San Francisco’s Arts Commission announced in 2019 that artist Lava Thomas would design the city’s planned monument honoring author and civil rights leader Maya Angelou. Weeks later, city officials rejected Thomas’ design saying that the artist’s work, which depicted Angelou’s face on a nine-foot-tall bronze book with her words on the other, was not what they expected.
City Supervisor Catherine Stefani — the legislative sponsor behind the project — said she expected a traditional, figurative statue of the poet who was also San Francisco’s first African-American female streetcar conductor.
The city planned to create a Maya Angelou statue and have it installed outside the Main Public Library as part of a broader initiative to close the gender gap in the city’s public art collection, where only two of the city’s 87 sculptures depict women, The Art Newspaper reported.
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Thomas, in her proposal, said she wanted to convey Angelou’s achievements “to emphasize her insistence on our shared humanity, especially in this climate of increased racial hostility and polarization”.
But her work was rejected and officials restarted the entire selection process, emphasizing on proposals that had traditional statues of Angelou.
Thomas, who was shocked over the development, tried to contact the San Francisco Arts Commission throughout last year in order to get a better understanding of what really happened to her proposal but the commission never gave her answers to her questions, she said.
Last month, when she appeared at a Visual Arts Committee meeting to comment about the matter, her comment was cut short by officials. Thomas, during her speech, asked why San Francisco officials were interested in removing symbols of white supremacy while seeking to honor Angelou in the very same visual language, KQED reported.
But officials muted her toward the end of her speech and refused calls to give her extra time. “Uproar ensued,” Thomas said in an interview. “The commission broke trust with the public and stonewalled me from asking questions.”
At a meeting on Monday, Thomas, 61, called on officials to pause the new selection process.
“The way in which this process was handled is an insult to Dr. Angelou’s legacy and the principles that she stood for,” Thomas said. “Mockery of due process, a pattern of disrespect, the erasure of our expertise and intellectual and creative labor, and the insistence of upholding racist tropes to represent one of the most celebrated exceptional Black women of our time in the name of honoring her, is beyond outrageous.”
Commission President Roberto Ordeñana finally apologized to Thomas after acknowledging the failures of the commission. “I want to remind us all that when there are systems failures, the individuals and communities that end up experiencing the most harm as a result of said failures are those of us who experience oppression and marginalization,” he said.
“Due to our failures, we have caused significant harm to an incredibly talented Black woman artist, and we have caused deep pain to members of the Black artist community.”
Thomas and her supporters including artists and curators say an apology is not enough. They are demanding the resignations of Supervisor Catherine Stefani and visual arts committee chair Dorka Keehn as well as a meeting with Mayor London Breed.
They also want the new selection process to be suspended. Officials of the commission agreed to that and voted unanimously to pause the selection process in favor of “engaging stakeholders in a meaningful way” to have “clarity and transparency moving forward.”