“Black Magic” at San Francisco Arts Commission

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In 2010, Ron Moultrie Saunders and William Rhodes co-founded the San Francisco-based 3.9 Art Collective to help make Black artists and arts professionals in San Francisco visible to one another and the public. The collective began with five members, growing to about 20 in 2017. Now, they’re down to four, with Saunders the only remaining founder.

Collective’s shrinking reflects the very issue the members formed around. The name was taken from a San Francisco Bay View article, which reported that the City’s Black population was projected at 3.9 percent in the 2010 census. The actual percentage turned out to be 6.1 percent; the Collective kept the name to highlight the diminishing population of Black residents and artists, largely due to gentrification and displacement.

Decreased membership doesn’t mean the Collective is any less visible, featuring prominently at the San Francisco Arts Commission main gallery on Van Ness in an exhibition titled “Black Magic.”

The five video pieces on view were commissioned in 2021 by the Museum of Contemporary Art Toronto, which asked Collective artists what it meant to be Black in San Francisco and what personal rituals of “protection and self-care” they engaged in “during the twin pandemics of COVID-19 and racism.” The results range from meditation to storytelling.

Ramekon O’Arwisters’s “The President’s Chair,” is an extended shot of a spare sculpture – the severed head of a porcelain mammy doll attached to a rail tie – with a fictional narrative read by the artist about how the chair ended up in the narrator’s grandmother’s basement. 

“This chair ain’t art,” admonishes the grandmother character toward the end of the story, “this chair is history.” 

Rodney Ewing’s “Game Theory Part 2,” shows a pair of hands rolling and re-rolling a pair of dice with a voiceover monologue that discusses what it means to exist bound by external forces. 

“How do you participate in somebody else’s ritual that constantly means your subjugation?” the speaker asks.

Saunders’s “Meditate, Rejuvenate, Regenerate,” and S. Renée Jones’s “In/to’ Black,” are quieter. Saunders’s video features the barely audible breath of the artist who meditates facing the camera. Jones’s features whispered definitions of Blackness over a video of a shadow of the artist’s silhouette, like a mantra. These invoke ritual’s spiritual side, offering a balance to the discursive pieces.

In Jacqueline Francis’s video “Run,” the tight frame stays low to the ground, focusing on someone jogging in athletic shoes, from the shins down. Running is an exercise ritual Francis has practiced since being a teenager, but regarding gentrification she said the question is, “do you run from it?”

Some former Collective members moved away from the City by choice or out of necessity; others faced personal challenges that made it difficult to dedicate the necessary energy to the Collective or their art practices. A founding member, Ewing left San Francisco after the exhibition was commissioned, now practicing art in New York.

While it’s important to examine the reasons Black people and artists are challenged to live in San Francisco, it’s also vital to “highlight the things that make it possible for them to stay here,” said Saunders. 

“Black Magic” succeeds on both counts, celebrating those rituals while raising awareness about the shrinking population.

“Black Magic” is on view at the SFAC Main Gallery, 401 Van Ness Avenue, Suite 126, Wednesday through Saturday 12 to 5 p.m. through April 23.

Image (top): Courtesy San Francisco Arts Commission and Three Point Nine Collective