ART LOOKS “My house is a museum,” Romanowski tells me over the phone. “My whole life is art.”
I haven’t been to his house, but anyone who’s encountered Romanowski’s prolific output over the past three decades knows that last statement isn’t just some cliché. From a celebrated, ongoing series of art on abandoned mattresses to installations at spots like Life and Nectar (not to mention an entire musical career), Romanowski is constantly making art. He’s become a sort of patron spirit of Lower Haight, as well as one of the city’s essential artists.
Now, a show at 111 Minna entitled “Every Now & Then: The Art and Music of Romanowski” serves as a mini-retrospective of his 30 years of production. The show captures the essence of the puckish artist, who often represents himself in Mickey Mouse ears and whose sly sense of humor extends from his uncanny way of juxtaposing found objects to the name of his record label, Trouser Trout.
“You don’t need money to make art, if you’re really an artist you can make things out of what you find for free,” Romanowski said. “I consider what I do a kind of recycling.” An expert forager and crafter, he combines scavenged materials like wood dowels, stereo speakers, window panes, and record crates—often adding his unmistakeable stenciling style—to create striking, involving works that emanate a vintage aesthetic filtered through classic jazz and hip-hop. (My favorite Romanowski piece is a skateboard overlayed with piano keys.)
For all the public places you may encounter his work though—on those mattresses, stenciled on walls, covering an entire little parking enforcement vehicle—Romanowski eschews the overall title “street artist.” As befits his Swiss origins (he moved here in 1988) he looks to Continental assemblage artists like Marcel Duchamp and Kurt Schwitters, and Russian-born American sculptor Louise Nevelson for inspiration. (He does allow that his mattress bombing and stencils are technically street art.)
Another huge influence: legendary jazz label Blue Note and its indelible album covers, designed by Reid K. Miles. Romanowski’s colorful stencil collages play with that air of sophistication, mixing silhouette-like human portraits with blocks of muted color and floating numbers or icons. That style extends to his musical output (he’s released about nine solo albums and collaborations, and was a part of the legendary Future Primitive art-music collective), full of jazzy rhythms, vintage samples, hip-hop grooves, and dub effects. He’s been collecting vinyl for 40 years, his connoisseurship coming through in selecting works for the show, which he curated.
“I live with this art, I really don’t think about, he said. “When I walk through the show, it’s like walking through a dream. I think, ‘who made all this?'” Looking through his past work to choose pieces for the show also served a therapeutic purpose: Romanowski recently lost his mother, and Nectar, the Lower Haight restaurant he had a big part in, closed last year. “It helped me with the grieving process,” he said.
The opening of the show had lots of Romanowski touches: For one, he drove his mini-vehicle into the gallery to act as a pop-up shop for selling his 7-inch records and t-shirts. It was a bit of old school pranksterism that brought back a taste of the real San Francisco. Romanowski is one of our few surviving artists in a city going through expensive changes, and it’s somehow comforting to have his life’s work on display downtown.
“In the early 2000s, it seems like art here was really big, I had projects traveling around the world,” he said. Now it has really shrunk, it seems like everyone is holding onto their one little rock, because that’s what we have to depend upon. There used to be a lot more collaboration and crossing over. I don’t see so much of that anymore.”
This magical show is a reminder of the expansive talents the city still holds, following their own vibes despite all the boring conformity.
“EVERY NOW & THEN: THE ART & MUSIC OF ROMANOWSKI” Through April 26 111 Minna, SF. More info here.
ART LOOKS If you were a hip gay American man at a certain point in history, say about 1988-1993, you were expected to be in possession of a very specific set of items.
A worn jean vest heavily plastered with protest buttons. A thrift shop bust of Nefertiti. Campy sets of salt and pepper shakers. A record collection combining Patsy Cline, Patti Smith, Prince, De La Soul, an unintentionally perverse vintage children’s gospel album, and the latest from the undergrounds of Detroit, Manchester, and Olympia, Washington. Third-generation VHS copies of the three Johns: Cassavetes, Carpenter, and Waters. A small clown painting from John Wayne Gacy. A quilted cap or clunky piece of jewelry nodding toward the Afrocentric movement. Something Bakelite.
And on your rundown, downtown apartment walls? Well those were the windows of your connoisseurial soul. Posters of Dutch typography, Swiss design, Russian Constructivism, Maoist propaganda, French Nouvelle Vague … And photographs, mostly torn from coffee-table books or foreign magazines, by Pierre et Gilles, Joel-Peter Witkin, Nan Goldin, David LaChapelle, Diane Arbus.
And the great Peter Hujar, of course—a major part of whose oeuvre is featured in an absorbing, must-see retrospective at Berkeley Art Museum & Pacific Film Archives entitled Peter Hujar: Speed of Life (through November 18).
The show has been up since June. But it’s taken me this long to write about it, I think, precisely because his work recalls such a specific time in my homosexual life—I feel woozy before the task. Hujar’s indelible portraits of famous avant-garde artists and drag queens, and his curiously gothic landscapes and animal pictures, are so fastidiously exquisite, so fussily exact, so representative of a period past (“Speed of Life” is a very odd title) that they immediately summon the ratty hauteur, the necessary obsessions, and the cold-eyed dignity that helped most gay men survive, and not survive, in the early gay lib and AIDS years.
Hujar, born in New Jersey in 1934, was active in New York at its artsy 1970s-’80s peak, and “Speed of Life” is bursting with well-known pictures that continue to dazzle in their black-and-white perfection: Susan Sontag thrown back on a blanket, caught in a turtlenecked reverie; Candy Darling gazing softly from her flower-strewn deathbed; Cookie Mueller about to quietly read you from top to bottom and back. He achieved the twin miracles of making Fran Lebowitz look ravishing and William Burroughs look sympathetic. There are instantly recognizable photos of gay liberation moments which have been copied in famous TV shows and movies, and iconic snaps of gay men cruising the notorious piers.
He loved taking photos of people sprawled on beds or chairs—it was a way of disarming his subjects as well as creating his unique spatial compositions, which focused attention along the diagonals of a raised arm, say, or an asymmetrical hairstyle. “I make uncomplicated, direct photographs of complicated, difficult subjects,” Hujar wrote. “I photograph those who push themselves to any extreme, and people who cling to the freedom to be themselves.” That might indicate we’re in Mapplethorpe territory—and some of Hujar’s more erotic work, only some of which is represented here, does approach the lurid gloss of that leather-trousered master.
But Hujar is pulled in a more Victorian direction: His portraits often combine the freakish curiosity of Arbus and the monumental candidness of his mentor Richard Avedon into something resembling momento mori portraits suitable for displaying atop a casket. They are unmistakably contemporary but they feel historic, as if burned to silver plates. (Not for nothing did Hujar make his own display prints.) That doesn’t mean there’s no life in those portraits; far from it, these are the essences of his subjects so well-distilled that there’s really no need to go on. We see nostalgia washing over the present.
