Growing up on the east side of South Central Los Angeles, Lauren Halsey made worlds appear on her bedroom walls. She rendered her life as she saw it and as she imagined it, knowing both visions were true. For inspiration, she scavenged through the pages of magazines: her grandmother’s trove of National Geographics and her own prized collection of issues of Vibe, the magazine of Black music and culture co-founded by Quincy Jones in 1993.
Halsey’s eyes were drawn then, as they are today, to images of everyday Black people at work and at play. In her collages, sculptural objects and installations, she commingles the ephemera of her neighborhood with the mythic and the fantastic: artifacts from Egyptian antiquity, the funk aesthetic of George Clinton and Parliament-Funkadelic, the iconography of the South Los Angeles rap legend Nipsey Hussle. In doing so, Halsey makes work that achieves what Cornel West once claimed to be true of the best of Black art: It authorizes a Black future in the present by drawing on the richness of the past.
Art, as Halsey practices it, is a product of the archive. She collects, preserves and indexes the world around her, forging new symbols from the overlooked and discarded elements of her environment. Rather than seeking diversity in the world at large, she pursues the full range of human life in a single geography: the neighborhoods of her ancestral home. South Central is a misunderstood territory — one often demonized in the public imagination as a haven of drugs, gangs and violence and glamorized by rappers for the very same things. In both cases, it remains unseen for what it really is: a place of complexity and contingency, of beauty and ugliness.
Halsey, 35, adorns much bigger walls today than she did as a child. In 2016, she made a float for the Kingdom Day Parade in Los Angeles. In 2018, she had a breakout show at the city’s Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA). This spring, she inaugurated David Kordansky Gallery in New York with a solo exhibition of new work. Earlier this year, the Metropolitan Museum of Art commissioned her to create a site-specific installation for the museum’s Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Roof Garden. Titled “The Eastside of South Central Los Angeles Hieroglyph Prototype Architecture (I),” it’s scheduled to be unveiled in spring 2023. The name is fitting given that Halsey understands her art as existing in a symbiotic relationship with her community. Whatever her successes, she directs them back into the neighborhood — through her work and, since the pandemic began, through an $80,000-a-month food program run through her community center, Summaeverythang. “The goal for me is to create this living archive of the day to day while proposing new visions, [gathering] new records for what this place is, was and will be,” Halsey says. “That’s a lifetime’s work.”
Halsey stepped away from that work one spring morning, finding refuge from the controlled chaos of her studio in the front seat of her car, to answer T’s Artist’s Questionnaire.
What’s the first piece of art you ever made?
In elementary school, during book fairs, I would always get a subscription to Vibe. And my parents supported that. They allowed me — just within my bedroom — to do whatever I wanted to, curatorially and creatively. My mother was a schoolteacher, so she had all sorts of arts and crafts materials: all the glue in the world, all the scissors, all the tape, all the glitter. So I was painting on the walls, I was collaging. I would cut out [pictures] and build these environments, just reorganizing space. In retrospect, those were my first exercises in Black space making. It stayed there until maybe four years ago when I took it all down.
What kinds of images were you cutting out of the magazines?
Black folk. Mostly ads at the time. Black people doing all sorts of things: smoking a cigarette, driving a car, jumping in the air. Black folk and their bodies, whether they’re on the beach, in a neighborhood or at school. Maybe in the mountains — just … elsewhere. Black people elsewhere. I’d also be riffing off of my grandmother’s National Geographic stash, building this emerging geography and only realizing much later that I was building these fantastical proposals.
What’s the first work you ever sold? For how much?
I remember the first work I tried to sell. I went to community college for five years at El Camino in Torrance, Calif. I was taking architecture there, but I was also taking printmaking. Supplies are super expensive. So I thought I would either go to Venice Beach to sling posters or get on Ticketmaster to figure out who was performing at the Staples Center and make concert ephemera, starting off with posters. I remember Britney Spears was performing, and I made what I thought were these really cool, trippy Technicolor Britney Spears concert posters. I spent all my money on ink and paper. And I couldn’t sell one.
When you start a new piece, where do you begin — what’s the first step?
It depends on the topology. If it’s a structure, I have to begin collaboratively with folks who are in the know about building a structure: engineers, builders. But if it’s something more aesthetic, I start with collecting. I’ll start the day with the conceit of collecting in the neighborhood. I start the day at 6 a.m. If there’s certain things that I want to get that would be difficult to get in broad daylight, I might start the day at 5 a.m. on a route with my friends I grew up with who know the neighborhood, and who work at my studio, so they understand why I’m getting this sign and why we’re archiving. We’ll just go get things. I’m constantly documenting on my phone intersections that I need to return to. Sometimes it works out, sometimes it doesn’t because something was painted over or something was removed; the surface of the block is constantly evolving. Once I feel like I have enough to establish anchor points in a composition, then I’ll riff from there. It’s a long-winded freestyle that, depending on my time, can take three months or a weekend.
