While walking into Green Book, this year’s annual juried exhibition at San Francisco’s Southern Exposure Gallery, two things instantly capture a viewer's attention: First, the small prints of a femme-presenting male model in tulle, underscored by a vibrant streak of pink on the gallery’s welcoming wall. Then, as one's gaze gravitates towards the opposite wall, passerby are inevitably drawn into the room by three immense, intimate film portraits of a black man in durags, staring piercingly into the camera. A beat passes and, upon closer inspection, an arresting stillness settles into the space.––Eda Yu
Established in 1974, Southern Exposure has long been a prominent force in the Bay Area arts landscape. Its annual juried exhibitions, an open to call to artists throughout the Bay Area, are a deep-rooted tradition. This year, for the first time ever, Southern Exposure limited the call specifically to works by artists of color, centering the exhibition’s focus on the visual expression of communities of color and the structural underpinnings that restrict their movement in increasingly white spaces.
“I came up with the concept after being struck by some of the really powerful portrait work in the exhibition, specifically the portraits of people of color in public spaces; on city streets, in their place of work, or in front of restaurants that they own or frequent,” curator Ashley Stull Meyers shared. “Looking at those images and thinking through the [present] gentrification of the Bay Area, it felt very important for me to have a conversation about the network that we create as marginalized communities. To continue to hold space and to be proud of our heritage in an environment we’re not necessarily welcome in.”
The exhibition’s very name, in fact, was inspired by real “Green Books” that were published to denote friendly areas to African American travelers in the Jim Crow era. In the gallery’s modern-day interpretation of the “Green Book,” the space similarly creates space for historically marginalized identities.
Adrian Octavius Walker's "We Matter"
First-time exhibitor Yohance Washington, for instance, interrogates the presence of a femme-presenting male through his flamboyant photography. Gene Dominique’s portraits of black farmers around the nation challenge the stereotypical image of what it means to be an American farmer. And interdisciplinary artist Vasudhaa Narayanan’s commanding self-portrait of a “Menstrual Bindi” depicts a vivid expression of what it means to be a woman in Indian culture.
Vasudhaa says, “The piece that I exhibited was about accepting my own shame and guilt associated with menstruation. I grew up in the south of India, and when I was young, I wasn't allowed to enter the kitchen, or to touch anyone [while on my period]...My body was going through this absolutely normal process that I had to be shunned from and ashamed of.”
In Indian culture, the Bindi is a symbol of the female identity. And with her self-portrait, Vasudhaa aimed to reclaim this symbol in order to confront the internalized shame she’d experienced throughout her life, as well as to bring awareness to a narrative that’s often hidden from the public eye in developing countries. Previously a photojournalist, Vasudhaa felt more comfortable creating self-portraiture to give her agency over the cultural dialogue she wanted to put forth, facilitated by her own poignant, personal experiences.
Vasudhaa Narayanan's "Menstruation Bindi"
The exploration of shared cultural experience through individual representation is not an uncommon thread in the exhibition. Mixed-media artist Adrian Octavius Walker had a similar goal with We Matter, a photo series that aims to question the American socialization of the black male identity. In fact, the three massive portraits of black men in velvet durags, one titled “Black Virgin Mary,” are among the first images that viewers gravitate towards upon entering the space.
“In these pieces, you can see so much. You can see pain, struggle. You can see a good life. It’s almost like [the model] is looking back at you. I wanted the viewer to look at these photos and see what he’s thinking about. To see what he’s seeing. I wanted true empathy and thought, and to see these photos instantly, from whatever place in the room, and be drawn back to it,” Adrian explains.
For him, the durag is greater than just an element in black hair care: it’s a connective tissue between members of the black community. And the intimacy behind the photos in We Matter push the viewer to see the power of kinship and directly refute the threat often assigned to black men. He says, “Being a black man, I know what I’m representing. And that’s moreso being black as a whole, knowing what it’s like to be in a black body.”
A gallery shot from Green Book
Empathy is, after all, the exhibition’s most viscerally provoked emotion. According to Vasudhaa, it’s something we need more of in the dynamic cityscape of San Francisco.
“I think it was such an important exhibition for San Francisco. There was work about identity, about blackness, about embracing your queerness in whatever ways that is,” she expresses. “The need for this work to be seen and shown is important because there are so many other people going through the same thing and never really talking about it. It's so internalized that we don't even know that we're doing it to ourselves.”
Adrian echoes the sentiment, firmly stating: “I just want more of a connection for those who feel like they can’t connect to any artwork. I go to art shows all the time, and I like the work. But sometimes there’s no connection. I want folks to see my work as something they can connect to. Just even based off the titles in We Matter, you see a black man in a durag. I want the viewer to instantly think, 'we matter.' That 'I must matter.' I want them to connect to it.”
The concept behind the call for entries came from Southern Exposure's Curatorial Council. Exhibition shots at Southern Exposure were taken by photographer Minoosh Zomorodinia.
"Green Book" is at Southern Exposure in San Francisco through August 18th.