That’s OK—for every portrait of Divine looking outrageous at Studio 54, there should be an equal and opposite portrait of Divine slung against a mattress, looking like she’s wistfully solving a complex algebra problem. And the effect reaches a hilarious apex in Hujar’s pictures of animals, which never fail to look like local royalty—perhaps after the estate money has been exhausted. Two grazing cows face the camera like dowager duchesses out for a stroll, while a stout horse could be Prussian baron put out to pasture. Even Hujar’s cityscapes, brimming with Manhattan’s then-abandoned warehouse spaces and fantastical graffiti, seem not so much snapshots taken on the fly as he ran through the streets with his fellow artist and partner in crime, David Wojnarowicz, but etchings of some fallen empire from long ago. You’d hardly know Keith Haring and SAMO were gleefully bombing subway tunnels nearby.
Like Hujar, Wojnarowicz was an artist totally of his time—although while Hujar was reportedly cold and exacting, Wojnarowicz burned hot with political anger. (Coincidentally Wojnarowicz’s incendiary art was the subject of a huge retrospective called “History Keeps Me Awake at Night” at NYC’s Whitney this summer.) Both were very sexually liberated and passionate, but neither seemed the life of the party—despite finding themselves at the center of one of the 20th century’s most vital party scenes. In fact, Wojnarowicz’s incredible photo of Hujar right when he died of AIDS in 1987, aged 53, was the photo most of my edgier gay friends hung on their walls. Perhaps the death of the party is a better way to describe the pair in those upside-down times, and they were more celebrated for it.
That doesn’t mean there was a lack of charm. Two of my favorite Hujars are here: Blanket in the famous chair (1983) which shows a blanket his subjects sometimes used to keep warm bunched up and perched like an expectant ghost, and Daniel Schook sucking toe (1981), capturing an innocent-looking scamp with a bowl-cut holding his own toe in his mouth. It’s both obscene and uproarious, a Hujar rarity. (There’s a bit in the show about Hujar as an example of camp, but I fail to see it.)
“Speed of Life,” which traveled here from NYC’s Morgan Library, mimics Hujar’s preferred hanging. He wanted images displayed together, but no two similar ones near each other. Thus we get varied sequences of portrait, landscape, cityscape, animal, etc. Strangely, the overall result isn’t diversity, but similarity—he went for pretty much one perfect effect over and over, and he mostly achieved it. That effect powerfully pulls you back into a overwhelming moment of history, while revealing its personalities and complexities. It never feels stale or old-fashioned. But the timelessness sometimes leaves you wishing for a little air.
PETER HUJAR: SPEED OF LIFE Through November 18 BAMPFA, Berkeley More info here.
CURATOR JOEL SMITH ON PETER HUJAR Sat/27, 1:30pm BAMPFA, Berkeley More info here.
ART LOOKS The work of 20th century surrealist Belgian painter Rene Magritte’s,with its iconic green apples and men in bowler hats, invites the viewers question reality. Perhaps his most famous work, from 1928-29, is a painting of a pipe, with the words, “This is not a pipe” over it.
This exhibit—exclusively shown at SFMOMA—focuses on Magritte’s later work. There are plenty of apples and bowler hats, yes. But there is also a vase of flowers colored with the sugary pastels of Renoir, a giraffe inside a wine glass, and a group of pigs eating themselves.
When Germany occupied Belgium in the ’40s, Magritte rethought his whole way of painting and started what was called his “sunlit surrealism” period, using the atmosphere and tones of Impressionism.
He had good reason to question surrealism, says Caitlin Haskell, who curated the show for the SFMOMA before being whisked away by the Art Institute of Chicago to be curator of International Modern Art there.
“The objectives of surrealism were basically causing confusing and disorientation,” Haskell said. “It sort of felt like the Nazis had already done that, and life was confusing and bewildering enough.”
Haskell has been thinking about this show for years. It started with a piece in SFMOMA’s collection, Personal Values, which shows outsized day to day objects—a bar of soap, a comb, a shaving brush and a match in a room with wall of cloudy sky. Haskell says this painting is an example of how Magritte using clarity to develop mystery.
The show contains nine galleries of the artist’s work, with 20 works that have never been seen in the United States. It starts with his sunlit surrealism period and his vache paintings, which use bright colors and loose brushwork similar to Fauvism and Expressionism. The exhibit also contains his “hypertrophy” paintings, where the scale of familiar objects in altered, such as in Personal Values. In The Listening Room and The Tomb of the Wresters a green apple and a red rose, respectively, fill the whole room.
Magritte’s bowler-hatted men that he is so associated with also make an appearance, standing under a sliver of moon, made out of a cloudy sky or of tree leaves. In The Son of Man, one stands with a suit and tie and hat, a green apple obscuring his face.
The Fifth Season means to immerse the viewer in Magritte’s work, and that is most evident in two rooms, The Enchanted Domain and The Dominion of Light. The first contains Magritte’s largest work, a 360-degree panorama, which he did for a circular room in the Grand Casino in Belgium, which include two apples wearing masks, a lion with a garland of flowers, and a half-person, half-fish sitting on a rock in front of a ship.
Magritte made more than a dozen variations of his Dominion of Light paintingsbetween 1949 and 1964. At first glance, they look like twilight scenes, but then you realize they are night landscapes with a sunny sky of the daytime. Since the artist died, no more then two have been exhibited together, but six of them hang in this room, so viewers can experience them as a series.
The final gallery contains gigantic floating boulders, the shape of a bird containing sky, and nests with eggs. That Magritte. He used humor. He used unsettling images. He presented alternative universes to make us think about what’s real and to wake us up a little to our surroundings and our world.
RENE MAGRITTE: THE FIFTH SEASON runs through October 28 at SFMOMA. More info here.
ART LOOKS In 1981, Ben Vereen, known for his role as Chicken George in the miniseries Roots, and for winning a Tony in Bob Fosse’s “Pippin,” performed at Ronald Reagan’s inaugural gala.
Vereen danced and sang the song “Waiting on the Robert E. Lee” in blackface, as a tribute to Bert Williams, an African American vaudeville entertainer who was forced to perform in blackface. Then, Vereen took off his makeup while looking in a mirror and singing the mournful song, “Nobody.” But despite its promise to broadcast the entire performance, the television network, ABC, only showed the first half of Vereen’s performance, cutting to Donny and Marie Osmond.
This left it looking as though Vereen had performed a sort of minstrel show for the Reagans, and led to the ruin of his reputation. One African American activist said he was “insulted, outraged and disgusted.” Actor Ossie Davis called it tragic, and actress Ruby Dee said Bert Williams was turning over in his grave.
The artist and filmmaker Edgar Arceneaux has made a multimedia video installation Until, Until, Until . . . , exploring Vereen’s performance. He also wrote and directed a live action play of the performance, which showed at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts at the end of February. The installation is on view at the YBCA through March 25, along with another piece by Arceneaux, a sculptural labyrinth, The Library of Black Lies, which holds a collection of crystallized book presenting variants on African American history.
On Friday, March 16, Arceneaux will be at the YBCA with his friend and collaborator, art historian Julian Myers-Szupinska. Along with talking about Arceneaux’s two works at YBCA, they will discuss history and art and using archival images.
Arceneaux says they’ll start off by talking about an image in the middle of The Library of Black Lies of comedian Bill Cosby, accused of drugging and raping multiple women. Arceneaux says the library is a way of examining the stories we tell ourselves.
