Complex, political art defined SF in 2020

Year of quarantine saw lighthearted memes, a proliferation of murals and the toppling of statues

Art in 2020 was unexpected, unprecedented and sometimes uncanny. Musicians filmed music videos over Zoom, photographers took photos over FaceTime, theaters in The City performed virtually, and movies were streamed and shown in drive-ins. Locally, patterns were contradictory. Some art was made to cope with trauma, and some was destroyed in response.

Here’s a short list that charts the non-linear path art has taken in a complicated era.

Zoom memes

“Normalcy” collapsed in March, around the time when college students were getting ready for spring break. Later, there was an endless stream of online courses, which many students attended from the confines of their childhood bedrooms. In-person graduation ceremonies were canceled, and the class of 2020 said quick goodbyes to friends indefinitely before receiving diplomas by mail.

The Facebook group “Zoom Memes for Self Quaranteens” captured the early chaotic frenzy of the moment. It was a hub for comic relief and emotional support, where students could share GIFs, vent about unsympathetic professors, and commiserate. Its moderators, including UC Berkeley students, categorized the 800,000-member group as a coping mechanism for the times. Years from now, history classes may unearth the archived memes as a way for understanding the psychology of the times.

Paint the Void

When shelter-in-place fell, plywood boards around The City went up. “It started looking so drab, with all of the boards,” said Inga Bard, executive director of Art for Civil Discourse. So Bard’s organization, in collaboration with the art consulting company Building 180, launched Paint the Void, a project that paid artists to add color to the sheets covering storefronts. “I was fascinated by the idea of … how art can heal the world,” Paz de la Calzada, one muralist, said. “Not only from a perspective of beautification, but also because you engage the community with the process of healing and transformation.”

Whitewashing The Stud

Conversely, while murals were spreading across The City, one iconic art piece was painted over in mayonnaise beige. After The Stud’s owner-collective closed its Ninth Street location out of necessity, the building’s new owner swiftly painted over its murals — a symbol of resilience for the LGBTQ community — during Pride Month, no less.

The backlash was immediate. The artists of the whitewashed murals sued the building owner over alleged damages, and an anonymous artist took action, decorating the new cream exterior. “Black Lives Matter,” the new mural read. “We will not be erased.”

Toppled statues

Elsewhere around The City, older sculptures were being scrubbed from the landscape. On June 19, demonstrators tied a rope to the cross of a Father Junípero Serra statue. For many Indigenous people, Serra is a symbol of the brutalization of their community and a representation of the Spanish Empire’s colonization of the Americas.

The targeting of monuments like Serra’s was fueled by the energy of Black Lives Matter. San Francisco State University Associate Professor Kym Morrison said the toppling of statues emblematic of racism, conquest, colonialism and white supremacy represent long-term projects and deep-seated concerns from people who have been “excluded from more formal political channels.”

Day of the Dead in a year of grief

Artist Jos Sances’ contribution to SOMArts Cultural Center’s Día de los Muertos exhibit was like a history book for 2020, etched on panoramic scratchboards: a homeless encampment under a highway overpass next to sign that says “can’t blame Wuhan for this;” an excavator truck pummeling a rainforest; a Black Lives Matter protest; a funeral.

It was also a microcosm of the intent of the exhibit. “We recognize there have been so many lives lost that could’ve been avoided, that should not have been lost,” co-curator Rio Yañez said.

The Day of the Dead exhibit was filled with altars, carving out spaces for healing and mourning in a year of grief. Some were for the people lost to COVID-19. Some were for the people lost to police brutality.

Artist Aambr Newsome dedicated their altar to “the Black enslaved ancestors,” hoping the art would encourage viewers to reflect: “We shouldn’t have to die in order to gain freedom,” the mural reads.

Michael Toren and Hannah Holzer contributed to this report.

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