How do you know when you’re done?
When the trucks show up. Literally, it’s like, “They’re here!” And that’s when I’m like, “OK, things have to be set in place.” But even works that I’ve “completed,” I’m still completing them in my head. It’s all ongoing. It’s the same sentence.
What music do you play when you’re making art?
It depends. If I’m alone, P-Funk, Ms. Lauryn Hill, the Delfonics. My favorite bands. The Fugees. The Stylistics. If I’m not alone, I’ll play something like Fela Kuti or Bob Marley or Nas. But I get really, really specific, playing the B-side of the B-side when it’s just me, or just me and my partner. I can nerd out.
What’s the weirdest object in your studio?
Weird but cool: these silicone hands. Black silicone hands. They’re just really creepy. They jiggle almost like Jell-O. When they’re placed [in compositions], they’re totally chill: Black hands sculpting a pyramid or something. But in the studio right now I have a row of, like, nine hands just sitting, all realistic. It’s kinda like “Saw” vibes.
What are you reading?
“Central Avenue Sounds” [the 1999 oral history collection chronicling the musical and social history of Los Angeles’s Black community, from the 1920s through the 1950s]. My grandmother and her siblings spent deep, deep time on Central Avenue in the late ’30s and ’40s. And, oddly enough — and so beautiful — they’re in some of these really dense archives at the Getty, just merrymaking, hanging out with their homegirls and Duke Ellington. My grandmother is no longer here, so I want to better understand what her social world was like: a South Central Black woman going to the clubs and hanging out in this free-spirited way.
How many assistants do you have?
It depends on the project. When we were doing the MOCA show, I had 20-some people in my grandma’s backyard. Or when I did a float for the Kingdom Day Parade, it started off as just me but, by day three, it was the whole block. For the Met rooftop, just because of the effort, it was like 30 people. Imagine the way a design studio or an architectural firm or a construction firm would function: There were these departments getting the various production efforts done simultaneously so it can all come together to build this single form. My traditional studio is about 10 people.
I wouldn’t call anyone here an assistant, though. I would call them collaborators, in some sense. I would call them co-authors. I would call them fabricators. I don’t achieve the scale that I achieve alone. I don’t drive the forklift. I don’t run the CNC machine. I’m not the person that drives to San Diego at 6 a.m. to go pick up cement and fiberglass. Most of these people have their own practices, their own careers and aspirations — from rap to hustle to art to all sorts of things. And I can’t wait to one day have the resources to reciprocate the effort that they’ve put into my practice into their thing. I’m figuring that out now, how to make the studio a communal making space. It’ll be a 24-hour open access studio.
Why is community so important to your work?
Growing up in a Black church was my first experience with being part of a community outside of the home. I watched that community collectivize to get things done. My favorite band, Parliament-Funkadelic, at some point had 70 people in it. It’s a collective. It would be very out of context and weird for me to be so obsessed with the day-to-day happenings in a community and isolate myself within those efforts. I can’t just make work about South Central and not return something to South Central. It has to be recirculated, redistributed for it to truly affect tangible change. This is for me; I don’t have that standard for anybody but myself. Though it would just feel a lot less interesting if I wasn’t involved in something on the ground. I love the hood. I love being here. We’re here. There’s work to be done. And I’m excited and energized to do it with other folks who also have those goals.
Since 2006, I’ve been trying to build an architecture. And it’s been incredibly difficult. I’m not a trained architect, and my studio isn’t filled with architects. So to have these projects be this free-standing, autonomous neighborhood monument that’s a modular architecture that then travels back to Los Angeles after being contextualized by some of the works I was sampling and remixing in the [Met’s] ancient Egyptian wing is the most amazing thing ever. So using the platform to build the superstructure and then return it to the neighborhood on my own terms is a huge step for me. We’re not there yet, but we’re almost there. And I can’t wait to share it, to return this archive to the neighborhood for the first time ever without the umbrella of an institution or anything. It’s just, like, neighborhood-produced, FUBU architecture-produced, dedicated to and for South Central to just put it on Western Ave. and see what happens. And it’ll be activated by some of the programming that I have in mind, that others have in mind also. Just chill and we’ll see how it exists on the block.