“We like our history to be progressive and triumphant, from slavery to Martin Luther King to Oprah,” he said. “But the way we learn is through a series of mistakes and meanderings, and the labyrinth is reminiscent of that experience. Mazes are designed to get lost in, and labyrinths are to find yourself in. In the middle of this one, you’re looking at Bill Cosby, and we’ll be having a conversation about that and how the image is composed and riff on that.”
The two will also discuss Until, Until, Until . . . , Arceneaux says. When he first learned about Vereen’s performance at the inauguration on a PBS show about 20 years ago, it made a big impact on him.
“I just remember the emotion of it,” he said. “Seeing him do that in this sea of Republicans – it was so crazy. I had a hard time comprehending how it happened.”
Arceneaux says he wasn’t planning on making art about the performance, but then he met Vereen at a birthday party and talked to him about it, and the singer invited him over and showed him the video of the performance. This made a big impact on him, and is included in the play of Until, Until, Until . . . with Arceneaux playing himself.
Arceneaux is known for his work exploring race and memory and the connections between history and the present. The artist says he considers himself as a conceptualist, taking things apart and putting them back together. He thinks of Until, Until, Until . . .as a sort of loop, he says, and he remembers when Vereen invited him over to his house to watch the inaugural performance.
“It was a powerful experience being in that moment, sitting in his living room watching him watch himself portray a man 100 years in the past,” Arceneaux says. “It was a sort of out of body experience, and in that moment, I was thinking there was a story I could tell about the past and how the past is inserting itself in the present.”
EDGAR ARCENEAUX: UNTIL, UNTIl, UNTIL… Artist Conversation, March 16 Until, Until, Until… and Library of Black Lies through March 25 Yerba Buena Center for the Arts More info here
ART LOOKS Artist and filmmaker John Akomfrah grew up in London, near the Tate Gallery. He would go there as a 12-year-old, fascinated by, among other painters, the work of J.M. W. Turner, the British Romantic artist known for his landscapes and his turbulent paintings of the sea.
Now one of Turner’s paintings, The Deluge (1805), which depicts a Biblical flood, is part of Akomfrah’s new show at SFMOMA. The Turner painting and Akomfrah’s three-channel video installation, Vertigo Seas, which debuted at the Venice Biennale in 2015, make up the show, Sublime Seas.
Rudolph Frieling, SFMOMA’s media arts curator, said he loved Akomfrah’s idea to pair his installation with the Turner, but the curator doubted it would happen.
“When he brought the idea forward, it struck me immediately as brilliant and I was kind of envious I didn’t have that idea,” Frieling said at a preview of Sublime Seas. “I thought it was highly unlikely we would get a Turner for a contemporary art show.”
Turner’s painting shows the terror of the flood, resonating with Akomfrah’s videos showing the beauty and horrors of the ocean. The cruelty of the whaling industry as well as the slave trade and the current refugee crisis are encompassed in the 48 minutes of Vertigo Sea.
It was thinking about refugees that spurred this work, says Akomfrah, a founder of the influential Black Audio Film Collective in the early ’80s. His and his family came to England as refugees, leaving Ghana when he was four years old because his parents, who were involved with anticolonial activism, feared for their lives.
“What’s the difference between my family and someone fleeing Ghana now, almost four decades later? They might have a really difficult time getting in,” Akomfrah said. “That was a powerful engine for this work and to explore the larger relationship with the sea.”
Akromfrah and his partners in Smoking Dog Films spent four years creating the videos, which use documentary images, some from David Attenborough’s The Blue Planet, archival footage, and text from Herman Melville’s Moby Dick and Heathcote Williams’s 1988 poem, Whale Nation.
Watching Vertigo Sea, you’re swept up at first by the beautiful images of the ocean– crashing waves, dolphins swimming, sunsets. But the music is faintly ominous and you start to hear news reports about refugees from West Africa and their treacherous ocean voyage. There are black and white images of people setting sail long ago and sailors dancing on deck, along with tableaus of actors in old-fashioned clothes, standing by the shore with abandoned items: a clock, chairs, a table.
You see slaves bodies tossed into the ocean and refugees struggling to stay afloat. It’s not just people we see being abused—there’s also archival footage of people shooting and killing polar bears and harpooning whales.
Frieling says the combination of the tranquil nature images with the horror of the those who have perished at sea was what made him want to present this work, the first time it’s been exhibited in the United States.
“It’s a visceral experience,” he said. “There’s the Blue Planet aspect and then the brutality, and he managed to combine the two. It’s about slavery and migration and refugees, and it’s very coherent.”
In the last few years, hundreds of thousands of refugees have been coming to Europe by boat, and Vertigo Sea began as a response to all those who are so desperate they leave behind their homes to get in overcrowded and unseaworthy vessels, says David Lawson, one of Akomfrah’s partners in Smoking Dog Films. They spent four years looking at 800 hours of archival footage, to make the movie.
“These are very urgent issues,” Lawson said. “The sea is a place of beauty and danger and transition. We wanted to create an immersive experience, not make something didactic, but rather allow the audience to make these connections.”
SUBLIME SEAS John Akomfrah and J.M.W. Turner Through September 16 SFMOMA More info here (Plus: See three films by John Akomfrah April 28 at SFMOMA.)
ART LOOKS I didn’t expect to be here, writing to you, about this. After many years of penning flippant retorts and scene reports from art weeks from Miami to Mexico, I was happy to finally spend Mexico City’s annual artsy-fairsy orgy as a civilian (art attaché, I liked to call it).
This is CDMX Art Week, anchored by the 15-year-old Zona Maco with several satellite affairs. And as half my friends contracted hives from courting prospective collectors at sponsored cocktail hours and the other half ignored my invites to acknowledge even the mere existence of the “art fair,” I ate marijuana chocolates, ignored official after party invitations, took zero notes, and wore the same jacket all week.
Imagine going to art week to enjoy art! Of course, 48 Hills contacted me two days after it ended and asked if maybe I could share my thoughts. Luckily, I had some, so here are five things that stood out during the whorl of visiting creatives and complimentary tote bags.
1. Material Art Fair’s scene-stealing architectural proposal Everyone likes to talk about how the five year old Material is their favorite such art event in the world, and they are not only being hyperbolic. The expo still qualifies as the experimental young upstart, the sprightly African oxpecker to Zona Maco’s tick-attracting hippopotamus girth.
This year, Material gave me the chance to check in with Bay projects Et Al, Alter Space, R/SF, and City Limits Gallery as well as CDMX faves like Lodos and Labor—but the big news came via the fair’s designers, Mexico City architecture project APRDELESP. The firm devised a deceptively stable, three-level scaffolding system that filled El Frontón’s historic jai alai courts and resembled nothing so much as the Inception-style madness of Mexico City’s nearby Biblioteca Vasconcelos. The vertical visual spread made finding galleries, friends, and Hennessey-horchata cocktails easier than spotting art tourists in Tepito. Recommended!
