ART | LUCY GRAY
You visit the exhibition. The first picture you come to, you see the woman’s mouth open and she’s waiting — maybe waiting to hear what you have to say, that cigarette poised between her fingers. It’s Billie Holiday, looking radiant, in Awaiting Arraignment. Created by Monica Lundy out of 22 karat gold, white gold, coffee and ashes, Holiday shines, her eyes saying: “I’ve been caught, but not for long.” She’s the opposite of someone who lived in the Fillmore and got displaced; she just came to sing for a night or two and got incarcerated.
Next to Holiday there’s a picture of three people at a booth at Jack’s, the first bar in the Western Addition built for an African American clientele. There’s a beautiful woman with sass, looking right at you, toasting you, with her money spilled out on the table, daring you to disrespect her and her fox fur. The men on either side of her are more like ghosts with protective fury in their eyes.
Feeling for these people is beginning to grab you by the throat and ask you what you’ve done to make it happen, or what you can do to make up for it now.
You feel the rage beneath the liquid porcelain and mixed media that Lundy used to make the life-sized figures of Japanese men — an entire baseball team who came here from Hiroshima to play in the 1920s. The players have their hats off, all standing in a polite line, listening to the national anthem. Theirs? Ours? They would have been middle-aged when we dropped the bomb on them.
Then there’s a pretty young woman, smiling charmingly as she holds her baby in Tagged for Internment. It’s 1942, and she’s being incarcerated, too, in her Sunday best — for the crime of being Japanese American.
If you can hold your temper or your tears, keep walking and you’re wondering if you smell something rancid. It’s seeping through the pigment and drawing that Rodney Ewing used for his mysterious picture of two black men: one smiling, the other looking into the distance, both sporting military caps, their floating heads placed on the tops of white boards splashed with antique red pigment and yellow and more black — perhaps old blood and bile and ashes.
Feel the fury when you look at the Japanese children playing where they have been sequestered from the rest of American society, blamed for something they clearly did not do. They were here in San Francisco, in our neighborhood, when Japan bombed Pearl Harbor.
You can’t believe, knowing what you know when you see these beautiful pictures, that this is you, forever racist, unmoved by the plight of your neighbors and that you will go on letting the Fillmore be trampled by developers, by greed.
The pictures in this exhibition represent a time when Americans, fearful of losing their jobs to new arrivals from Japan, made laws banning them from immigrating. When the Japanese people were taken from their homes during World War II, the African Americans who were coming west to work in the shipyards moved into the vacant houses. This was the one neighborhood where they were allowed to rent. The houses were mostly owned by whites who’d built them before the 1906 earthquake. The Western Addition, built on bedrock and untouched by fire, was largely undamaged.
During and after the war, the owners began moving to the suburbs and renting their houses. They must have been lousy landlords because in the 1950s and ’60s, the Fillmore was considered a slum and houses began to be bulldozed. Areas were cleared for redevelopment and thousands of people were displaced. But decades passed before anything was built.
So here you are at an election season with a ballot full of measures about housing. You’re being given another chance. Before you vote, you’re glad you’ve come to this exhibition, so maybe history doesn’t have to repeat itself.
“Untethered — Stories of the Fillmore District,” featuring artists Monica Lundy and Rodney Ewing, is on exhibit at Nancy Toomey Fine Arts in San Francisco through November 19.
Filed under: Art & Design