Friday, March 20, 2009

Find the Hidden Black People at SFMOMA

Two wonderful new murals have been commissioned from the artist Kerry James Marshall for the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art atrium (click here).

The style of the murals, depicting Presidents Washington and Jefferson at their Mt. Vernon and Monticello estates, is deliberately and amusingly paint-by-number with a nod to the "Highlights for Kids" magazine with their "hidden picture" puzzles.

The ironic point of the murals seems to be that these iconic scenes were filled with black slaves who did all the work, and if you look closely enough, the previously unrepresented workers who created the estates are to be seen everywhere.

There are other ironies abounding which were probably not intended by the artist and the museum, such as the fact that there weren't any living and breathing black people in the museum as far as I could see on a Monday afternoon.

Their absence was bizarrely appropriate, seeing that the museum is situated on Third Street, which is the main drag of the mostly black Bayview/Hunter's Point but which becomes progressively whiter as it nears Market Street.

Mayor Newsom has recently proposed that Third Street receive a name change to Willie Brown Jr. Street. The former mayor Brown, whose gentrification policies were responsible for some of the most egregious examples of black people removal in San Francisco, lives next door to the museum at a luxury condominium tower.

As my friend Patrick Vaz pointed out, San Francisco's habit of naming major streets after hack 19th century politicians such as Fillmore, Pierce, Polk, Harrison, Buchanan and Clay is finally being updated for the 21st century for our own hack politicos.

The paid labor that created the murals came from 11 staff artists from Precita Eyes Murals in the Mission District (click here). According to Jessica Baca, "Many of the people who come from Precita Eyes Muralists are of various backgrounds and heritages," which is all well and good but there wasn't much evidence of darker-skinned people on the crew helping the black artist, which seemed rather odd.

The 53-year-old Kerry James Marshall grew up in South Central Los Angeles and was the first person in his family to even think about going to college. He ended up being an art professor himself at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and has a long and interesting career in the art world. (Click here for a fascinating interview with the artist by Charles Rowell.) You don't have to pay admission to see the murals in the lobby, so check them out, and decide for yourself which ironies are intentional and which ones are accidental.


Axel Feldheim said...

sfmike: I like that picture of the artists on the scaffolding & your analysis. I saw the murals last week but didn't make the connection to the puzzles in kids' magazines. I saw the murals with a friend who did not grow up here & did not recognize the presidents or their iconic homes. As I was explaining it & pointing out the "hidden" black figures, the symbolism did seem a bit bald.

We do have the MOAD around the corner. Would these have been just as appropriate to display there? I want to like the MOAD more, but so far I haven't seen interesting things there.

Civic Center said...

Dear Axel: I haven't been to the MOAD (Museum of the African Diaspora) yet because it seems so incongruously out of place. Why wasn't it built in Bayview/Hunter's Point, for instance? Probably because the fancy hotel/condo complex in which it resides had to put in a politically correct art museum in order to get built. The whole situation is crazy. I do like the murals at SFMOMA, though, and the "baldness of the symbolism" strikes me as part of the point.

Civic Center said...

I received the following clarification from Jessica Baca at the Precita Eyes Mural: "One correction I would like to make to what you said which was about the people working on the mural being
overwhelmingly anglo. A majority of our workers are of mixed heritage which means you had mixes of latino, asian and one person who is in fact mixed with African American heritage. So while they obviously are not darker-skinned there is more to them than their skin color."

To which I would like to reply: Take a look at the mural again. It's about the representation of black people in history, not about our so-called ethnically mixed rainbow of the present day. As an ethnic mutt myself, there really is a difference.