2. Neon invasion Not being shady—Tracey Emin is wonderful and some of my favorite artists from Mexico’s solo New Museum Triennial representative Manuel Solano to Puerto Rico’s Hector Madera and gringa Chelsea Culprit, not to mention Nicola Arthen at Salon Acme, put a tube on it this year. But it’s relatively affordable to get custom designs rendered in neon in Mexico City and for those of you tuning in from home, we are all wending through a whimsical, gleaming grid of the stuff to get through to our comida corrida at this point. The invasion is far from limited to the CDMX art world; forget having a nightlife project, tattoo studio, or music label in this town without first copping a logo in brights.
3. Zona Maco social science In amongst Gary Nader Gallery’s decadence of Boteros and Minerva Cuevas’s interactive, ever-growing pile of carrot peelings for Kurimanzutto, I was very high. (Did I mention I had no plans of reporting on the fairs?) So I have little to share with you about art from Zona Maco besides my joy at the return of commercial viability for Leonora Carrington’s feline goddess statues and over Cisco Jiménez’s ceramic boomboxes— but I have everything to say about how funny people are at art fairs.
I boggled happily through a panel discussion in which a private Peruvian collector shaky on the subject of inherited wealth, said that art collecting runs in the family. (His proof, if my sugary weed memory serves: he has a niece that collected 800 tea services “by the time she was 10!”) A young boy sat in front of me recording the talk on his smart phone. Later, I added a shot of a chocolate Pomeranian sleeping on a exhibitor table to my Instagram story and a painter friend on the other side of the equator immediately sent me a shot of him holding aloft the same pupper. It turned out to be the 80k-followed Bertram (has more fans than his owner’s gallery), but you probably already knew that.
4. “Una vida doméstica” x José Esparza Chong Chuy When wandering through art fairs with no agenda besides seeing thought-provoking works and staying hydrated, you long for engaging installation-constellations like that of José Esparza Chong Chuy’s section in Salon Acme. Once the assistant curator of Museo Jumex, now of Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art, Esparza reanimated long-abandoned Colonia Juárez living quarters with works pitched to the home. His local roots may explain the genius behind how the passive aggressive notes Diego Salvador Rios saved from 21st century neighbors ended up alongside Juan José Gurrola’s 1996 transfer “Familia Sandwich” and works by Magali Lara. Esparza’s curation made arch use of Salon Acme’s main draw—its derelict mansion venue, which is high grade catnip for ruin porn aficionados.
5. Leaving the big fairs A lot of people came down this week looking to learn more about the Latin American art scene, even attempting to locate or contextualize their project in the exciting work that is being done in this part of the world. Such is the power of white privilege that it may have escaped many of these exhibitors, collectors, and art hangers-on from the US, Europe, etc., that Mexico City Art Week is largely set up to exhibit non-Latino work for an international clientele. This year, just about 25 of the 75 galleries in the main section of Zona Maco, and 19 out of Material’s 78 participating galleries and projects were partially or entirely based in Latin America. To a certain point, that composition is a reflection of demographics in the global art market. But for some, it underlines the need for satellite events. It seems only a matter of time before a larger Latino artist-focused event, even one that’s focused more on community than sales, is created to run concurrently with Macomania.
There were places to see Latin American art in the spotlight, you just had to be willing to branch out from the expo centers. My partner’s work was shown in Dolores, but my own clear bias aside, visitors to that pop-up show by five galleries from Santiago’s Sagrada Mercancía, Puerto Rico’s Embajada and KM 0.2, and two Guadalajaran spots (Gamma and Guadalajara 90210) remarked that it was one of the most innovative configurations of emerging contemporary artists they’d seen that week.
Other satellite openings that showcased Latino artists were the brand-new Colonia Escandón project Salón Silcón, Tomás Díaz Cedeño at BWSMX, Abraham González Pacheco’s “Yacimiento” at the September 19th earthquake-wounded Biquini Wax, MUAC’S Yoshua Okón show and Carlos Amorales retrospective, Guillermo Gómez Peña’s hallucinatory retrospective at Museo de Arte Moderno, and thankfully on this long list of cis men’s names (SORRY), Border’s long-running “Terroristas de la Masculinidad” show and Museo Jumex’s presentation of Ana Gallardo’s pedagogic rumination on aging, “Escuela de Envejecer.”
ART LOOKS One thing out of the way first: Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive’s sprawling new show Way Bay: 200 Years of Art and Film at BAMPFA (through June 3, and then continuing in a different form through September 2), which purports to be “organized around diverse poetic themes that cut across time periods, media, styles, and artistic cultures,”is a bit of a ruse. It’s really an excuse—elegant or overly complicated, depending on your point of view—for the institution to air out its fantastic archive, and to snatch a few new works, too, diversifying and updating its holdings in the process.
That’s a perfectly cromulent goal. But does the reverse-engineered concept of the show hold up? By focusing on the poetic affiliations of two centuries of local artworks—their tangential “vibes” rather than their chronology or historical context—Way Bay is certainly unique, and it’s an overwhelming joy to behold. It’s also confusing, frustrating, inspiring, exhilarating, and just plain loopy at points. All these aspects are expected from any show this wide-ranging. The concept, however, adds a vertiginous extra layer that doesn’t quite gel.
But here we are, and good on BAMPFA for trying something brave. You can feel the effort to do something beyond, “Here’s a bunch of art and a timeline, you guys.” WayBay‘s most refreshing aspect is that it offers a rare opportunity to look at this art without the usual didactic guidance of big museum shows. While this doesn’t help to show us how to look at and appreciate some of these challenging pieces, it does free the artworks to bob along on their own currents, sploshing against each other on BAMPFA’s walls and washing up plenty of a-ha moments.
Walking into the bright and airy main galleries, viewers are struck by almost 200 pieces hung salon-style, accompanied by sculptural works, monitors, and a couple large, wondrous double-sided screens playing newly digitized films from the PFA’s archive. Ranging through 200 years (with the inclusion of an exquisite precolonial Ohlone basket, perhaps much longer), the artworks come with no wall text, only cheap-looking printed numbers; one must use a slightly bewildering gallery guide to identify individual pieces and their dates.
The gallery guide also contains the poetic phrases that supposedly guided chief curator Lawrence Rinder, Film Curator Kathy Gerit, and their team toward grouping specific works together. I have no idea why these poetic phrases weren’t inscribed on the walls above the groupings: They are lovely and illuminating, including Ohlone song “See! I am dancing! On the rim of the world I am dancing!” and “My mother is a weather system, she eats villages whole,” from Tanea Lunsford Lynx’s “Mothers II.” Abstract and evocative, they stretch the viewer’s mind to encompass several visual interpretations.
(The phrases are drawn from a fascinating project: BAMPFA’s “engagement associate” David Wilson reached out to local poets for help in a sort-of mail art project, asking them to create postcards with texts or images—some of these are highlights of Way Bay and have been reproduced for the taking—and to then create one using a favorite poem or extract from a dead local poet. The project includes well-knowns like Kevin Killian, Robert Gluck, and Lyn Hejinian alongside up-and-comers like Cedar Sigo and Bay Guardian hip-hop writer Garrett Caples. On its own, the project is an incredible snapshot of the local poetry scene, now and then.)
