a gallery showing of her own, resisted at first but later relented. She filled it out only to hear that she had been awarded a commission with SPARC. From there, Olabisi heard the clarion call that would come to define her artistic career.
Ron Finley, South Central’s self-proclaimed gangsta gardener, met Olabisi in 2000 and was taken with her vision for the communities they lived and worked in. Their friendship grew in the early aughts as Olabisi painted her largest-scale mural to date, with muralist Charles Freeman assisting, called “Troubled Island,” on the façade of the William Grant Still Art Center in the West Adams District. It narrates the story of a 1791 slave rebellion in Haiti that inspired Still’s opera of the same name.
“I lived across West Adams when I first met Noni. She painted that mural, which for me is on the same plane as the ‘Lifting the Veil of Ignorance’ statue at Tuskegee University,” Finley said.
Visual artist June Edmonds, 62, said she met important Black artists, including Willie Middlebrook, Richard Wyatt Jr. and Sandra Rowe when she started working on commissions from the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority three decades ago. For Edmonds, these artists were leaders. But in her estimation, Olabisi was the greatest muralist Los Angeles has ever had. “She was punching through the glass wall for decades,” she said.
Edmonds’ voice broke as she recalled Olabisi’s generosity. Edmonds said that while she and Olabisi weren’t close friends, Olabisi had come to her last four art openings. She knew the sacrifice Olabisi made when traveling to see her new work.
“Noni didn’t drive.”
Edmonds admired Olabisi’s maverick ways. Shortly after Olabisi completed “Troubled Island,” Edmonds taught a class on muralism for a summer youth program in Sun Valley. Edmonds recalled that the director of the program had secured a shuttle van and asked Edmonds where she wanted to take the students. Edmonds drove her students to the William Grant Still Art Center, where Olabisi received them warmly.
L.A. artist Dominique Moody was one of Olabisi’s numerous collaborators over the years. She remembered Olabisi by her most recent artistic output from the Room of One’s Own residency. Moody recalled that Olabisi spoke of transitioning from walls to canvas, shifting into the intimate where she could focus on her pain, her story. “Her mural work is very dynamic and powerful,” Moody said. “In Olabisi’s new body of work, her figures are ethereal, almost indiscernible. It’s as if she captured spirit.”
Olabisi is survived by her son, Orondé Spears, and her grandson, Jabari Spears. A public memorial is scheduled for April.