The Art that Defined San Francisco in 2020

Our year of quarantine saw lighthearted memes, social media flops, a proliferation of murals, and the toppling of statues. 

Art in 2020 has been unexpected, unprecedented, and sometimes uncanny. When the pandemic first started, Wonder Woman’s Gal Gadot helmed a disastrous “Imagine” celebrity cover which people were quick to criticize for being out of tune — literally and with the times. Later, there was the flurry of television reunions and table reads from sitcom favorites like Parks & Recreation and Community. Taylor Swift released not one, but two new albums. On TikTok, musicians and dancers made a whole viral musical about the Pixar classic Ratatouille, which was so excellent that Playbill and Seaview Productions took notice. Musicians filmed music videos over Zoom, photographers took photos over FaceTime, theaters in the city performed virtually, and movie theaters turned to both streaming and classic drive-ins. 

On a local level, art in San Francisco and the Bay Area also reflected our tumultuous year. Its patterns were contradictory. Some art was made to cope with trauma — and some art was destroyed in response. This list by no means encapsulates the entirety of 2020, but hopefully, it charts the non-linear path art has taken in a complicated era.

Zoom Memes

“Normalcy” collapsed in March, around the time when college students all over the country were getting ready for spring break. Whatever independent travel plans students had very quickly morphed into an endless stream of online courses, which many attended from the confines of their childhood bedrooms. In-person graduation ceremonies were canceled, and the class of 2020 said quick goodbyes to their friends indefinitely before receiving their diplomas by mail. 

Meme courtesy of Emily Hung

The Facebook group “Zoom Memes for Self Quaranteens” captured the early chaotic frenzy of the moment. It was a hub for comic relief and emotional support, where students could share GIFs, vent about unsympathetic professors, and commiserate. Its moderators, a few of whom were UC Berkeley students, categorized the 800,000 member group as a coping mechanism for the times, a “way of “democratiz[ing] inside jokes,” and community building for college students trying to figure out what the hell was going on. Years from now, maybe history classes at those same universities will unearth the archived memes as a way for understanding the psychology of the times. (GZL)

Paint the Void

When shelter-in-place fell, plywood boards around the city went up. “It started looking so drab, with all of the boards,” said Inga Bard, executive director of Art for Civil Discourse. So Bard’s organization, in collaboration with the art consulting company Building 180, launched Paint the Void, a project that paid local artists to add a touch of color to the plywood sheets covering storefronts around the city. “I was fascinated by the idea of … how art can heal the world,” Paz de la Calzada, one of the muralists, said. “Not only from a perspective of beautification, but also because you engage the community with the process of healing and transformation.”

The murals were also a way to encourage foot traffic to the businesses they were affixed to. “I spoke with a business owner who cried on the phone, she was so grateful — tears of joy,” Bard said. “It’s so hard for business owners. They just had to lay off all their staff, and a lot of them might fold.” (MT)

Artist Natty Rebel from the Bay Area Mural Program made this mural in Bayview in collaboration with the Warriors and the Paint the Void project. Photo courtesy of Lisa Vortman

Whitewashing The Stud

Conversely, while murals were spreading across the city, one particularly iconic art piece was painted over in a mayonnaise beige. After The Stud’s owner-collective closed their 9th St. location out of necessity, the building’s new owner swiftly painted over its iconic murals — a symbol of resilience for the LGBTQ community — during Pride Month, no less.

The whitewashing represented something similar to the plywood boards across the city: The closure of something beloved to San Francisco; an erasure of the people, the small businesses, and the countercultural spirit that make the city so special; and the recurring question — what will the pandemic take away from us next?

The backlash was immediate. The artists of the whitewashed murals sued the new building owner over alleged damages, and an anonymous artist took action, decorating the new cream exterior themself with black paint. “Black Lives Matter,” the new art read in capitalized letters. “We will not be erased.” (GZL)

Toppled Statues

Elsewhere around the city, older works of sculpture were also being scrubbed from the landscape. On June 19, demonstrators tied a rope to the cross of a Father Junípero Serra statue. For many Indigenous people, Serra is a symbol of the brutalization of their community and a representation of the Spanish Empire’s colonization of the Americas. 

The targeting of monuments like Serra’s was fueled by the tremendous energy that the Black Lives Matter movement generated over the summer. SFSU Associate Professor Kym Morrison, who is the only Black person in the university’s history department, said that the toppling of statues emblematic of racism, conquest, colonialism, and white supremacy represent long-term projects and deep-seated concerns from people who have been “excluded from more formal political channels.” 

“When people in power know there is a wrong that has generally always existed in their communities, then let’s not wait for the formal process,” Morrison said. “Let’s let the leaders of the city, the leaders within the state say, ‘We just need to correct this now.’” (HH)

Day of the Dead in a Year of Grief

Artist Jos Sances’ contribution to the SOMArts Cultural Center’s annual Día de Los Muertos exhibit was kind of like a history book for 2020, etched on glowing, panoramic scratchboards: a homeless encampment under a highway overpass next to a sign that says “Can’t blame Wuhan for this;” an excavator truck pummeling a rainforest; a Black Lives Matter protest; a funeral. 

The mural of an altar reads “We shouldn’t have to die in order to gain freedom.” Art: “For My Ancestors” by Aambr Newsome/2AM. Photo courtesy of Rich Lomibao

It was also a microcosm of the intent of the exhibit as a whole. “We recognize there have been so many lives lost that could’ve been avoided — that should not have been lost,” co-curator Rio Yañez said. “And that goes with structural and institutional racism and violence, and COVID.” The Day of the Dead exhibit was filled with altars, carving out spaces for healing and mourning in a year of grief. Some were for the people lost to COVID-19. Some were for the people lost to police brutality. Artist Aambr Newsome dedicated their altar to “the Black enslaved ancestors,” hoping the art would encourage viewers to reflect: “We shouldn’t have to die in order to gain freedom,” the mural reads. (GZL)


Michael Toren and Hannah Holzer contributed to the reporting of this article.

Grace Z. Li is a staff writer for SF Weekly. Email: gli@sfweekly.com

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