Alas, it’s up to the viewer to constantly refer to the program—too distracting when you just want to drink in the art itself. There’s so much here, you may just want to barge through, make some discoveries, and look up the specifics later. There are enough of the big names to underline the international influence of Bay Area art: Jay Defeo, Bruce Connor, Joan Brown, Imogen Cunningham, Barry McGee, Richard Diebenkorn, Richard Misrach, Jess. Way Bay displays Martin Wong’s brilliantly hermetic 1982 “Silence” from its recent Martin Wong: Human Instamatic retrospective of that newly appreciated San Francisco artist’s work, as well as Romare Bearden’s kaleidoscopic 1973 “Study for Berkeley—The City and Its People.”
These familiar artists help with orientation, providing comfortable access points to a plethora of works both old (William Keith’s emphatically pastoral 1900 oil “Woodland Scene,” Granville Redmond’s haunting 1903 “Night March Scene”) and very new (Al Wong’s singed-paper “Square Burn” from last year). With no attempts to contextualize or identify movements—the Bay Area Figurative Movement and the Mission School, for all their current bankability, aren’t overrepresented here, which is just fine—you get to create your own story as you go, contrasting, say, Emma Michalitschke’s 1913 “Yosemite Landscape” oil with Kim Anno’s nearby inkjet-on-aluminum “Niagara” from 2013.
One of the big pluses of the exhibit is that BAMPFA has taken on expanding and updating its collection, especially with works by women, queer people, and people of color. Anyone on the contemporary art, performance, dance, or nightlife scene will thrill to see some of the folks enshrined here: Brontez Purnell Dance Company’s “Free Jazz,” filmed 2013 by Gary Fembot with lighting by Jerry Lee; Xara Thustra’s mural-sized, 9/11-referencing “This is what we are for and this is what we’ll get”; Xylor Jane’s 2006 geometric abstraction “Pequod”; former MTV presenter(!) Tabitha Soren’s brilliant 2017 photograph of her smudged iPad as she followed the Ferguson protests, “Truth-out.org/Ferguson”; Catherine Opie’s iconic photograph of fellow artist Jerome Caja, from 1993; Nicki Green’s super-cool 2015 glazed ceramic “Three States of Gender Alchemy.”
Revelations for me included Erica Deeman’s “Marvin” from her 2015 Brown series, a striking head-and-shoulders photographic print of a friend against a backdrop the color of Deeman’s own skin, “as a gesture of both solidarity and contrast.” (The gallery guide offers brief notes on the artworks.) Also spellbinding was the late David Cannon Dashiell’s 1992 “Study for Queer Mysteries,” a frieze-like series of graphite figure clusters meant to ape the Dionysiac murals of the Villa of the Mysteries at Pompeii, and suggesting a Henry Darger-like fantasia by way of some late-night Sci-Fi cable channel in the early 1980s. (The drawings retain heavy scarring from a fire that swept through Dashiell’s apartment, adding an element of danger and beauty.)
After all of the conceptualizing and eye-popping and flashes of intergenerational themes—Bay Area artists certainly have a flair for the psychedelic and the joys of the ephemeral: see Lew Thomas’s gloriously humble yet tingle-inducing 1972 photographs of light on his wood floor—what’s the take-away? (One thing missing, among all the different media, was music!)
In the end, a simple pride of place satisfies.
Perhaps the most delightful piece is the PFA’s Tribune-American Dream Picture. In 1924, the Oakland Tribune asked readers to send in their dreams for a chance to it to be filmed; the dreamer would play a starring role. The lucky winner was Mrs. L.L. Nicholson of 3812 San Juan Street, Oakland, whose fever dream of a search for her lost baby takes her to both sides of the bay, and includes glimpses of life here almost a century ago, as well as Keystone Kops-Like sequences and sweetly surreal touches. Seeing that little gem on a big screen, situated among a wealth of local expression, is alone worth a BAMPFA jaunt.
WAY BAY: 200 YEARS OF ART AND FILM AT BAMPFA Through June 3
BAMPFA, Berkeley More info here.
“The Third Muslim” features work by more than a dozen artists ranging from Syrian to Somali to Pakistani heritage, but there’s even more that reveals the multiplicity of Muslim and queer experiences: “We have a panel people of faith, kink, and fashion,” Ali Bhutto told me, “and a closing performance that speaks of the experience of coming out as Muslim in the United States.”
LGBT Muslim-Arab artists (mostly gay men) who address both faith and sexuality are starting to gain attention in the US—a recent, sweeping article in the New York Times on the topic mentions “The Third Muslim” and features one of its artists, the fantastic Jamil Hellu. The SOMArts show reaches even further, highlighting “struggles common among contemporary Muslim queer, trans* and gender non-conforming communities, regardless of locale, including displacement, diaspora, and hyphenated identities.”
It also addresses, in Ahmed’s words, “the Arabization of Islam” (aka the reduction of Islam to a stereotypically Arabian phenomenon—as Ahmed notes, the first Muslims in America were black African slaves), challenges “gender-based oppression within Islam” itself and “racism (specifically, colorism and anti-blackness) and Islamophobia within mainstream queer and trans* communities.”
That’s a lot! I spoke with curators Ali Bhutto and Ahmed about their vision for the show, the necessity of creating space for artists to speak for themselves, and, as Ali Bhutto put it, “the labor involved in trying to broaden people’s perspectives.”
48 HILLS You’re both deeply involved in the arts community. Please tell me a little bit about yourselves and your background.
ZULFIKAR ALI BHUTTOI am a visual and performance artist, a drag queen who goes by the alias Faluda Islam, and a curator of mixed Pakistani, Lebanese, and Iranian descent. My work in a general sense explores issues of state violence and how that violence resonates in our collective memory, how it forms and shapes communities, and by extension how it affects the individual. In my curatorial work, I take it as an opportunity to organize and explore important issues around identity, place and the needs of the time.
YAS AHMED It’s been both my activism and my art, which is writing, that has saved my life over and over. As a multiracial (Yemeni, Somali, Lebanese, German) genderqueer person, I often write about the intersections of these experiences, because I believe in the effect of storytelling. My art and my activism are founded on a deep belief that building power among marginalized communities is as critical to our collective well-being as people, as much as it is to our collective imaginations as artists. Five years ago I co-founded MASGD, the Muslim Alliance for Sexual and Gender Diversity.
48H What was the genesis of the idea the show? Was there a particular event or series of events that sparked its conception?
ZAB I think it mostly came from a need to both find community and also to make sure that not only were our (queer and trans Muslims) voices being heard but that we were representing and speaking for ourselves. Muslims in general, and queer and trans Muslims specifically, are often spoken about and for in the media: judged, assessed, silenced, and vilified. We have voices, and we can speak for and represent ourselves through many means—in this case, creatively. This show was a long time in the making, brewing in both our brains for a while.
YA The core issues The Third Muslim engages—identity, displacement, diaspora, the many types of violence enacted on bodies from people who are Muslim, queer and or trans*—have existed, alongside the stories of people resisting and fighting back, long before Trump, before 9/11. So in many ways, this exhibition is overdue. As writer adrienne marie brown shared some time ago, things aren’t new, they’re just becoming uncovered. These things—Islamophobia, racism, gender-based oppression—are not new for our communities. Neither is survival, or the complex ways we heal and sustain ourselves and each other, including building community, including creating socially-engaged art. So, when a practical opportunity arose for us to help shape a platform of what some of those stories of resistance have been, currently are, unveiling a range of what it even means to be queer, trans* and Muslim-identified these days, we jumped on it.
