Talking Walls: A Conversation with Megan Wilson | By Marie Tollon

Last August, Minneapolis-based artist Emily Johnson started her piece SHORE on Clarion Alley in the Mission District, before leading the audience to ODC Theater. Some of the murals on the alley portrayed the narrative of neighborhood families and helped anchor SHORE, a piece about home, community and connections, into the local fabric of the city. This coming Saturday, as part of Mission Street Dances, Dance Brigade will perform an excerpt from Hemorrhage on Clarion Alley. The piece deals with the gentrification of the Mission and police brutality. Once again, the dance echoes themes of displacement and gentrification beautifully illustrated within the murals that cover the alley walls and just across the street from the Mission Police Station where the Frisco 5 went on hunger strike last month to protest recent fatal police shootings in San Francisco. I took this opportunity to reach out to Megan Wilson, director of Clarion Alley Mural Project (CAMP) to hear more about the history and projects of CAMP.

"Capitalism Is Over" Mural By Megan Wilson, Clarion Alley, 2011

“Capitalism Is Over”
Mural By Megan Wilson,
Clarion Alley, 2011

Marie Tollon: What is your role at CAMP?

Megan Wilson: My relationship to the project started in 1998 initially volunteering with the first block party. I did my first mural in 2000 and just continued to be involved. Aaron Noble, who was the last person to live in the warehouse at 47 Clarion Alley, had been pretty much the main administrator of the project since the beginning. When he was evicted and decided to move to Los Angeles, the project was turned over to me. I asked Aaron to stay on as a co-director because he had the institutional knowledge. I was co-director until 2005. We did the huge international exchange project with Indonesia during that time. I left in 2005, and I’ve been back since 2010 and heavily involved.

MT: How do you select artists?

MW: We are an all-volunteer organization and there are only two of us who manage the administrative duties of the project, myself and my partner Christopher Statton, working with an additional core group of about 10 – 15 volunteers. Being a 24-year project, we don’t have a lot of spaces that open up each year. We turn over a space when an artist is no longer here and has given it up, or if the space gets tagged really bad and the artist has moved or is no longer able to repair it or to paint a new mural. Or if it is a space where we’ve said: “this is temporary.” If the artists are taking good care of the murals, coming back and painting them, there’s no need to curate the wall to someone else.

Most of the time we already know artists or organizations we want to work with, such as the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project, South of Market Community Action Network, Hospitality House, or the Arab Resource & Organizing Center. We do get proposals, and we accept some; however it’s only a few each year because we are so limited with space.

MT: These murals are very much related to current issues in the neighborhood and the Bay Area. Yet CAMP also started a collaboration with Indonesian artists. How did that start and what did it entail?

MW: I went to Indonesia in 2001 as one of the publishers and editors of the online art magazine Stretcher. I was interested in what contemporary Indonesian art looked like because I had never seen any. Indonesians were also coming off Suharto’s dictatorship so I was curious as to how artists were responding to that. After being in Bali for 2 weeks, I was recommended to go to Jogjakarta where the Institut Seni Indonesia (ISI), the most prestigious arts university for Indonesia, is located and I ended up meeting a great collective of artists – Apotik Komik. They were doing work that was similar to work that was being done in San Francisco at that time – quite ephemeral, working with cardboard, comic book influenced, pop culture influenced and politically influenced. I interviewed three of the members of Apotik Komik for an article for Stretcher. When I came back to the United States, I stayed in touch with them and wrote two articles for Stretcher based on my travels in Indonesia. One month later September 11th happened. Indonesia is the largest Muslim country in the world and at that time the country was still in the early stages of becoming a democratically run country, following a 33-years dictatorship with Suharto as President. We (Apotik Komik and I) thought 9/11 provided an opportunity to bring our cultures together to share our experiences with one another collectively following such a life-altering event for everyone throughout the world and that is what we did.

It took 2 years to raise the money and in July/August 2003 six artists from here (Aaron Noble, Alicia McCarthy, Andrew Schoultz, Carolyn Castaño, Ryder, and myself) traveled to Indonesia for 5 weeks to paint murals, do an exhibition, and participate in many community discussions. Then Apotik Komik (Arie Dyanto, Arya Jalu, Nano Warsono, and Samuel Indratma) traveled from Indonesia to San Francisco for 8 weeks. It was an incredible experience to get to know these artists. We are launching another exchange with JokJakarta and this one is going to be more direct in its use of socio-political messaging to help support global change. We are living in a world that is driven by capitalism globally and that is destroying everybody and everything in its path. We need to work together on a global level to change the path that we’re on.

"Stop The Corporatocracy" Mural by Megan Wilson, Clarion Alley, 2015

“Stop The Corporatocracy”
Mural by Megan Wilson,
Clarion Alley, 2015

MT: Can you talk more about how CAMP’s community partners are involved in the project?

