“San Francisco is much prettier than New York. And it’s much easier to hide because you’ve got the views; you’ve got the hills. You’ve got the San Francisco legend, too. That it’s cosmopolitan and forward-looking but it’s just another American city. And if you’re a Black man that’s means it’s a very bitter thing to say. Children are dying here as they are in New York for the very same reasons. But see, it’s a somewhat better place to lie about it, which is really all it comes to. Nobody wants to destroy the image of San Francisco.”
– James Baldwin, in the documentary Take This Hammer, 1964
The inimitable Black scholar James Baldwin was an insightful essayist, novelist, playwright and speaker. Baldwin’s words, spoken while driving through the city with sweeping views of the Bay and the hills rolling behind him, reverberate across the decades. The Bay Area still has two faces: accepting, prosperous, industrious; and simultaneously violent, hostile, greedy. The Bay Area is rife with social and political divisions to underline these characteristics. On the one hand, poverty, police brutality, mass incarceration and gentrification converge to continually oppress those already most marginalized; on the other, extraordinary wealth, a booming technology economy, numerous condo towers accompany the influx of the hip and tech-savvy. The collision of these worlds, while not isolated to this region, are hyper-visible here in large part because of the artists and activists bringing dialogue and direct action to the fore.
The multi-media exhibition Take This Hammer: Art and Media Activism from the Bay Area on view at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (YBCA) draws attention to the creative ways that people are demanding justice, shattering the image of a utopian Bay Area, and building a more equitable one. The title is a nod to the quoted KQED documentary, which followed Baldwin, a born and bred New Yorker, on his 1963 trip to San Francisco. Baldwin took the trip in an effort to expose the truths and realities of Black life in the supposedly liberal city of the American North. The film, which screens in YBCA’s main lobby as part of the exhibit, exposes experiences of violence and discrimination endemic to the social and political fabric of early 1960’s San Francisco. Baldwin spoke to Black residents who were under no delusion that San Francisco was a fair and progressive place. The film’s deconstruction of San Francisco carries through to the work of today’s artist activists, and the work shown throughout the exhibit.
You will not see any carefully guarded still life paintings or sculptures that demand protection by velvet ropes at Take This Hammer. Instead, there are video screens, giant murals and installations, music and posters. Attendees are encouraged to listen to and interact with the content; pick up headphones, handle postcards and posters, many items free for the taking. The exhibition showcases work from creators across diverse styles and perspectives, many of who don’t see themselves as just artists or even artists at all. Contributors include performers, designers, activists, technologists, illustrators and musicians. The list is as varied as the contributors, of which there are 18 in total, though taking into consideration the fact that many of these groups are collectives or collaborations I am sure the list is even longer.
Several installations confront the realities of displacement and gentrification. Google Google Apps Apps, PERSIA and Daddie$ Pla$tik’s viral music video, lures visitors into the exhibit with its loud and catchy tune. The lyrics rail against the City of San Francisco for its open arms to wealthy newcomers (“SF, keep your money!”) and simultaneous lack of support for lower income residents, many of who are Black and brown and queer. There are also the reproductions of Leslie Dreyer’s collaborative interventions, one of which was the occupation of Airbnb’s downtown San Francisco headquarters. The reproduction includes helium-filled balloons that suspend red houses high above viewers, each branded with words like “Homelessness” and “Evictions.” Her pieces point out the place of tech companies and tech workers who are contributing to the housing (in)affordability crisis and rising rate of evictions. The Anti-Eviction Mapping Project’s animated map tracks the frequency and location of no-fault evictions since 1997, showing the full scale and effect of displacement.
Police brutality and harassment is another thematic pillar that runs deep throughout the show and generates diverse means of artful reflection. Indira Allegra’s digital weaving installation, Blackout, layers the words of people who have lost loved ones to police violence with a digital representation of the fabric used in police uniforms. The words scroll and are continually mashed and blocked by the fabric. Oree Originol’s iconic poster portraits of people killed by police are printed on multi-hued paper for the exhibition. His work has become ubiquitous at rallies and marches and can be seen wheatpasted onto buildings and displayed in home and shop windows across the Bay Area. The number of faces he has had to recreate generate a haunting rainbow patchwork. A performance by Cat Brooks, member of Black Lives Matter and co-founder of Anti Police-Terror Project, plays on loop, reenacting the sequence of events that led to the killing of 37-year-old Natasha McKenna while in police custody. Her performance draws attention to the treatment of black women by police, and demands viewers to understand how life and death this movement truly is.
Other contributions come from the 3.9 Art Collective, Bay Area Society for Art & Activism, CultureStrike, The Guantanamo Bay Museum of Art and History, Jeremy Mende, Tucker Nichols, Adrienne Skye Roberts, Favianna Rodriguez, Ruby Mountain and Stamen. Their work ranges from inspirational to informational. The viewer goes from each piece to the next, uncertain what topics will be explored or what emotional impact they will have. The 70 screen-printed graphic posters by arts collaboration Dignidad Rebelde, prominently on display at the front of the exhibition space, is impressive and wide-ranging in subjects. Their works speaks to the vibrancy and hope of protest art. Right across the way is a somber and powerful data visualization piece from Pitch Interactive. It charts the devastating number of deaths caused by drone attacks from 2004-2015 in Pakistan. Viewed together, even while translated through numerous mediums and topics, the works in this show make clear just how enduring and rampant violence and oppression are. Simultaneously it points out how many people are speaking up and out against the failing systems and norms society has built.
One of the unique elements of Take This Hammer is the thorough research the curatorial team did to contextualize the exhibit. Their research and dedication is evident from the accompanying 12-page brochure that in and of itself deserves attention. The brochure roots the exhibition and lends perspective on why it is necessary now. An essay penned by lead curator Christian L. Frock, makes clear that Take This Hammer “endeavors to complicate conventional narratives around activism and the role of art in social change.” The brochure also includes a sobering “Justice & Equity Index” compiled by journalist and critic Jeff Chang. The index lists out 55 varying numbers, statistics or costs that highlight glaring racial and economic inequalities due to this country’s systemic issues and faults. Prolific San Francisco author and essayist Rebecca Solnit also wrote a piece for the brochure chronicling the Bay Area’s history of radical resistance. Full color reproductions of various posters and other pieces, photographs and screenshots, are included, too. This brochure makes it certain that viewers can take a piece of the exhibit home with them.
When I came away from listening to Baldwin’s reflections on the city of San Francisco, I was reminded how artful reflection can call people to action. Like a complementary puzzle piece, as I came away from the exhibition I was reminded of the fact that calls to action can be artful. As I walked out of YBCA’s doors and back in to the hustle and bustle of San Francisco I felt renewed and invested in exploring my own potential in creating change and supporting movements for justice.
Take This Hammer, both the documentary and this exhibit, remind the viewer of the longstanding relationship between art and activism and the power they hold to bolster and inform one another. Some may view the exhibition, as I did, as an invitation to join the action. Others may see it as just an educational tool and archive to remember this political moment. Whichever perspective the viewer comes away with, Take This Hammer creates a platform to see and understand the interconnected injustices that so desperately need to change.
+ + +
Mika Hernandez is a queer mixed Asian American-Xicana born and living on occupied Chochenyo and Karkin Ohlone land (Oakland, CA). She is a writer, artist, and community organizer passionate about the intersections of reproductive, racial, and food justice work. You can follow her work at hernandezmika.wordpress.com.