PUBLIC ART

Whom to Put on a Pedestal?

Bay Area artists, writers, and activists chime in with their picks for people who deserve a public statue. 

THEA MATTHEWS

Born and raised in San Francisco, Matthews is a queer Black feminist activist, poet, educator, and author. She is Afro-Latinx with Black, Indigenous, and Mexican blood and writes on the complexities of humanity, grief, and resiliency. She is the author of a poetry collection, Unearth [The Flowers].

June Jordan (left) and Maya Angelou
June Jordan (left) and Maya Angelou

 

It’s a tie between June Jordan (1936–2002) and Maya Angelou (1928–2014). These women have an undeniable legacy that permeates to this day in multiple classrooms, especially ones of the Bay Area. June made Poetry for the People [P4P, an arts activism program] come alive in Berkeley and worked with young writers, including City College of San Francisco’s Lauren Muller.

We all know Maya. She lived in San Francisco, worked in San Francisco, and was on her way to becoming great after surviving such a horrendous childhood.

Winner takes statue from a roshambo or coin toss.

ROBERTO LOVATO

Lovato is an educator, a journalist, and a writer based at the Writers Grotto in San Francisco. He is the author of Unforgetting: A Memoir of Family, Migration, Gangs, and Revolution in the Americas and a cofounder of #DignidadLiteraria, a movement advocating for equity and literary justice for the more than 60 million Latinx persons lacking representation on the bookshelves of the United States and left out of the national dialogue.

Prudencia Ayala
Prudencia Ayala

Prudencia Ayala (1885–1936), a single Salvadoran mother, writer, and seamstress who, in 1930, used her Singer sewing machine to launch the candidacy that made her the first female to run for president in all of Latin America. Prudencia’s courage and vision stand out even more when we consider that she ran for president right before El Salvador witnessed La Matanza, the genocide perpetrated by the Salvadoran government in 1932. Tens of thousands of Indigenous men, women, and children were slaughtered in what students of global violence say is one of the most violent episodes in modern history in terms of the numbers of mostly Indigenous people killed daily in such a concentrated space over the course of about two weeks.

In a word, Prudencia was an Indigenous woman who faced astonishing oppression and did so frontally. Even though her candidacy was challenged in court and nullified because women did not have the right to vote, Prudencia Ayala continued speaking truth to murderous power.

Members of my family witnessed the Matanza, including my grandmother, a seamstress who sewed her way out of El Salvador by making clothes for prostitutes in the shantytown in San Salvador she and the women lived in. Like Prudencia, she had a Singer, and she used it to bring her family to San Francisco, home to one of the largest populations of Salvadorans in the United States.

CAROL EDGARIAN

Edgarian is the author of Rise the Euphrates; Three Stages of Amazement; and Vera, forthcoming in March 2021.

Dorothea Lange
Dorothea Lange

Polio left famed photographer Dorothea Lange (1895–1965) with a withered right leg and a gnarled foot. Her disability never dimmed her ambition to prevail in a man’s world; indeed, she claimed “it was perhaps the most important thing that happened to me.”

Lange used her lens to capture the inner lives of her subjects, their beauty and pain, and, with her gifts, she changed our perceptions of real Americans. She photographed Native Americans, labor strikers, men standing in breadlines. Lange’s work often took her away from San Francisco, but she always returned.

She was a successful portrait photographer when she was hired by the Farm Security Administration to document the Great Depression. Migrant Mother, Lange’s portrait of Florence Thompson with her children, is arguably the most famous photograph of all time, yet as the property of the government, the portrait was published without the artist’s name attached. In 1941, Lange was awarded a Guggenheim but decided to give up the grant in order to cover the internment of Japanese Americans in camps. Her searing portraits, so shocking in their criticism of U.S. policy, were suppressed by the army and never seen till after the war. I turn to her photographs whenever I feel numbed by the news; her work is timeless for its unflinching beauty, complexity, and humanity.

BRYANT TERRY

Terry is an author, an educator, a James Beard Award–winning chef, and the chef in residence at San Francisco’s Museum of the African Diaspora.

Angela Davis
Angela Davis

I would choose Angela Davis (b. 1944), a longtime Bay Area activist, thinker, professor, and author. Davis’s writing on Black liberation, feminism, freedom, and the “prison industrial complex” (a term she made popular) makes her a lauded figure worldwide. She was a professor at San Francisco State and at UC Santa Cruz and taught the history of consciousness as well as ethnic and feminist studies.