MW: We have key community partners like Community Thrift. They were the first building to give us space on the alley. They are also a wonderful non-profit and own their building. Since we lost our warehouse and then our garage, Community Thrift has let us store our ladders in their space, use their bathrooms and get water. We have been partnering with ATA since our early days and they often present video programming for our block parties. We also work with them on community organizing within the neighborhood. CAMP is part of the Plaza 16 Coalition. We also work specifically on murals with certain organizations like the Anti Eviction Mapping Project.

MT: CAMP lost its warehouse then its garage. So where are you now?

MW: We do not have a physical space, which is both a blessing and a curse. It is amazing how much we do with how little we have. Nobody gets paid. We don’t have overhead as far as a space we’d have to pay rent on. There is no danger of us getting evicted. We do have basic site agreements going back to the beginning of the project and now with the new developments that have gone up on the alley, we have contracts with those buildings that give us the rights to curate the space.

MT: San Francisco has a strong history of muralism. Can you talk more about it and how the murals on Clarion Alley fit within it?

MW: I didn’t start as a muralist or as a painter, so I’m not that knowledgeable! I’m more of a conceptual-based artist who uses paint and murals because it’s a great way to get messages out. Balmy Alley, which started in the early ‘80s was the first mural alley that inspired Clarion to start 10 years later. Balmy focused on issues speaking to Central American socio-political issues and giving voices to that movement. There is also a labor activism mural movement in the Bay Area. Clarion brought it more toward the diversity of what you can do with public art, creating work that was more stylistically diverse – with spray and brush works, conceptual projects, and a many other approaches to creating public murals – also more diverse in the content presented. In the past several years socio-political messaging has become more predominant as we’re seeing so much hyper-gentrification impact the Bay Area. Like the trains with graffiti of the twenties and thirties that were going across the country carrying those messages, social media is carrying those messages everywhere now too.

MT: Although hard to quantify, can you trace some of the impact of Clarion Alley on issues the murals are tackling?

MW: Our mission supports giving voice to disenfranchised communities, to this neighborhood, and to the political issues that are happening in the Bay Area. As you said, it’s really hard to quantify but the images do get used a lot for socio-political imaging. They will get picked up and be used all over the world. In 2015, I was contacted by Dr. Albena Azmanova, an esteemed economist, an Associate Professor in Political and Social Thought at the University of Kent, and a policy advisor Associate Professor in Political and Social Thought, and policy advisor for the United Nations, the Council of Europe, the European Parliament, the European Commission, and Transparency International. Dr. Azmanova is writing a paper for an international policy journal and she wrote to ask permission to use images of my murals “Tax The Rich”, “Capitalism Is Over! If You Want It”, and “Stop The Corporatocracy” to accompany her paper. These murals will be seen by policy leaders from around the world. Likewise, Rebecca Solnit recently wrote an article for the Guardian “Gentrification’s toll: ‘It’s you or the bottom line and sorry, it’s not you’ and she used an image of the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project’s mural “Narratives of Displacement.” So in this way, CAMP’s social/political messages have become a part of the visual landscape that is helping to define the social change movements of our time.

Additionally, being on the alley painting, we have a lot of conversations with people, often tourists. People are so grateful that we are doing the work that we are and that they are seeing this type of work in the public realm. It is one of the only spots in the city that actually has that kind of voice and that kind of socio-political weight.

MT: What are you working on now?

MW: The website has been taking most of my creative energy for the last 5 months. Before that, Christopher and I were in Indonesia for 4 months and we each did large murals – Christopher, in collaboration with Nano Warsono, who was one of the artists that was part of the Sama-Sama/Together international exchange. Nano is also our partner in leading the next international exchange. I am itching to get back into making work! I know it’s going to be some socio-political messaging. It’s so hard to live in this climate and this world, and not respond. I miss making really beautiful, more personal, more design-based work. But at this point in time, I just can’t do that.

A Conversation with Christina Hellmich, Curator at the de Young Museum | By Marie Tollon

Earlier this spring, Christopher K. Morgan and Patrick Mukuakane were talking on the phone about their upcoming engagement at ODC’s Walking Distance Dance Festival. Both artists knew of each other but had never met. Morgan, a modern dancer for the past 20 years, is based in Washington, DC., while Mukuakane, who founded Na Lei Hulu I Ka Wekiu in 1985, lives and works in the Bay Area. The conversation between both artists focused on the Hawaiian roots that they share, as well as the work that they will present at the festival.

