Toward the end of his career, Muhammad Ali took a home in L.A.'s own Hancock Park, where he lived from 1979-1986. During that period, he had lost his belt and was maturing into middle age, retired and only fighting exhibition rounds. As Parkinson's disease began to attack his nervous system, he took the fight outside the ring, giving voice to the voiceless, particularly communities of color at home and abroad.
In conjunction with the new four-part documentary series on the legendary fighter, "Muhammad Ali," by filmmakers Ken Burns, Sarah Burns and David McMahon, Transformative Arts presents "ALI to LA" at their 410 S. Spring Street gallery through Oct. 2.
Curator jill moniz and her seven handpicked artists provide an incisive look at the fighter at a turning point in his career, as well as his legacy outside the ring. A year after arriving in L.A., the Champ was recruited in a failed effort by President Jimmy Carter to persuade a number of African governments to join the U.S.-led boycott of the Moscow Olympics. In the early 1980s, Ali paid a visit to California Men's Colony and spoke with a large group of inmates. In 1985, he visited Israel to plead on behalf of Muslim prisoners at the Atlit detainee camp whom Israeli officials refused to release.
"When Ali got to L.A. he started to establish himself as a humanitarian in the world, and as someone who was committed to Black and Brown communities locally and worldwide. I chose artists that reflected that legacy," says moniz about curating the show. "I asked them to think about Ali in all of his complexity and respond to those ideas and those identities in that human being. That's why I chose these particular artists."
Sparked by images, words and deeds of boxing's most indelible personality are the works of artists Edgar Arceneaux, Kendell Carter, Veronica De Jesus, Manuel Lopez, Mariángeles Soto-Díaz and April Banks as well as Transformative Arts' artist in residence in Portugal, sound artist Kuamen.
In addition to teaching at Hampshire College in Western Massachusetts, Soto-Díaz has directed arts programs and organizations for under-served youth throughout Massachusetts and California. Her angle on Ali came mainly from a well-reported story of Jan. 19, 1981, about a man claiming to be a Vietnam vet who threatened to throw himself from a window nine floors above Miracle Mile. A friend called Ali who lived about four minutes away. In response, Ali hopped into his Rolls Royce and showed up at the scene, leaning out a neighboring window and shouting: "You're my brother! I love you, and I couldn't lie to you."
"There is power there. What the police and people who have been trained to do, couldn't do, he could. So that was really powerful to think about," notes Soto-Díaz. "We all know he was a gifted fighter. But something that has been underrepresented is his rhetorical power."
Her contribution to the show includes collages using the fighter's image along with posters and media surrounding some of his bouts, as well as stenciled Ali quotes such as, "It takes a lot of nerve for somebody. Mainly a white. To ask me do I hate… I don't have no time to hate." The artist juxtaposes it with a quote by her judo sensei reading, "How does anger benefit you or anyone else? Anger produces a depletion of mental energy."
"One thing that struck me about that story was how in another account bystanders were chanting 'jump, jump, jump!" recalls Soto-Díaz. "Think about that. Think about the kind of hateful message emanating from below. And here comes Ali and he's presenting him with this love message," she recalls about the incident. "That tension between love and hate and his rhetorical power, it's a moving story."
Kendell Carter's installations often bring street sensibility to architectural and design spaces that seem to represent an opposite aesthetic. For "ALI to LA", like Soto-Díaz, he found himself moved in an unexpected way, zeroing in on the fighter's relationship with daughter Laila Ali.
"His humanity was essentially the thing that I was primarily drawn to cause he's always talked about as an icon, a larger than life figure," says Carter, whose unique plaster print process features a combination of text saying 'what's my name?' with an image of Ali embracing Laila after one of her victorious title bouts. "I was interested in him as a parent and what it meant to stand in those big shoes and still have that delicate touch to be a father to children, particularly his daughter Laila."
Born in 1970, Carter was only a child when Ali was reaching the end of his boxing career. He began to understand the fighter's significance by his media profile, especially when he carried the Olympic torch in Atlanta in 1996.
"His legacy is what endured for me," notes Carter, summing it up in plain talk. "Speak your truth. Be authentic. Ultimately that's what my piece is about. He says, 'what's my name?' This idea of carrying on a family legacy on your own terms, that was the biggest thing for me."
Carter's work will involve community participation that is central to the mission of Transformative Arts. "ALI to LA" pulls artists known for their community engagement from throughout the city, from neighborhoods that look like those Ali was addressing. It's one of the reasons some of his words resonate as clearly today as they did when he first spoke them.
"He realized he had to fight the west, literally, and go all the way to the Supreme Court to be recognized as an individual with his own ideas and his own beliefs and identity," says moniz, referring to Clay vs. United States, which decided the fighter could be a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War on the basis of his conversion to Islam. "He used that identity for the greater good, for change for people of color in this world."