by Camilla Mikolajewska
by Ella Mazur
"The aim of an artist or activist is to create art that is a form of political and social currency, actively addressing cultural power structures rather than representing them or simply describing them."
Unconventional—that’s the word I would use to describe SOMArts Cultural Center. In my interview with Maria Jenson, Creative and Executive Director of SOMArts, she shares some insight into the creative process behind their emotionally provoking exhibits, support for emerging artists, and dedication to the Bay Area community. What is unique about their curatorial approach is that SOMArts does not have an in-house curator, they are instead curated by the community. All ideas that come through the gallery are coming from artists and curators that are living in the Bay Area and exploring issues that are close to home, thus allowing the community to come together to create a unanimous form of understanding. Their exhibits help to visualize the feelings and emotions that are hard to put into words. SOMArts has a true community-first approach, making them a spectacular place to enhance both your artistic and cultural knowledge.
Five Questions with Maria Jenson
Favourite Visual Artist in San Francisco?
One word that describes your organization's culture?
Last book you read?
Caste by Isabelle Wilkerson
Your favourite dinner spot in San Francisco?
Favourite travel destination?
What does an exhibit like Dia de los Muertors contribute to San Francisco's arts community?
Día de Los Muertos creates a space for communal mourning and celebration and provides the community an opportunity to gather together around altars created by local artists from different backgrounds and walks of life. Día de Los Muertos was founded by curator and artist René Yañez who was a visionary in his field. He was one of the first artists to pioneer an exhibit that was focused on Day of the Dead. Since his death his son Rio Yañez has taken over the exhibit and carried on his vision of a 20 year old legacy. What is unique about Día de Los Muertos is that this exhibit not only mourns the lives of deceased loved ones, but also reflects the passing of political activists. This exhibit has its roots in political resistance and the idiosyncratic Bay area. Sometimes these murals are just everyday people but, through their death, have become very political. This year for instance, we had a beautiful mural for George Floyd. We did an actual artist call for this exhibition. So for me, I’m just carrying on the tradition that has been going on long before I even started at SOMArts.
We were lucky this past year to be able to open on a very small scale so at least people got to experience the art. We typically have 600 visitors with 50 participating artists but this year we could only have 10 artists which was very interesting as people got to spend more time at each altar, without feeling rushed. This goes on for about 4-5 weeks, and generally there's a very big opening and closing night. This isn’t a somber event, it’s a celebration of a beautiful way the Mexican culture thinks of remembrance. This year however it took on more of that feeling of mourning, as it was more intimate. Many people have lost their lives this past year so this exhibit had a major global impact.
What inspires you and your team in the curatorial process for such diverse exhibits?
It definitely is a team effort! We don’t have a curator per se, we have a number of community collaborators and work with Carolina Quintanilla, our director of Curatorial Partnerships. We also review submissions through our curatorial residency program which is really exciting for us. It is a nine-month incubator program that provides a unique opportunity for emerging curators and artists to gain mentorship and support in order to execute large scale exhibitions in our approximately 31,000 sq. feet space. Three residencies are awarded each season through an open call process which allows them an opportunity to further expand on their curatorial practice and explore timely social issues. Additionally we provide space to three longer term partnership organizations Queer Cultural Centre, Asian Pacific Islander Centre and ArtSpan, and each of those organizations curate their own exhibitions annually.
We also work with the SF Foundation to co-produce the Murphy and Cadogan Contemporary Art Awards, which is a focus group on the Bay area visual artists. These awards champion the artists who are in their first year of the MFA program. A lot of rewards go to people who finish something, but this is great as it recognizes their developing process and ideas, and it’s nice that they get some funding support at this time. It also gives these artists recognition, we have a lot of art dealers and gallerists who come to these exhibits and often they are being approached by folks already. We’ve had to move so many things to the virtual realm, and sometimes you worry that things may be lost in translation. It’s interesting to see that we don’t have a curator, as it’s almost as though the community is curating their own space. It’s the artists and the curators, who are bringing forward these proposals and we are providing economic, installation and mentoring support, to give these visions a chance to have life. We have also learned from these artists and curators, making it very organic and intentional.
Do you mainly focus on the Bay area?
The art world is a global reality. We are very regional or geographically specific. We sense that the Bay area is a community where, unlike New York or L.A where there are lots of opportunities or ways to engage, the Bay area is unique as a lot of great talent is developed here but the opportunities don’t present themselves as frequently. Many artists in the Bay Area do go on to have a career in major cities or across the globe, but for our purposes as a cultural centre, that is at once an arts organization but also belongs to the community, we focus largely on community. We are really looking at those artists who don’t get an opportunity. I’m not a big fan of the word underrepresented or marginalized, I’m thinking more it really has to do with where is the opportunity? And how do people find the opportunity? And that really becomes for some aspect of the art world, very much about who you know while for us we try to make it as publicly accessible as possible and we really want to nurture those artists that live in the Bay.
How do you think the role of being an artist and activist overlap in our current social climate?
Art and activism has overlapped since the beginning of time. They have a critical and important effect on the world. For some art it may not be as obvious, but the aim of an artist or activist is to create art that is a form of political and social currency, actively addressing cultural power structures rather than representing them or simply describing them.
I did a tiny bit of research around this very recently, as everyone is talking about the (Works Progress Administration) WPA coming back in response to ‘how to take care of artists’, or treat them at the same level as workers. Some people don’t know that that history actually comes from the Great Depression, and it was a time in US history that a wide spread movement of artists began to address social issues. They were helping the workers who were protesting by creating protest signs, they organized exhibits around social and political themes like poverty, lack of affordable housing, anti-lynching and anti facism efforts. I mean these are the same things that artists are helping us understand now but also helping to get these messages out through art.
Not a lot has changed. What has changed now, which is why I think this question comes up, is social media. Social media has made these images immediately available on a global scale. That’s why the impact of artists and activists feels much more immediate for all of us and I think we almost look to our artists now as our first responders when something comes up that is a political, social, racial issue. It’s almost as if the artists are on the ground before anyone else is, replaying back to us an image of what we are seeing on the nightly news, yet somehow art has made it feel much more immediate. The sensationalism has been removed and instead we are looking at what the root causes are. So to me, art and activism is about empowering the individual and the community and it’s generally situated in a public arena, where artists are working closely with communities. If we think about the partnership of art activism and BLM, or the Women’s March or Pussy Riot, anything really – we almost now assume that art as the main communicator of information and is much more impactful and credible than looking at online news.