Ahu 'ula (cape), pre-1861. Yellow and black "Royal Hawaiian Featherwork: Nā Hulu Ali‘i" exhibition at the de Young Museum

Ahu ‘ula (cape), pre-1861. Yellow and black
“Royal Hawaiian Featherwork: Nā Hulu Ali‘i”
exhibition at the de Young Museum

Morgan’s Pōhaku is the culmination of a 10-year long process that included numerous trips and residencies in Hawaii. The piece stemmed from Morgan’s desire to explore how the Polynesian dances that he learned as a child influenced his work and is also partly inspired by Morgan’s late cousin, hula master John Kaimikaua. Makuakane’s Hula Show combines hula kahiko -which involves traditional movement vocabulary accompanied by chanting and percussive instruments- with hula a’uana, or contemporary hula danced to the accompaniment of popular music.

At the end of the conversation, Makuakane offered to make the Lei poʻo (head lei) and Kūpeʻe lima (wristlet) that Morgan will wear during his show. Made up of ti-leaves and ferns, they are a traditional part of the hula dancers’ costume. This act of spontaneous generosity reminded me of the customs of hospitality and generosity palpable throughout the Royal Hawaiian Featherwork: Nā Hulu Ali‘i exhibition at the de Young Museum.

Developed in partnership with the Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum, Honolulu, it was the first exhibition of Hawaiian featherwork on the U.S. mainland, and was on view until last month. The show featured approximately 75 rare examples of the finest featherwork capes and cloaks in existence, as well as royal staffs of feathers (kāhili), feather lei (lei hulu manu), helmets (mahiole), feathered god images (akua hulu manu), and related eighteenth- and nineteenth-century paintings and works on paper. Most of these works had been donated as gifts to foreign royalties, as a way to promote or reinforce alliances.

Learning about Morgan and Makuakane’s work as well as visiting the exhibition highlighted similarities about larger issues present both in the visual and performing arts, including questions of costume as identity and the underrepresentation of non-Western art on the contemporary scene. Christina Hellmich, curator in charge of the arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas and curator of the Jolika Collection of New Guinea Art at the de Young Museum, graciously offered to answer my questions.

Christina Hellmich

Christina Hellmich

Marie Tollon: Where does your interest in the arts of Africa, Oceania and the Americas (AOA) stem from? 

Christina Hellmich: My grandparents loved to travel and I was fortunate to travel with them to Europe, Asia and the Pacific. My Master’s degree advisor was Allen Wardwell, former curator of primitive art at the Art Institute of Chicago and director of the Asia Society and the Isamu Noguchi Garden Museum. He encouraged me to pursue museum work in this area. I was lucky to be hired by the Peabody Essex Museum right after graduate school to work with their important AOA collections.

MT: What was the impetus of this exhibition?

CH: A colleague at the Bishop Museum, Betty Kam, and I began talking about the possibility of an exhibition over a decade ago. We were interested to develop a show that would celebrate the outstanding collections of the Bishop Museum and highlight this extraordinary Hawaiian art form. It was the first exhibition of Hawaiian art at the de Young and the first exhibition of Hawaiian featherwork in the continental United States.

MT: This exhibition was very much about relationships – between Hawaiian royalty and visitors, between the objects featured in the exhibition and viewers. What was your relationship to these objects?

CH: I have the utmost respect for these sacred cultural works and I greatly admire the artistry and technical skill of their creators. It was an honor to have them on view at the de Young and to share them with the public.

MT: Was there one specific piece you were drawn to personally?

CH: I was particularly drawn to the late 18th century capes. Few remain in Hawaii. They show the diversity of styles and the use of domestic fowl (chicken) feathers in combination with red and yellow honeycreeper feathers. One of these large capes in the collection of the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa is stunning with its thick layering of iridescent black feathers and striking border of red and yellow triangles.

MT: Do you share Hawaiian visual artist Maile Andrade’s observation that Hawaii is largely absent from the representations of world cultural heritage in museums? If so, what do you attribute that absence to and is this situation changing?

CH: Yes. Oceanic art is not widely displayed in museums globally. At this moment, there are a limited number of curatorial advocates for Hawaiian art working outside of the Hawaiian Islands, especially in art museums.

MT: I was struck by the similarities underlined within this exhibition and the Oscar de la Renta show which had just opened when I visited the museum. Each spoke to a sense of artistry and craftsmanship -The hundreds of thousands of feathers that went into making a cape echoed the copious amount of fine material that went into the making of luxury fashion item. I am wondering what you thought of both exhibitions living in the museum together. 

CH: I love that visitors came to see a fashion exhibition and then made their way up to Royal Hawaiian Featherwork: Na Hulu Ali‘i where they experienced fashions from another part of the world that they had never seen. Both exhibitions highlighted the desire to wear stunning and powerful garments. While money can buy garments infused with power and status in our time, only Hawaiians of chiefly class had the sacred power and political status to wear featherwork.


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