48HWhat is the concept of “The Third Muslim”?
ZAB The Third Muslim refers to the multitude of Muslim identities that can and do exist in the world. It is us stepping out of the binary that stereotypes Muslims as either extreme or moderate and that somehow if you don’t fit into that binary then you are outside of Islam. This show aims to challenge that, it reveals not only a third Muslim, but also another way to see Islam, its practices and in the case of this show even queerness and trans-ness* and the identities that exist within it.
YA At its core, it’s inviting people to try on another way of making meaning. I often like to say that queer and trans* Muslims are on the margins of the margins. We’re the in-between, the outside of, existing within understandings of Islam as monolithic, of queerness as white or western or cisgender or able-bodied, of Muslim as other—we exist in this THIRD space, in our full dignity and power. There is an Islamic concept of itijihad, which, crudely interpreted, means an ongoing practice of critical thinking and spiritual examination. This, to me, is what “the Third Muslim” is.
48H With 14 exhibiting artists ranging from Syrian to Somali to Pakistani heritage, and representing a plethora of identities, this show seems like it will really help reveal the vast diversity behind the monolithic stereotype of Islam. How did you find the artists, and how did you define “Muslim” for the show’s purposes?
ZAB “Finding” the artists was, I think, a rather organic process, Yas and I have both been working within LGBTQ Muslim communities for a while, be it creatively, academically, within social activism, and so on. In the beginning we both pulled from our resources but we later realized that we wanted to know that we weren’t leaving anybody out of the conversation. There are so many important voices out there, and we knew it was important to be able to include as many as we could. So we put out an open call that pretty much went all over the world—and it finally struck us how much of a movement this really was.
YA We didn’t define Muslim for the show—we encouraged artists to define their relationship to queer, trans*, Islam identities for themselves. Some connect spiritually, politically, culturally, ideologically… Some connections are tentative or recovering or new. We wanted to take care that there was space for wherever folks entered these identities and experiences. Even though our own intention in this exhibition was lifting up stories and voices who are often invisibilized, there is still far more work to do.
For example, in my experience many of the US-based spaces for queer and/or trans Muslims tend to be heavily South Asian and/or Arab—this is an extension of the reality of the Arabization of Islam as a practice around the world. As a mixed race Arab, it’s my responsibility to push back against that—the first Muslims on this land were enslaved Africans, black people. How are we making space in exhibition and as artists to listen to voices and support work from silenced perspectives, on issues that are as contemporary as historic—e.g. how are we talking about anti-blackness within non-Black Muslim communities? This is our responsibility as creators and curators of socially engaged art.
48H The show promises to address Islamophobic stereotypes and expressions in the mainstream GLBT community, which I feel is so necessary. Do you have any stories you could share of your own personal experience with this?
YA My personal experiences aren’t the focus of this exhibition at all, so I don’t feel comfortable sharing details on that. I will say that, from my perspective, queer and trans* communities in San Francisco, Oakland, the Bay Area are AS susceptible to Islamophobia, misogyny, racism, anti-blackness, cisgender bias, able-bodied bias, xenophobia—as queer and trans* communities anywhere else. Certain bodies, experiences are privileged over others, and this is rampant in the way we shape desire, build community and spaces. Both erasure and respectability politics are alive and well here.
ZAB I’d like to agree with Yas on this one but I will say that being more or less active within queer nightlife in this city means your exposed to a lot. As a drag queen, I’ve performed in the Castro, SOMA, Oakland etc… and a lot of the work I do talks about Islamophobia using a mix of some real life stuff and humor. I’ve had many people make many offensive outright Islamophobic comments and others that may not always be done with malicious intent, they also come out of genuine ignorance and very hard-to-defeat assumptions people hold on to. There is a lot of labor involved in trying to broaden people’s perspectives, which is not only why we are having an arts exhibition but also why we are having a panel, a gift essentially, allowing people to listen, ask questions and respond to queer Muslims who represent diverse perspectives and lifestyles.
48H It so often falls upon queer people to transform a tradition from within, while simultaneously representing and defending that tradition to outsiders. Is this (often relentless and exhausting) work/tension particularly reflected in the artists’ work in the show?
ZAB I think it really depends on the perspective and on the artist. We come from traditions, families, and cultures that we love and cherish and we want to hold those cultures while still being true to ourselves. We are at a crossroads, often misunderstood by our own communities and a wider LGBTQ circle. Especially in the US, queerness and Islam are often seen as opposed to each other. In this show we welcome broad perspectives and you definitely see a lot of different ways of seeing Islam and its relation to queerness, cultural affinity, and so on.
YA Again, the path looks very different depending on whose viewfinder you are peering through. I agree with Zulfi here in that queer and trans* Muslims relationships to notions of tradition, culture, family, ritual are vast and varied. Experiences of “coming out”—often very defined in white, western context – can sometimes even be of “coming out” as Muslim. Sometimes it means just simply being, living in integration, inhabiting all of ourselves without explanation or defense. What I appreciate about the stories and work in this exhibition is that sometimes we are called upon to even question who the outsider is in this conversation. Because it isn’t us 😉
THE THIRD MUSLIM
Opening reception Thu/25, 6pm-9pm, free.
Show runs though February 22
SOMARTS, SF More info here.
Queering Islam: A Conversation Thursday, February 8, 6pm–8pm
A panel conversation representing an intergenerational, multi-identity group of community members who have made their own paths as queer Muslims in the realms of faith, fashion, leather and kink, often creating their own meaning and (sub)communities where none existed before. To learn more, visit www.somarts.org/thirdmuslimpanel.
Closing Reception and Performance
Saturday, February 17, 1pm–4pm
Featuring Coming Out Muslim: Radical Acts of Love, co-conceived and performed by Wazina Zondon and Terna Hamida, the closing reception and storytelling performance will be accompanied by a talkback with audience members subsequent to the performance.
ART LOOKS San Francisco takes its Day of the Dead seriously — it’s a sacred moment — but, in the spirit of the magical holiday that pierces the veil between worlds, we also approach it playfully and full of commemorative verve.
But the annual tradition that kick is all off is the SOMArts extravaganza of artist-made offrenda, plus music, food, poetry, and more. (It’s not for nothing that it won a 2016 Best of the Bay Editor’s Pick.) This year’s exhibit is entitled “Remembrance and Resistance,” “merging traditional Mexican altars with contemporary art installations, the exhibition presents a superabundant array of perspectives remembering, honoring, and celebrating the dead. Inspired by cherished relationships, current events, and personal and collective histories, more than 25 altars by over 50 participating Día de los Muertos artists build a dense environment of creativity that creates space for meaningful reflection and community engagement.”
This year includes a special tribute to activist and arts booster Ebonny McKinney, who passed away this year, among the colorful and thought-provoking alters and installation. The show, not in its 18th year, will again be curated by arts legend Rene Yáñez and his son Rio.
It all opens this Fri/6 with a must-attend party, 6pm-9pm, $12-$15 at SOMArts Gallery. This is one of my favorite parties of the year, bursting with local artists and fun, not to mention some sharp social commentary. Pretty sure there will be killer tamales there, too.
