SOMArts Cultural Center celebrates 50 years of Bay Area alternative spaces

Marlon Ingram/Courtesy

Unrelenting energy bustled on the opening night of SOMArts Cultural Center’s newest exhibit, “Making a Scene.” Patrons jammed into the brightly lit building, their faces ranging from gleeful to inquisitive as they engaged with poetic, at-times eccentric artwork. If there were only one word to describe the entire night, it would be “frenzied.”

“Making a Scene” showcases the works of more than 30 historical and contemporary Bay Area artists and celebrates 50 years of Bay Area alternative spaces. It is difficult to singularly define the scope of the diverse exhibit, which highlights the triumphs and struggles of many varied but  contemporaneous social justice movements.

The collection encompasses the works of artists belonging to a gamut of diverse backgrounds, including African American, immigrant and queer, as well as those belonging to other historically underinvested communities. The exhibit is an amalgamation of paradoxes — forward looking yet historically mindful, serious yet playful, and collective yet personal.

Aptly named, “Making a Scene” disrupts the conventions of exhibit spaces, which are typically pristine, tightly guarded galleries lined with “Please Do Not Touch” signs. At “Making a Scene,” the exhibit invites audience engagement. In one segment of the gallery, viewers are asked to answer the question, “What does alternative space mean to you?” on a chalkboard. Similarly, Elizabeth Travelslight’s “Collective Memory” invites patrons to recall or contribute works by Bay Area artists for an online archive modeled after Wikipedia.

Other works are incredibly serious and humbling. Sunshine Velasco’s collection of digital photographs especially stands out. Many in black and white, Velasco’s pictures capture a powerful, haunting sentiment. Works such as the “Queer and Trans Community Action” series and the “Mike Brown Action” series express the solidarity and raw emotions of social justice protests, such as the Black Lives Matter marches, the march in San Francisco for solidarity with Gaza, and marches for queer and trans rights.

A self-identified queer Pilipina, Velasco pushes against the detached norm of documentary photography, creating work that is personally informed by the perspective of a participant. Other works that express a similarly somber, intimate feeling include Carmina Eliason’s “La casa de mi abuela” installation and Caleb Duarte ​Pinon’s “Dirt on the Floors” performance installation.

The collection does not simply commemorate historical social justice struggles and triumphs with somber, black-and-white depictions. In fact, it includes many vibrant and playful pieces, such as the work of Nannette Y. Harris-Jones, whose paintings of blue people illuminate the exhibit. Harris-Jones’ “The Power of Angela Davis,” “Cab Calloway” and “Ella Fitzgerald” celebrate the prominent black figures after whom the pieces are named. Defined by textures, patterns and colors, the pieces are electrifying and truly honor the people whom they depict.

Similarly, Marlon Sagana Ingram’s project “Mobile Social Imports: Beautifully Connected” uses color in a playful, critical manner. In his work — an 8×10 pop-up shack — Ingram uses earth tones, such as brown, and vibrant rust to criticize digital colonialism. His artistry is inspired by his own experiences in Central and South Africa, where he witnessed corporations giving free cellular vouchers and devices to local tribespeople, many of whom later turned the devices into doorstops and paperweights.

The opening reception was rounded out by “North/South,” a rhythmic participatory performance inspired by ancestral rituals. The crowd filed into a smaller room, where Chelsea Elisabeth, a performance artist and dancer from the Black Magic Arts Collective, co-coordinated singing, dancing and clapping amid a crowded circle of people.

Inspired by Afro-diasporic activism, the lively performance lasted several minutes. It emerged as a creative blend between form and function, exploring the relationship among community participation, physical exhaustion and liberation.

A rich, powerful collection, “Making a Scene” re-appropriates an idiom that traditionally bears negative connotations. Making a scene, after all, means to garner attention through dramatic and exaggerated gestures. In the art world, this is not so much a nuisance as it is a deliberate style. In widely unrecognized and undervalued artistic communities, making a scene is conducive — if not fundamental — to amplifying the voices of those seldom heard.

“Making a Scene” is on view at SOMArts in San Francisco until Aug. 20.


Contact Stacey Nguyen at [email protected].