by John Zarobell
Through feats of meticulous planning and engineering, Pan American Unity (1940), one of San Francisco’s finest works of art, has been relocated from its home in the Diego Rivera Theater at City College to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art for an extended engagement – a prelude to the opening of a Rivera retrospective in summer 2022. The mural was painted on-site by Diego Rivera on Treasure Island at the San Francisco World’s Fair in 1940.
In the spirit of that effort, the museum also reached out to artist communities by creating a Mini-Mural Festival (ending this weekend, August 28-29) that involves three Bay Area organizations focused on people of color and those with disabilities: Acción Latina, NIAD and SOMA Pilipinas. All were invited to take over the museum’s alley for a weekend by commissioning two 8 x 8-foot canvases to be created by local artists, reflecting the mural tradition in the Bay Area that Rivera helped launch during two visits to San Francisco, in 1930-1 and 1940.
Rivera’s mural comes alive in SFMOMA’s expansive Roberts Family Gallery on the first floor, a location that allows visitors to see it at no cost. In addition, the mural is visible even when the museum is closed, a significant advantage over its City College location. More important: the space affords viewers the distance needed to take in the complexity of the monumental 22 x 74-foot work. The composition revolves around a central image of the Aztec Earth Deity Coatlicue, half-ancient, half-machine, surrounded by an aerial view of the Bay Area, featuring the (then) newly-completed Bay Bridge. Beneath and surrounding the landscape, figures from ancient indigenous culture to the present appear in ceremonial and artisanal production scenes. They vie for attention alongside images of revolutionaries, from Bolivar to Jefferson, film actors, inventors and Rivera’s contemporaries, including the commissioner of the mural, Timothy Pfleuger, and the artist’s wife, Frida Kahlo. (They married for the second time in San Francisco in 1940). The full title of the mural, The Marriage of the Artistic Expression of the North and South on this Continent, points to the artist’s ambition to fuse all the artistic and technological developments of Mexico and El Norteon one surface.
Will Maynez and his co-researchers at the Diego Rivera Mural Project have worked for more than a generation to identify the mural’s figures and interview everyone depicted (or their descendants). The fruits of their efforts, which decode the mural’s many details, can be found in a brochure available to visitors.
Rivera’s works from this period are generally not considered among his best, but this re-presentation of Pan American Unity argues for a reconsideration of that appraisal. The visual charge and incredible dynamism of this mural, the unity and diversity of the composition, and the artist’s capture of the historical moment (calling explicitly for U.S involvement in World War II) are all factors that place this work among the strongest in the artist’s oeuvre. The relationship between those events and their artistic representation can be seen in one of the lower panels featuring several images of Charlie Chaplin, including his role in The Great Dictator (1940), while Hitler, Stalin and Mussolini can be seen bearing down on a dying child as if from a cloud.
Though preparation for the mural’s reinstallation and upcoming retrospective have been years in the making, the Mini Mural Festival and another initiative, Bay Area Walls, are more recent. Both represent the museum’s response to longstanding calls to involve more local artists and engage diverse communities with its programming. They dovetail with other changes at the museum have come under fire from critics: the proposed ending of its film program, the closure of the SFMOMA Artists Gallery and the shutdown of the Open Space blog. These Mini Mural Festival, launched and overseen by the museum’s Public Engagement team, turn over to artists SFMOMA real estate (an alley outside the building), enabling them to create as they see fit before passersby at the Howard Street entrance, adjacent to the Rivera mural. The SF Walls initiative, which began in 2020, consists of “a series of commissions by local artists that, according to the museum, “actively engage with pressing issues of our time.” The murals and photographs, mainly by Bay Area artists of color, have been installed in various spaces around the museum (Floors 3 and 5) with the idea of bringing in a rotating group of artists to create commissions indefinitely.
Among the mini-murals produced so far, those of DJ Agana and Josué Rojas, commissioned by Acción Latina and made the first weekend (July 31-August 1), tracked Rivera’s approach to a certain extent, while those produced by NIAD artists (adults with developmental disabilities) over the second weekend (July 14-15) followed a different path. Like Rivera’s mural, DJ Agana’s piece employed the half-natural, half-machine goddess as a centerpiece and included other imagery—hands, hearts, and corn—that provided a distinct Latinx charge. Josué Rojas’ mural features a portrait of beloved San Francisco artist René Yanez, who did so much to promote Mexican art in the city through his activities as one of the founders of the Galeria de la Raza. Yanez died recently in the middle of an eviction dispute, making this mural something of an ofrenda to anti-gentrification struggles in the Mission. These commissions by the organization that produces El Tecolote, a newspaper that has long represented the neighborhood, are complex compositions that, like Rivera’s, incorporates landscapes, figures, cultural activities, and even a mythical red low-rider.
Where Agana and Rojas created their works live, the NIAD artists (Miguel Chacon, Deatra Colbert, Julio Del Rio, Luis Estrada, Felicia Griffin, Shana Harper, Esmeralda Silva, Jonathan Valdivias and Christian Vassell) started their commissions six weeks ago in Richmond studios. Their striking imagery is the product of a collective vision incorporating many hands.
Would Rivera approve? I believe he would. While the Mexican mural tradition Rivera brought to San Francisco is being renewed and reinvented, the collective murals produced by adults with developmental disabilities point to a more inclusive approach to creating art for public viewing. If you haven’t visited the Mini Mural Festival, there’s still time to see what remains of it. SOMA Pilipinas, which manages San Francisco’s Filipino cultural heritage district, commissioned Franceska Gamez and Malaya Tuyay to make the festival’s final two mini-murals. They’re on view this weekend, August 28-29.
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About the author:
John Zarobell is an associate professor of International Studies at the University of San Francisco. Previously, he was assistant curator at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and associate curator at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. He has been publishing art criticism since 2010.