Press release below:
SOMArts Cultural Center Presents REMEMBRANCE AND RESISTANCE: DíA DE LOS MUERTOS 2017
18th annual Day of the Dead Exhibition celebrates the life of Bay Area arts advocate Ebonny McKinney and all those who dare to dream
October 6–November 9, 2017
Exhibition and programming curated by René and Rio Yañez
Now in its 18th year, the annual Day of the Dead exhibition at SOMArts Cultural Center offers one of the most internationally diverse Día de los Muertos celebrations in the United States. Merging traditional Mexican altars with contemporary art installations, the exhibition presents an incredibly wide array of perspectives remembering, honoring, and celebrating the dead. Inspired by cherished relationships, current events, and personal and collective histories, more than 25 altars by over 60 participating Día de los Muertos artists build a dense environment of creativity that creates space for meaningful reflection and community engagement.
Chosen by father and son curators René & Rio Yañez, this year’s theme, Remembrance and Resistance emphasizes the importance of mourning in the context of resistance struggles. In the Trump era, the intense focus on political resistance can overshadow the need for collective mourning. Since its inception, Day of the Dead at SOMArts has offered a space for community reflection and remembrance, refusing to forget those who have been lost to police brutality, gentrification and displacement, and environmental destruction. Now more than ever, it’s imperative to honor the dead and reflect on their legacies. What can the lives of our ancestors teach us about resistance and creativity in the current political climate?
Remembrance and Resistance is dedicated to San Francisco activist Ebony McKinney, known by many for her tireless advocacy to advance equity in the arts through her work with the San Francisco Arts Commission and as co-founder of Arts for a Better Bay Area (ABBA) advocacy group. The exhibition is also dedicated to the generation of Americans known as Dreamers — To young people everywhere who are threatened by Trump administration policies, the exhibition will assert, “You are welcome here.”
The exhibition unveiling, Friday, October 6, 6:00–9:00 pm, $12–15 sliding scale admission, features music by San Francisco-based Caribbean fusion band LA GENTE and multi-disciplinary performance from the all-female dance group La Mezcla.
Exhibition highlights include painter and printmaker Xavier Viramontes who will contribute silkscreen prints from his “American Hero” series that highlight the invaluable contributions of immigrants to American culture.
Staff members from the San Francisco Arts Commission and SF Grants for the Arts will memorialize their beloved colleague Ebony McKinney with an altar, providing community members an opportunity to hear Ebony describe in her own words why the arts are so vital to building a society that works for all.
Highlighting the appropriation of Day of the Dead and Latinx culture to examine the gentrification of the Mission District, artist Ani Rivero Rossi will create a tableau of Día de los Muertos Barbie dolls. Artists Francis Li and Mark Hellar’s interactive installation will encourage visitors to contribute their own photos to create a digital mosaic portrait of contemporary and historic resistance leaders.
The Black Woman is God co-curators Karen Seneferu and Melorra Green will create an altar honoring the contributions of Black women as social change-makers, artists and activists throughout history.
Additional programming includes a Mission Salon dedicated to the cultural diversity of the Mission District on Friday, October 20, 6:00–9:00 pm curated by David Kubrin and featuring San Francisco poet laureate Kim Shuck, and the ticketed closing night party Thursday, November 9, 6:00–9:00 pm.
CALENDAR LISTINGS Remembrance and Resistance: Día de los Muertos 2017 Exhibition
Friday, October 6–Thursday, November 9, 2017
Gallery Hours: Tuesday–Friday 12–7pm, Saturday 11am–5pm and Sunday 11am–3pm
Free admission during gallery hours
Friday, October 6, 6–9pm
$12–15 sliding scale admission
Exhibition unveiling features a Día de los Muertos inspired artist market and music by LA GENTE.
Friday, October 20, 6–9pm
$12–$15, no one turned away for lack of funds
Experience the cultural vibrancy of the Mission District with an interactive salon curated by David Kubrin and featuring San Francisco poet laureate Kim Shuck. Performances by Trio Cambio, Los Nadies, Josue Rojas, and Musical Art Quintet.
Thursday, November 9, 6–9pm
$7–10 sliding scale admission
The final opportunity to view and interact with the altars features live music by Candelaria and interactive installations.
ABOUT THE CURATORS Rene Yáñez, founder and former Artistic Director of San Francisco’s Galería de la Raza in San Francisco’s Mission District, was one of the first curators to introduce the contemporary concept of Mexico’s Day of the Dead to the United States with a 1972 exhibition at the Galería. Each subsequent year he curated a Day of the Dead exhibition either at the Galería or at the Mission Cultural Center for Latino Arts. Then, in 1994 and 1998, he curated Rooms for the Dead and Labyrinth for the Dead at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. His first year curating a Day of the Dead exhibit at SOMArts Cultural Center was 1993.
Active as both a visual and performing arts curator and artist, as well as an outspoken activist, Yáñez co-founded the successful Chicano performance trio Culture Clash. In 1998, he received the “Special Trustees Award in Cultural Leadership” from The San Francisco Foundation for his long-standing contribution to the cultural life of the Bay Area. In 2017, Yañez was the recipient of the Douglas G. MacAgy Distinguished Achievement Award from the San Francisco Art Institute for his leadership in the Bay Area arts community.
Yáñez has curated numerous exhibitions including Chicano Visions (2001–2007), an exhibition hosted by museums such as the de Young Museum (in San Francisco), El Paso Museum of Art, and the Smithsonian Institution.
Notable recent projects include programming produced for the de Young Museum’s Picasso: Masterpieces from the Musée National and The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk. This programming featured Yáñez’ interpretations of the works of Pablo Picasso in anaglyph 3D, as well as a fashion runway show Viva Frida: From the Blue House to the Catwalk.
In 2009, 2011, and 2012, Yáñez created a living altar for the San Francisco Symphony’s Day of the Dead concert featuring a large cast, crew, and suite of musicians, curated Four Juan Five, an exhibition about the San Francisco Mission District at Alley Cat Books, and performed in Guillermo Gomez-Peña’s Corpo Illicito at the New Performance Gallery in San Francisco.
In 2014 Yáñez printed a popular zine, Zine a la Mode over a Pot of Coffee, with a circulation of over 800 copies. His recent work includes a collaboration with artist Patrick Piazza for an installation on the De-Appropriation wall on Valencia street, an exhibit with the S.F. Print Collective about displacement, and Las Chicas de Esta Noche, a drag queen review show at the de Young Museum in collaboration with comedian Marga Gomez. With his collective The Great Tortilla Conspiracy he has participated in art events benefitting the San Francisco Coalition on Homelessness and the St. Peters Dining Hall.
Rio Yañez, born and raised in San Francisco, is a curator, photographer, activist and graphic artist. As an artist he has exhibited his work from San Francisco to Tokyo and created artwork installations for Jean Paul Gaultier’s touring exhibit The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk. His Bay Area solo exhibitions include Pocho Adventure Club at Galería de la Raza in San Francisco, Cholas to Picasso: The 3D Artworks of Rio Yañez at Asterisk Gallery, Bubblegum Crisis at Ginger Rubio Salon and Pochos & Pixels at the University of California, Santa Barbara’s Multicultural Center.