Her writing and activism around the prison-abolition movement has never been more urgent or timely. While her papers are now at Radcliffe’s Schlesinger Library in Cambridge, Davis’s image should reside in Golden Gate Park.

MICKI MENG

Meng is a curator-dealer and an artist advocate working in the Bay Area. Her gallery, Friends Indeed, is located on the border between San Francisco’s historic Chinatown and the financial district.

Tyrus Wong
Tyrus Wong

As a city, San Francisco is 36 percent Asian diaspora, yet most of its history and culture takes place in specified areas, such as Chinatown, the Outer Richmond, or within the walls of the Asian Art Museum. If the city’s art institutions are looking to reflect more of the local, it shouldn’t be just in enclaves or dictated areas.

A recent @changethemuseum Instagram post revealed that a major local museum suggested not making an effort to reach out to the Asian community for fear of an exhibition becoming too “Chinese-y.” This speaks to the segregation still happening in the Bay Area. I would elect a great Asian American figure, such as artist and illustrator Tyrus Wong (1910–2016), who came to the United States through Angel Island as a “paper son” (traveling under an assumed identity to get around the Chinese Exclusion Act). His vast contributions to the fields of art and film were largely overlooked until the end of his life.

DWIGHT SMITH

A native San Franciscan, Smith (major, U.S. Army, retired) is a noted art collector and supporter of local, national, and international artists, with an emphasis on works by women and people of color.

Betye Saar
Betye Saar

Out of the gate, we need a Black women’s/women-of-color Mount Rushmore, and it should be in the Bay Area. And it needs to be huge. No little shit. We need big statements now, shock and awe!

As for Golden Gate Park, we should honor influential artist Betye Saar (b. 1926). A stellar figure in the Black arts movement who liberated Aunt Jemima already five decades ago and who has continued to make profound and essential work ever since, she is also the grand matriarch of a family dynasty (with her daughter, artist Alison Saar) within the art world that rivals any other in history. She is art royalty.

KIM SHUCK

Shuck is the current poet laureate of San Francisco. The author of seven books, she was awarded a National Laureate Fellowship in 2019 by the Academy of American Poets.

Carol Lee Sanchez
Carol Lee Sanchez

If we are putting up bronzes to people (I wonder a bit if memorializing folk in bronze is a great idea generally), then Carol Lee Sanchez (b. 1934) would be a good choice. Carol Lee did a number of important things poetical in the S.F. Bay Area. She ran the open mic at the Coffee Gallery in North Beach. She was instrumental in starting the Bay Area Poets Coalition. She helped to transform the Pegasus Project into California Poets in the Schools and thereby contributed to the poetic education of thousands of California children from one end of the state to the other.

At least two of San Francisco’s poets laureate, myself and devorah major, were greatly supported by her work. Perhaps most important, she helped to strengthen the ethnic studies department at San Francisco State University, the first College of Ethnic Studies in the country, I believe. Carol Lee spent a life in service to the community, not glorifying herself, although she was a world-class poet. Her work carries poetry forward even now. I was her student. I’ve studied her work. She inspired me to take my own poetry seriously, but I am only one of many for whom that is true. She was a real teacher, one who inspired and led others to their better poetry.

VANESSA HUA

Hua, a columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle, is the author of Deceit and Other Possibilities and A River of Stars.

Mary Tape
Mary Tape

Seven decades before the Brown v. Board of Education ruling struck down racial segregation in public schools, Mary Tape (1857–1934), a Chinese immigrant, and her husband, Joseph, fought for their daughter to attend an all-white elementary school in San Francisco in 1884—and won the lawsuit. The school superintendent still pushed for a separate but equal Chinese school, yet in the years that followed, de facto desegregation would begin.

TABITHA SOREN

Soren is a Bay Area artist whose exhibits at Mills College Art Museum and Pier 24 Photography will open in fall 2021.

Hettie Blonde Tilghman
Hettie Blonde Tilghman

In the wake of the global movement for Black lives and the subsequent movement for a more just, equitable, and antiracist world, it seems natural to have a statue of Hettie Blonde Tilghman (1871–1933) erected in Golden Gate Park.

Tilghman was born in San Francisco to African American pioneers of the West. Before she hit her stride fighting for women’s voting rights in California and fighting against the African American community being marginalized in the Bay Area, she was an organizer and ran a private language school out of her parents’ home, teaching English to Chinese students. I love that this was an activist who wasn’t only looking out for the rights of people who looked just like her.

Read Bridget Quinn’s “The de Young: A Museum on the Edge” from the Fall 2020 issue of Alta Journal

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