Hiraeth: 3.9 Collective Finds home in Thacher Gallery

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Corie Schwabenland
Contributing Writer

With the arrival of Hiraeth: The 3.9 Collective Searches for Home in Thacher Gallery, Gleeson Library has transcended its function as a study haven for students in an exceptionally poignant way. Now, its space has transformed into a visual, and visceral walkthrough exploration of “home,” and what exactly that means in San Francisco’s rapidly changing ethnic landscape. Where is home? How is it created? Most importantly, what happens when home begins to slip away from you, changed by time into something increasingly unfamiliar?

The latter is an essential question for the 3.9 Art Collective, both in their contributions to Hiraeth and in their art as a whole. When a preliminary census statistic pegged the city’s black population at 3.9 in 2010, the collective found their name, and an important niche: exploring what it means to be “black” in San Francisco when, according to the 3.9 Collective, is a word that’s “now synonymous with ‘vanishing.’”

3.9’s Roots, Growth and Goals

The collective started with a discussion between two East Coast-to-SF transplants, says 3.9 co-founder William Rhodes. When Rhodes, originally from Baltimore, and fellow artist Nancy Cato shared their perceptions about San Francisco after living in the city for a respective seven and twenty years, they came to a striking conclusion:

“We really just felt there was a huge disparity when it comes to wealth, and very few variations of African Americans: You see a lot of African Americans that are homeless; you do not see a lot of African Americans living in San Francisco that are middle class or working class,” says Rhodes. “It became a concern for us, and we decided that, since we’re both artists, to try to figure out a way to talk about these issues through our art and form a collective.”

Since its founding, 3.9 has swelled to twenty-five artists, the group’s highest number. Then five of their own artists were priced out of San Francisco, leaving the collective at its current total of twenty, nine of whom contributed art to “Hiraeth.”

Joining 3.9 has been an important source of support for many of its members as art resources decrease in tandem with the city’s overall cost-of-living increase. “You know, just trying to make it as an artist anywhere in the country is hard,” explains member Mark Harris. “Be you a minority or a woman, it’s tough to make it as an artist. It’s even tougher here, where the presence of African American artists is almost nil. I don’t think that most people would think we have a presence here in the city.”

William Rhodes' installation considers the hidden histories of homeless San Franciscans.
William Rhodes’ installation considers the hidden histories of homeless San Franciscans.

“Maybe you think that there’s black people everywhere, but you kind of had to search for these pockets,” says Nancy Cato, who also notes the lack of existing community as her chief struggle while acclimating to San Francisco. Joining 3.9 however, has afforded her “a wealth of information” between members who have supported her through writing cover letters and securing gallery space, and who provide each other support that otherwise might not exist. “We can actually work together to be noticed and sort of move forward whatever [we’re all] working on. Whatever you need.”

Beyond the sense of community inherent in 3.9’s collective is a desire to educate via art, and a unique position to do so. While the exodus of black artists unquestionably threatens San Francisco’s diversity, it also acts as a galvanizing factor for art. “I’m gonna be honest, when I lived other places and was in a comfortable position, and did not really have to focus on issues or people being pushed out or inequalities based on economics, I really did not have as much of a community interest,” says Rhodes. “Yes it is very sad because we’re watching people leave. We’re watching people who have a lot to offer being pushed out of the city, but at the same time, we are beginning to be known as a result of this tragedy because people are noticing what’s going on with the city.”

Rhodes has three pieces in Hiraeth, a trio of suitcases each bearing neon light messages like “MOTHER” “FATHER” and “SOLDIER” and keepsakes from homeless Bayview residents, which comprise what small bits of home they’re able to grasp. Rhodes’ piece is meant to symbolize two things: 1) the difficult crossroads Bayview (a historically black neighborhood) residents face with the impending loom of gentrification, and 2) the blind eye the rest of San Francisco turns to it. The piece was partly inspired by a trip on BART, where rider after rider stepped over a homeless man asleep in front of the train doors, who with his body obscured by a blanket was reduced to nothing more than a faceless obstacle. “I’m hoping that [my] art will take away these feelings of being desensitized in people’s lives. I’m hoping that people can put themselves in [the positions of others in difficult situations] and try to have an understanding of what that’s like.”

Mark Harris expresses a similar desire behind his own art: a bright, madcap collage of images capped off by city mayor Ed Lee, grinning wildly and triumphantly from atop a Google bus steed. “I hope that it shakes people to their core,” says Harris. “It’s a piece that you’re either gonna like or you’re not. I don’t think there’s a lot of middle ground with it.”

