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Arts + CultureArtLocal artists remix Diego Rivera's 'Pan American Unity' mural...

Local artists remix Diego Rivera’s ‘Pan American Unity’ mural at SFMOMA

In Mini Mural Festival, three diverse arts orgs bring cultural visions, music, and more to celebrate epic work

What happens when artworks from the past are refracted through contemporary artists, to create a vivid future of bold possibilities? That’s what San Francisco Museum of Modern Art has been exploring this summer, with its latest series, the Pan American Unity Mini Mural Festival (through August 29).

“In 1940, more than 65 artists made their creative processes public when they participated in Art in Action, an exhibition of live art making [in San Francisco]”, states the SFMOMA’s website. “Among these artists was Diego Rivera, who during this time painted the mural Pan American Unity.” 

Rivera’s piece, officially titled, “The Marriage of the Artistic Expression of the North and of the South on This Continent” would be his final mural in the United States, and was originally commissioned as part of the Golden Gate International Exposition on Treasure Island.

Diego Rivera, ‘The Marriage of the Artistic Expression of the North and of the South on This Continent,’ also known as ‘Pan American Unity,’ 1940; courtesy City College of San Francisco, displayed at SFMOMA.

Fast-forward to the summer of 2021: This Rivera mural is now on display inside the SFMOMA’s Roberts Family Gallery free admission space through September. And local artists and cultural organizations have been invited to create their own works in response.

The towering mural, which was originally painted in front of a live audience, “depicts in colorful detail a past, present, and future that the artist believed were shared across North America, calling for cultural solidarity and exchange during a time of global conflict.” Taking up the entirety of the high-ceilinged gallery, it’s an ode to American cultures on both sides of the equator, with the Bay Area as a backdrop. 

Like many of Rivera’s murals, it celebrates creativity, community, and working-class solidarity, while inviting criticism of modern technologies and societal inequalities. It’s a theme many contemporary San Franciscans should be familiar with, as they find themselves at the crossroads of clashing cultures, disparate lifestyles, technological advancements, and financial challenges.

Taking inspiration from this history, the SFMOMA’s has commissioned three local organizations—NIAD, Acción Latina, and SOMA Pilipinas—over three weekends to curate artists painting live murals in the Howard Street entrance corridor. The series includes two muralists from each partner organization painting 8×8 murals in front of an audience, each responding to the theme of “cross-cultural solidarity.” The small murals are all temporarily displayed at the museum, then returned to the partner organizations at the festival’s end. Music, dancing, and other activities complement the live-painting experience.

“The Mini Mural Festival is about celebrating our vibrant Bay Area communities, lifting up the powerful work that living artists do and making space for a multitude of voices in the museum,” says Stella Lochman, SFMOMA’s Manager of Public Engagement. “Plus the weekend celebrations are fun! The vibe is good and the love that these artists and organizations have put in to planning the festivities radiates out of our building and into the streets.”

Though the series has been running throughout the summer and has already featured four painters, it will culminate Sat/28 and Sun/29 with SOMA Pilipinas—San Francisco’s Filipino Culture Heritage and District—taking its turn to present its own set of paintings, music, and cultural dances.

Led by artists Franceska Gamez and Malaya Tuyay, the group will display their Filipino roots, while also taking cues from Rivera’s iconic muralism, culminating in a weekend of modern art history. Make sure to stop by for what will be a memorable closing for the festival, which kicked off July 31 with community partner Acción Latina.

I attended that opening installment—a Latinx-themed event—which featured two of the Bay Area’s pre-eminent muralists, DJ Agana and Josue Rojas.

DJ Agana and Josue Rojas pose before their Acción Latina murals. Photo by Beth LaBerge

Originally a pupil of Rojas at the Eastside Arts Alliance in East Oakland, Agana was honored to be painting alongside her former teacher, and representing her culture.

“This has been one of my favorite events to be a part of, it’s dope,” Agana says. “My piece is about the pain we carry as children and the process of healing ourselves as we grow older. Our culture is a part of that growth.”

Her mural is a clear call back to Rivera’s style, which conflates the imagery of industrialization—including a realistic, molten-lead-filled cauldon—with the organic elements of earth, such as the heart and Rivera’s symbolic tulips. Another inspiration for her mural is Coatlicue, an all-powerful Aztec earth goddess with the power to create and destroy. The colors are fierce, and the sense of rebirth is palpable in a partially covered glow of a woman’s face emerging from beneath the rest of the painting.

Josue Rojas works on his mural, representing Acción Latina. Photo by Beth LaBerge

Rojas’s piece also carries clear messages of community, strength, unification, and social movements. Like Rivera, Rojas includes colorful caricatures of many people in his mini-mural, including himself painted as a portrait of the artist—a signature that Rivera himself was known for.

“That dude right there holding the sign? That’s René Yañez,” he tells me. “He was an important artist and activist in the Mission. This mural is dedicated to him and those like him with ties to our community.”

Rojas’s piece is both a wonderland of Bay Area energy as well as a historical lesson of San Francisco’s Latinx landscape: from subtle allusions to the indigenous colors and patterns of a spiritual compass, to more direct references like Loco Bloco, the Latino Task Force, and the impact of COVID on brown communities. The piece is so detailed and full of hidden Easter eggs—like looking for Waldo but in the Mission, and instead of Waldo, it’s the homies you’re searching for.

Traditional Mexican dancers celebrated the new murals. Photo by Beth LaBerge

Both artists’ works are unique, yet clear, in how they have remixed Rivera’s multidimensional styles and perspectives. Watching them put finishing touches on their works is inspiring and perplexing: How does one put their soul on a canvas while carrying on conversations and pinpointing details for revision?

San Francisco has always been an epicenter of soulful expression and communal solidarity. So it’s no wonder that SFMOMA has taken this opportunity to remind us of our history by displaying Rivera’s mural on their first floor, and having artists and musicians unite for a summery celebration. With the stroke of a paintbrush and a flick of an aerosol can, your determination and sense of community can be restored. We need to be reminded of what our home and spirit look like in these fractured times.

Pan American Unity Mini Mural Festival‘s concluding weekend, hosted by SOMA Pilipinas, is Sat/28-Sat/29 at SFMOMA. More info here.

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