Yañez is a curator of more than 10 exhibitions. As with his curatorial work, a part of Yañez’ visual art practice is dedicated to exploring how Chicano and Asian Youth have used social media to exchange aesthetics and language. In addition to creating graphic art, Yañez is a founding member of The Great Tortilla Conspiracy, the world’s first and only tortilla art collective. As a tortilla artist he silkscreens art and political graphics onto tortillas using edible inks and serves them to eat to the public as interventionist performance art. Yañez’ recent projects include self-publishing board games designed around Chicano pop culture icons and a collaborative series of portraits with activist and performer April Flores.
ABOUT SOMArts CULTURAL CENTER
SOMArts Cultural Center, founded in 1979, leverages the power of art as a tool for social change through multi-disciplinary events and exhibitions. Equipping artists with the space, mentorship and support they need to shift perspectives and innovate solutions, SOMArts fosters access to arts and culture for collective liberation and self-determination.
SOMArts plays a vital role in the arts ecosystem by helping activate the arts citywide. We do this by providing space and production support for non-profit events, as well as fairs and festivals throughout the Bay Area, and offering a robust program of art exhibitions, classes, events and performances that are affordable and accessible to all. SOMArts’ exhibition programs receive critical support from the San Francisco Arts Commission and The San Francisco Foundation, and are sponsored in part by a grant from Grants for the Arts.
SOMArts is located at 934 Brannan Street—between 8th and 9th—within 2 blocks of 101, I-80, Muni lines and bike paths. For public information call 415-863-1414 or visit somarts.org. Stay connected by following us on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.
With her organization’s 40th anniversary gala a few days away, Precita Eyes Muralists founder Susan Cervantes has little time to talk. Still, caught at the organization’s 24th Street storefront by a reporter’s phone call, she meticulously lists sites where one can see Precita Eyes’ murals.
The 57-year Mission District resident mentions the piece youth artists recently completed at 24th Street and Folsom, where a play of chance sprawls across a low brick wall topped by chainlink. Cervantes says the young muralists painted lotería cards of their own invention that express their feelings about life in the vastly changed neighborhood; El Lowrider, La Tristeza, La Mano, Por Vida.
It’s a sweet tribute, even if you don’t know the back story, which many Bay Area news junkies do. People fought for this wall.
Earlier this summer, the building owner buffed a previous Precita Eyes youth arts mural on the site. What had once been a cautionary note to would-be gentrifiers — “Our culture can’t be bought,” in script curled around a calavera — had been erased and partially replaced with the most anodyne note possible, before the neighborhood had a chance to react. The would-be new text read, “Be a good person.”
But neighbors will have to somehow remember to be a good person on their own. What happened next demonstrates the power of these murals for Missionites and beyond.
Precita Eyes explained the situation to the building’s new owner, the fact that though this wall technically belonged to him, how it really belonged to the streets, and he agreed that they had better re-commandeer the mural space.
To pay homage to the random rolls of destiny’s dice that had brought them back to the site, Precita Eyes’ youth artists painted the emotional lotería that you see today. “La Cultura Cura,” [“Culture Heals”] they called it. Hopefully now the message is clear; their work is to stay until further notice.
This is but one story of multitudes — between five and six hundred, by Cervantes’ count of the total murals that Precita Eyes has completed around San Francisco, the Bay Area, and the world. The group has carried out projects in China, Russia, and Spain.
The Mission is the neighborhood where Precita Eyes’ work is most evident. But in the last year the organization has coordinated a six story tribute to urban gardeners in the Tenderloin at Larkin and McAllister, a homage to local businesspeople in SF’s Lakeview neighborhood, and a graceful tableau dedicated to Latino student pride all the way on the East Coast, at Boston’s Northeastern University campus.
With her partner Luis, Cervantes gave birth to the mural program in 1977 that continues to be a resource for property owners looking to cover their walls in art. Inspired by Patricia Rodriquez and Graciela Carillo’s Mujures Muralistas project, Precita Eyes is an expression of the thriving Chicano muralismo movement that helped defined the Mission in its previous decades.
In the early ’80s Susan started a track for young artists when she noticed that San Francisco graffiti had evolved. Its aesthetic touch was no longer dominated by the cholo and gang tags of the Mission. Throw ups had appeared, bubble letters that betrayed the artistic capacity of their creators.
She made some inquiries and tracked down the taggers, wooed them to her idea, and convinced businesses to donate wall space so that the artists could create more permanent, legal wall art that would still assert their right to leave their mark on their streets.
Soon those youth were experimenting with the possibilities of muralismo, “taking it apart and putting it back together in their own style,” as Cervantes says. The first Precita Eyes youth mural site sprawled across a wall at the since-closed Restoration Hardware on Harrison between 23rd and 24th Streets. Soon the young painters were working up designs on roll-down shop gates and laundromats. Their collaborative creations meshed brush work and aerosol, uniting influences from generations of people who have taken to the streets with their art to be seen.
Josue Rojas was one of these young Mission artists. In 1994 he was 15 and reeling from the death of his father when he entered into the Precita Eyes youth arts program. Today he holds a BFA and MFA in painting and serves as the executive director of Acción Latina, a community arts program and publisher of the Mission’s bilingual newspaper El Tecolote.
He credits all this to the murals.
“Precita Eyes changed the course of my life,” Rojas tells 48 Hills in an email. “They trusted me with a wall at the back of a school playground, which was the most trust anyone had put in me. I painted that wall with all my heart. I was hooked and knew I wanted to be a painter for for the rest of my life.”
He is not the only youth artist that has been inspired to an enduring career. Cervantes says that much of Precita Eyes’ staff got their start as a teenager in the youth arts program. Saturday’s gala auction block will be full of the work of alums.
After decades of work, this diaspora’s efforts have helped define the landscape of the Mission District and the Bay Area. The youth-created murals are perhaps the most visible sign in the city of San Francisco’s young people, whose families are plagued now more than ever by sky high rents and attendant threats of displacement.
Like its murals, Precita Eyes has had to fight to stay in the Mission. It took a sympathetic landlord and a well-timed commission to paint the 24th Street McDonald’s to land their current space after being evicted from half of their workshop space near Precita Park. (Says Cervantes of their fast food dalliance: “I told the owner, ‘I’ve never been in a McDonald’s. My children don’t go to McDonald’s. Do you still want us to do a mural on your building?’ And he said, ‘Yeah, I think it’s part of the culture. I’d like for it to be done anyway, even though you don’t patronize us.’ And I said, ‘Fine, great.’”)
When asked what the future holds for the organization, Cervantes is straightforward. “Life in the future? We’re just going to continue what we’ve been doing really well for the past 40 years.”
Rojas expounds. “Mural creation is a tradition and an integral piece of SF values. It’s imperative that Precita Eyes is around doing mural tours, restoring and maintaining existing murals — but also (equally important) still developing local talent and teaching the next generation of muralists. SF will need skilled, home-grown Mission muralists. Maybe more than we now know.”
PRECITA EYES MURALISTS 40TH ANNIVERSARY GALA Sat/30, Github SF. More info and tickets here