Why the Library Is Important to Me
A Conversation with LACE Curator Daniela Lieja
We recently had a conversation with Daniela Lieja, a curator at Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions (LACE). She talked with us about an exhibit she worked on with support from the Library, El Teatro Campesino; why she values the Library; and reflected on where we are today and the role of artists. Read the conversation here:
Right now, we are under attack. There’s a project of erasing memory, of displacing people.
This is the moment we need to defend our histories and reclaim our spaces. And to have an archive like the Library is so important because it’s where we can analyze, reflect, and act.
I am interested in exploring projects that bring art into spaces where there’s traditionally little access. In Mexico, I was working with artists and projects in public spaces and engaging with the experiences of communities directly.
Continuing this work in L.A., I co-produced an exhibit on El Teatro Campesino, focusing on the period around 1965. El Teatro was used to connect with farm workers and create spaces of amusement, rest, and voicing concerns. They were concerned with issues of exploitation, ecological problems, fertilization, and other risks they faced. The theater was a platform to learn, to exchange ideas, and also to empower themselves to create a whole social movement.
The original actors were farm workers. They were talking about their own experiences, and identifying and acting out the characters in their context. Sometimes as a farmer, sometimes as a patroncito. All this was helpful in understanding what they were going through and what they could do to stop these injustices. At the same time, it was to have fun, to make fun of the bosses and demystify the powers that dictated what was happening in the fields.
The format of the acto was very short, and that was important because resources were limited. They were using the beds of trucks as their stage. They put cardboard signs around their necks to identify characters. It was a challenge because they didn’t have many props.
During our planning, one of the things that was important to us was the collaborations that El Teatro Campesino had with other social movements. Often overlooked is the Teatro’s involvement with Filipino farmworkers and the Black Panther Party.
I knew there was a cover of the Black Panther newspaper supporting the lettuce boycott, and that Emory Douglas designed it. So, when I had the opportunity to meet him in Oakland, I talked with Emory about it and he said, “oh yeah, we did the cover in support.” I told him we wanted that newspaper in the exhibition to show these connections. And he mentioned the Southern California Library. “Oh, you are located in L.A. You should visit the Library; it’s a really awesome place, and I’m pretty sure they have the newspaper.”
So that’s how we came to know about the Library. At the same time, we were still researching, and visited a university archive outside of L.A. We have limited resources, so we prepared for the long drive and planned to stay the whole day to see as much of the archive as we could, and select what we needed for the exhibit.
We found out that it would be impossible to use the items from the university’s special collections because of the costs. Every item has a specific price we have to pay for use in our exhibit. For a non-profit like us, not making money from this exhibition, the cost remained prohibitive.
University archives have many layers to get through to gain access to these histories. Our histories. El Teatro Campesino is a work that grew in the fields. And now it’s behind walls in these other spaces. We were in a very bad situation because we didn’t have much that we could show in the exhibit.
Then we visited the Southern California Library. We came expecting just to find the Black Panther newspaper cover, and you immediately had at least two or three other boxes to show us about El Teatro Campesino. Plus, all the UFW collection of buttons. Then all these original posters from the Chicano movement, but also the UFW movement, including the flags; the newspaper El Macriado in English and Spanish. We were just so fascinated.
Also, the materials that you have are very unique and the idea of access and sharing the knowledge is totally different. The Library provided us a lot of material to show in the exhibition. The university is an institution that is supposed to provide knowledge, but that wasn’t a reality for us. Your archive is very important for that reason. I think the idea of access, sharing knowledge, and having exchanges and dialogues makes the archive a living archive.
Part of access is not just a curator like me going there and getting all the materials, but also your interest in exhibitions like El Teatro Campesino and sharing knowledge with different audiences. I also value that you are in a very specific neighborhood that has a lot of history and memory. Your interest in giving life to that memory and taking care of it is very important. I think it’s a powerful space for everyone who is interested, and for everyone who belongs to that history.
It’s not a regular library, where you just go and consult and your eyes are buried, just reading a book or going through archives. It’s not just about me doing research and taking, and then that’s it. You are also sharing knowledge and provoking a dialogue with us that’s valuable in realizing things we may not see, and it’s a very nice exchange. Also, I believe that in Los Angeles, even if it’s a very spread-out city, it’s important to work together. And I have found in the Southern California Library a place to work together.