“What I tried to do is take a lot of what is happening around us every day and freeze it into one image that hopefully arrests you enough to stop and process it all. ‘Wow, there’s the mayor on top of a tech shuttle, what does that mean?’ There’s a guy walking down the streets naked, beside another guy who has his clothes on and he doesn’t even care. There’s people laying in the street. I’m hoping it takes all of these moving parts that are going on, that otherwise you wouldn’t notice in real life, and forces you to look.”

Finding (and exploring) home in Thacher 

Thacher Gallery curator Glori L. Simmons waited for three years to bring 3.9 to USF in some capacity, as did a variety of professors and faculty who’d known of the collective and hosted them for on-campus events. “They’ve been on campus once or twice or maybe three times even. At a certain point after they were here, Associate Dean Pamela Balls-Organista sent me an e-mail and said ‘we need to actually bring them here and show their work.’” The only impediment was Thacher’s schedule, which consistently books up almost two years in advance.

“It had been on the books for a while, but the timing actually worked out really well– in terms of the teach-in and conversations on campus around race,” says Simmons, who is also conscious of the exhibit’s arresting location in the heart of Gleeson’s bustling library.

Hiraeth’s open-ended concept and execution was intentional, says exhibit curator Rhiannon MacFadyen, who is also an artist and member of 3.9. “‘Hiraeth’ came from a conversation Rodney Ewing [another 3.9 co-founder] had with a friend of his where he learned that word, which means “homesick” in Welsh, and it fit so perfectly with the various levels of home that our community is dealing with,” says MacFadyen.

As a San Francisco native, MacFadyen has seen San Francisco change from decade to decade and “lose its openness for difference and experimentation,” via Mission District murals being painted over by landlords to save time and money maintaining the wear and tear of each piece, to the dwindling number of languages and music and foods (and the cultures they symbolize) evident from street to street within the city. As an artist and curator, MacFadyen is concerned with how to teach newer SF residents what they’re missing, and why they should care.

“I feel like one of the problems is a fractured community and people not communicating with each other,” says MacFadyen “I go back and forth between feeling like the problem lies with the landlords versus the problem lying with the city… I don’t think it’s actually the kids that are moving in. I know they tend to be the ones that are attacked first, but they’re just moving wherever their job is. I think the city should educate them and teach them as they come in.”

If the city can’t (or won’t) do that, Hiraeth can. And the artists involved intend to.

Moving Forward

“I think that we’re in a time right now, where black artists choose to talk on [the issues our community faces] and we need visual help,” says cartoonist Nancy Cato. “Visual, poetry, music, everything. If we weren’t facing so much adversity, I’d be fine painting flowers. Just personally, I can’t paint abstracts when our a—s are getting kicked on the global scale. It’s a responsibility.”

Rhiannon Macfeyden Evans and Rodney Ewing, 3.9 Collective organizers of the Tacher show, enjoy a laugh at the DeYoung Museum, where Ewing was artist in residnce for March.
Rhiannon Macfeyden Evans and Rodney Ewing, 3.9 Collective organizers of the Tacher show, enjoy a laugh at the DeYoung Museum, where Ewing was artist in residnce for March.

While Cato uses her illustrations to convey “the enormity of being black in America” and address a heavy subject matter, her medium of doing so is deeply grounded in wonder and exploration. She likens creating art to inviting someone into your home: “You just want to invite them in and have a conversation, not beat people over the head too much. You don’t want to smack ‘em around or anything. I’m always interested in folks viewing it and having dialogue. If it was someone, a white person looking at it, I would really like it if they took that image in and actually went to a black person and talked about it. ‘What did it mean to you? What do you think is going on?’ Dialogue is what I‘m trying to create, ultimately.”

Cato’s desire for dialogue echoes what many of Hiraeth’s artists share: that experiencing the exhibit doesn’t just mean wandering into the gallery, looking at the art, feeling something, and leaving marginally changed by what you’ve seen. The hope is that somehow, some way, Hiraeth’s audience takes the exhibit with them, through the doors of Thacher Gallery and beyond.

“I hope that Hiraeth creates a sense of empathy for a community that’s being pushed out quite rapidly from San Francisco” says MacFadyen. “But once you have the understanding and empathy, I hope you back it up with voting for political leaders in the city who can actually make change, speaking out if you see somebody getting pushed out, even just talking about it with your community so it’s not just this secret angry conversation in the corner! I hope that it will actually stir action.”

Photo Credits: Kris George/Foghorn

Hiraeth runs through April 21st, and will feature a closing event with Rodney Ewing from 5:30-7:30p.m. on April 21st in the Thacher Gallery. For more information, contact jvgabrielle@usfca.edu or visit  http://www.usfca.edu/library/thacher/

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