Noni Olabisi was a muralist whose expressive portraits of Black people painted on city walls galvanized communities in South Los Angeles.
After Olabisi’s mother died when she was four years old, she had a difficult and abusive childhood. What saved her and gave her strength was her ability to make art. She first encountered making art while attending junior high school in Los Angeles. Her teachers, recognizing her talent, gave her big sheets of paper and told her, “You do what you want to do.”
In 1976, she received an associate arts degree from Los Angeles Southwest College. In 1992, she was awarded a commission with SPARC’s (Social and Public Art Resource Center) Neighborhood Pride Mural Program. Because of this, mural painting would come to define her calling as an artist. She had just completed an artist-in-residency program in South Los Angeles with Arts at Blue Roof before she died.
Olabisi’s 1992 “Freedom Won’t Wait,” commissioned through SPARC, was a response to the arrest and beating of Rodney King by the police. This mural connected the past history of lynching to the recent history of police brutality in Black communities.
Her 1993 SPARC’s mural “To Protect and Serve” detailed “the history of police brutality and the KKK in Los Angles that led to the formation of the Black Panther Party for Self Defense.” This mural referenced the work of the Black Panthers against injustice against African Americans and listed various community outreach programs they instituted. Her mural depicted 1960s civil rights activists Huey Newton and Angela Davis during the Chicago 7 trial and also Bobby Seale, the co-founder of the Black Panther Party and defendant in the 1969 Chicago Eight trial. Seale was ordered by the judge to be bound and gagged during his trial. The mural received political backlash from elected officials and the police.
Her largest mural was done with muralist Charles Freeman assisting. It was called “Troubled Island” and took its name from the 1949 opera composed by African American composer William Grant Still. Olabisi painted it on the facade of the William Grant Still Art Center in L.A.’s West Adams District. The mural tells the story of the 1791 slave rebellion in Haiti led by Jean-Jacques Dessalines.
Her work had been exhibited at the National Hispanic Cultural Center Art Museum. She has received various fellowships and awards, one of which was a Certificate of Appreciation for The Restoration of Chicano Heritage, a mural done years ago by artist Judithe Hernandez. She also won the coveted California Community Foundation Visual Artist Fellowship.