Artists tackle social ills in Museum of Sonoma County exhibit ‘See Something, Say Something’
How did we get from a government-sponsored security awareness program to a pyramid made of basketballs?
We’ve all seen the Homeland Security posters, originally sparked by the 9/11 terrorist attacks, with the headline “If you see something, say something,” urging the public to be vigilant. Since then, the slogan has been appropriated by others for a variety of purposes, and now visual artists have found their own use for it.
In “See Something, Say Something,” the new exhibit opening this weekend at the Museum of Sonoma County in Santa Rosa, three artists address topics also perceived by many people as threats to society, including racism, sexism, violence, environment and climate change. And they’re doing it with imagination and a bit of humor.
So, what about those basketballs?
David Huffman, an African American artist based in Oakland, is creating a sculptural installation titled “Liberation (Basketball Pyramid)” for the Santa Rosa exhibit, stacking more than 600 basketballs in the three different colors of the Pan-African flag - red, yellow and green.
“David is working with basketball as a symbol or metaphor as it relates to African American stereotypes,” Nathanson said.
But the installation goes beyond social commentary to initiate some tangible community action, he explained.
“We were fortunate that we were able to work with Sports Basement to get these brand-new basketballs at a reasonable price,” Nathanson said, “and when the exhibit is over, they will be given as donations to the Boys and Girls Clubs and Catholic Charities for their youth programs.”
Another artist in the show, Linda Vallejo of Los Angeles, approaches pop culture icons from a Latina perspective.
“Linda takes images of Andy Warhol, Marilyn Monroe and Elvis, or classical images from paintings and sculptures of gods and goddesses and royalty and paints their white skin brown,” Nathanson said.
“The overall series that those works come from is called ‘Make ‘Em All Mexican,’” he added.
“She’s done some other work, but the bulk of what we’ll have in our show is from that series.”
Completing the trio represented in the show is Evri Kwong, a San Francisco artist of American Asian descent, who spent part of his childhood in Sonoma County and recently moved back. He now teaches at Napa Valley College.
Kwong said this exhibit will be his first in Santa Rosa.
“I am really excited about this show,” Kwong said. “My work has been shown in San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York and recently in Seoul, Korea, but it has never been shown here before.”
Nathanson considers it a coup to be able include Kwong’s work with that of the other artists in the exhibit.
“Evri Kwong an artist who I think is really important to this topic of saying something about things you see society that are a problem, and he’s local,” Nathanson said.
“He is primarily painting and drawing, and he’s calling out a whole range of issues, from sexism and sexual violence to guns. There’s a piece that is images of the border wall. He’s got work about the military and the environment,” the museum director added.
“But what is disarming about his work is that when you first look at it, it seems almost cartoonish.”
One of Kwong’s pieces in the show, “The Land of Oil and Honey,” is made up of 200 tiny drawings, the artist explained.
“It’s all of the things I love about America, and all of the things I despise,” he said. “I am American Asian, and the American comes first.”
After Nathanson started working on the idea of a social commentary art exhibit inspired by the Homeland Security posters, he and his reach assistant - May Makki, a former summer intern at the Museum of Sonoma County who is now a curator in Dallas - discovered that an underground art movement along those lines had already popped up in New York.
“These guerrilla artists are actually taking down the official posters on subway trains that say “If you see something, say something” and they’re putting up their own posters that look the same but the message is about things other than terrorism that threaten society,” Nathanson said.
None of the artists in the Santa Rosa show come from the New York movement. Instead, Nathanson invited each of them based on their past work.
“These are three artists, who are doing extremely different kinds of art, for very different reasons, coming at from very different cultural and personal perspectives,” Nathanson said, “but they’re all saying something that not only needs to be said, but heard.”
You can reach Staff Writer Dan Taylor at 707-521-5243.