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Milena Placentile
San Francisco: Galeria de la Raza | Occupy Bay Area | Navarasa Dance Theatre
October 23, 2012

San Francisco is a culture seeker's wonderland offering centres, events, happenings, and opportunities of all kinds. There were many group exhibitions taking place during my visit in mid-October, some more enticing than others. Wattis Institute for Contemporary Art at the California College of Art offered a highly ambitious project curated by Jens Hoffman re-visioning Harald Szeemann's monumental 1969 exhibition Live In Your Head: When Attitudes Become Form (Works – Concepts – Processes – Situations – Information). Gathering over eighty artists under the title When Attitudes Became Form Become Attitudes, the show offers a virtual who's who of the international conceptual scene from Jonathan Monk to Emily Jacir, Tino Seghal to Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla. These are well-respected artists, no doubt, but given the availability of their work anywhere around the world at any time, not to mention their omnipresence in major publications, I decided to spend my limited hours engaging with lesser-known entities.



Richard Bluecloud Castaneda, 100 Years of Transformation, 2009, digital prints

Galeria de la Raza is an artist-run centre in San Francisco's Mission District founded in 1970 with a focus on developing the presence of Chicano/Latino art alongside new aesthetic possibilities for socially progressive practices and intercultural dialogue. Demonstrating their desire to build bridges throughout the Bay Area, Real N.D.N. - Native Diaspora Now presented in partnership with The Indigenous Arts Coalition - promoted contemporary Indigenous work from the region while challenging many of the stereotypes still entrenched in white America. An outdoor screen-printed mural by Rye Purvis denouncing Columbus Day and derogatory "dress-up" set the tone. Indoors, the exhibition featured a number of works in a variety of media, including a provocative series of digital prints by Richard Bluecloud Castaneda (Pima) titled 100 Years of Transformation that confronted the anthropological construction of the "noble savage" through the artist's mimicry of such images juxtaposed with archival material. The streetwise illustrative painting style of Spencer Keeton Cunningham (Nez Perce) also caught my attention, as did his witty N.D.N. Video which, viewed through a peephole, presented found footage of hipsters and beauty queens, and their misguided penchant for dressing in traditional indigenous attire.



Favianna Rodriguez, Occupy Sisterhood, 2011, full color digital print

Yerba Buena Centre for the Arts is significantly more keyed in to social production than the average major gallery, yet I can't deny initial concerns about Occupy Bay Area as a possible "reverse occupation" of sorts. My suspicions were quickly assuaged. First, the exhibition was presented as a testament to the power of images to share information, evoke understanding, and demonstrate solidarity. Next, the exhibition presented current work in a historical context that included productions by the Black Panther Party, and in relation to the Free Speech Movement at UC Berkeley (1964–65), the Occupation of Alcatraz by Indians of All Tribes (1969-1971), and a decade of AIDS activism, among other significant histories. Finally, the institution didn't avoid depictions of police brutality, including recent video documentation. As for the artwork itself, the show captured notable examples including contemporary re-imaginings of Russian agitprop by R Black, infographics by Colin Smith and Occupy Design, bold calls to action by Favianna Rodriguez, and reworked images by International Workers of the World artist Eric Drooker.



Performance still from Encounter! by Navarasa Dance Theater

Frightening, funny, and beautiful; unabashedly political and entirely powerful, Encounter! by Boston-based Navarasa Dance Theater at La Peña Cultural Center in Berkeley not only shook my system more than I could have dreamed, it offered the single most intense performance I've witnessed to date. Combining traditional and contemporary dance, martial arts, yoga, music, and voice, this adaptation of a short story by Magsaysay award winning writer Mahasweta Devi told the tragically common story of displacement, a violence faced by indigenous people worldwide. This production is touring the United States and has already taken place in a variety of settings. Pared down for La Peña, the performers delivered as much vigor on a small community stage as they would have for any major stage. Outstanding.


Milena Placentile is a curator and writer living in Winnipeg. She co-runs Atomic Centre and is Akimblog's Winnipeg correspondent.

 

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