California artist shares how the civil rights era still influences his work today

Angel Idowu
·4 min read

In the first episode of Eric’s Perspective podcast, Michael Massenburg tells host Eric Hanks how the 1965 Watts Rebellion. and the Rodney King protests shaped his lens as an artist

In the first episode of Eric’s Perspective, a podcast dedicated to exploring African American art, Eric Hanks talks with public artist Michael Massenburg about his upbringing and how it relates to the trajectory of his career. 

Massenburg, who grew up in California, immediately jumps into the social unrest he witnessed as a child, starting with the 1965 Watts Rebellion. He goes on to later recount the killing of “King of Soul” singer Sam Cooke at Hacienda Motel in 1964, and then 15-year-old Latasha Harlins in 1991.

California artist Michael Massenburg on the Eric’s Perspective podcast. (Photo: YouTube)
California artist Michael Massenburg on the Eric’s Perspective podcast. (Photo: YouTube)

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Harlins was killed at the market located directly next to the Hacienda Motel. Massenburg says it was very eye-opening for him, realizing these two very historical moments happened on the same block. The verdict for Rodney King came out just a month after Harlins was killed, and Massenburg says it was then that he witnessed the city turn into a war zone.

He witnessed fires, businesses burning to the ground, and police using battering rams to force entry into homes. He recalls police funding being at an all-time high, a response to the war on drugs, or, “the war on Black and Brown people,” as he calls it.

These are just some of the many encounters he witnessed growing up that are later reflected in his work.

In 1992, parts of Los Angeles erupted with anger after four white police officers who were filmed beating motorist Rodney King with batons were acquitted of assault. (Photo: PBS NewsHour/YouTube)
In 1992, parts of Los Angeles erupted with anger after four white police officers who were filmed beating motorist Rodney King with batons were acquitted of assault. (Photo: PBS NewsHour/YouTube)

When asked about when his love for art began, Massenburg says he didn’t even really understand what it meant as a child. He just knew it was a way to express himself. He spent a lot of his childhood watching hockey and car races, and would draw pictures of the four-wheel action.

But it wasn’t until a high school counselor asked what his post-graduate plans were that he actually began to pursue art. He ended up studying at California State University Long Beach, where for the first time, his laziness was challenged.

But this new discovery was put on pause when Massenburg left school to start a DJ and sportswear business with his father. It was while pursuing entrepreneurship that he saw a book by Samella Lewis, renowned Black printmaker and painter, that exposed him to Black artists he was unfamiliar with.

This discovery encouraged him to take a painting class at the Watts Tower Arts Center, a place that would later spark his rebirth as an artist.

When driving shuttles at LAX nearly 8 years later, Massenburg was doodling on break and realized he still had it. That’s when he decided to pursue art again. He attended Otis College of Art and Design, where he fell in love with oil painting.

When racial tensions with the administration forced him to leave, he ended up at Watts Tower Arts Center. There, he ran into artist John Outterbridge and it took off from there. “That became my university,” Massenburg said. 

Today, Michael Massenburg works as an art educator and also creates public art, because for him it’s important art be accessible. This has taken him everywhere from Englewood, to Columbia, to the M. Hanks Gallery in California. He says his work has been rooted in him sharing his experiences, his childhood and the impact of the Civil Rights Era; reflective through collages, drawing and paintings.

While his work will always be about community, Massenburg says he’s now exploring that on a global perspective as it relates to the African Diaspora. For Micahel Massenburg it’s imperative that art empower communities, locally and globally. 

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