SAN FRANCISCO — “Hella shady,” “incredibly disrespectful,” and “another stain on how the Bay Area treats its artists.” These were some of the things said about an artist’s work being selected and then rejected tor a monument outside the main branch of the San Francisco Public Library honoring the life of writer and civil rights leader Maya Angelou.
Lava Thomas, who lives in Berkeley, heard on August 9 that her design, “Portrait of A Phenomenal Woman,” had been chosen. It showed a nine-foot-tall bronze book with Angelou’s face on it and a quote from the author: “If one has courage, nothing can dim the light which shines from within.” Then, on August 22, she got a call from Dorka Keehn, chair of San Francisco Arts Commission’s Visual Arts Committee, telling her that the sponsor for the project wanted a different design.
That was San Francisco Supervisor Catherine Stefani, who sponsored the legislation to honor Angelou with “a significant figurative representation.” Stefani apparently thought Thomas’s work didn’t meet that criteria and asked the committee to start the process over again with clearer guidelines.
At a meeting of the committee on October 16, Stefani said that she wanted to explain what she meant by her words.
“As I carried the legislation across the finish line to elevate women in monuments, I wanted to do it in the same way that men have been historically elevated in this city,” she said.
Thomas, whose work has been exhibited at institutions including the Smithsonian American Art Museum, San Francisco’s Museum of the African Diaspora, and the International Print Center in New York, attended the meeting and told the committee she has had a “horrific two months.”
Thomas said she was elated to find out her proposal had been selected out of hundreds of applicants and three finalists, but two weeks later she got a call saying that the sponsors preferred a more figurative, traditional design.
That’s not the design brief applicants were given, Thomas said.
“In the ordinance, statue is crossed out and artwork is replaced,” the artist continued at the meeting. “I can’t believe that we’re here two months later with a suggestion that this project be closed, and a conservative, traditional statue in the manner of European figurative traditional monuments that confederate and colonial monuments are based on, that we are here discussing this in this city, San Francisco, that’s known for its progressive politics.”
Thomas was invited to submit to the open call, and she says she poured months of research into Angelou’s life and work into her design. In an interview with Hyperallergic, Thomas said she chose a little-known photo of Angelou, with short natural hair and hoop earrings, from a 1973 interview with Bill Moyers where she talked about the price of freedom. It was during the impeachment of Richard Nixon, and Thomas felt like the interview spoke to politics today.
Thomas said the finalists were told during an orientation that they wanted something contemporary and forward-looking. She thought of a book because the monument would be outside the library. She wanted something that would represent Angelou, who lived in San Francisco for a while, performing at nightclubs, like the hungry i and the Purple Onion, and became the first African American woman cable car conductor. In Thomas’s view, this monument had to be different than the usual city statues.
“I wanted to situate that artwork in Black art,” Thomas said. “The Benin bronzes of West Africa are rectangular and used to represent nobility, so I looked at those.”
Angela Hennessy, an artist and professor at the California College of the Arts who was on the selection committee, told the committee during the meeting that what happened to Thomas is “hella shady.”
Hennessy called Thomas’s work “quietly radical” and “poetically subversive,” and she said someone should have talked to the selection committee members about their choice if they wanted to understand it.
“Yes, Lava [Thomas]’s proposal is challenging conventions of sculpture and monument and representation,” Hennessy said. “That’s exactly what we want our art to do, and if it makes you feel uncomfortable, then that means she is doing her job.”
Artists trust the integrity of the process when they apply for grants or awards or commissions, Thomas said, and she calls rescinding an offer after its made is “unheard of.”
“For Stefani to say the only fair thing to do is close the process and reopen it is a huge injustice,” she said. “Patriarchy is so fossilized in her mind that she doesn’t even realize what she wants is anti-feminist.”
Out of 87 public statues in San Francisco, only two represent women: one of Florence Nightingale and one of Senator Dianne Feinstein, mayor of San Francisco in the 1970s. The legislation to have more representation of women passed in October 2018, and it calls for increasing the representation of women by December 31, 2020.
Acting director of cultural affairs at the Arts Commission, Joanne Lee, said the staff and commissioners would not comment and sent the following statement to the media:
“Given the lack of clear consensus on the selection, the Arts Commission’s Visual Arts Committee felt the best move would be to start this process over, and seek a more unifying outcome. All artists who responded to the Request for Qualifications will be invited to compete in the next public RFQ. This will be an important, permanent work of public art. It’s more important to get it done right than to get it done fast.”
Supervisor Stefani did not respond to several calls and emails to her office.