The 40 Heads in Civic Center Plaza Are a Nod to Ralph Ellison

Zak Ové's Invisible Man and the Masque of Blackness refers to the plight of the African-American male.

Standing in rows that extend for almost half a block, Zak Ové’s sculptures’ hands are in the air — not over their heads but by their sides, as if they’re politely surrendering en masse to police. The 40 sculptures are identical — six-feet-five, all made of resin and graphite, all with the same African identity. The San Francisco Arts Commission arranged for the new public display of Ové’s work, which appeared in different iterations in England before taking its new spot directly in front of San Francisco City Hall.

Invisible Man and the Masque of Blackness is a political work that is also artistically inviting — meaning people can bypass the nearby written guide and approach the four rows as playful, welcoming totems. Lots of children and adults are doing just that — posing and smiling with one of the 40 figures while loved ones take photos. This literal embrace of Invisible Man and the Masque of Blackness is a welcome development.

“They ingratiate people, where you can pick a guy and have a moment, almost like a selfie booth,” Ové tells SF Weekly. “I like [the sculptures’] openness. Their greeting — their hand language, and their expressions on the face — doesn’t feel in any way confrontational. ‘Regal’ and ‘elegant’ are words that come to mind. They’re bright and optimistic. I wanted to show strength without showing aggression.”

But it’s hard not to see the work as potent social commentary — especially given its title, which references Ralph Ellison’s celebrated 1952 novel about a Black man who is marginalized and misunderstood (Invisible Man) and a 1605 play performed in London by white artists in blackface (The Masque of Blackness). The sculptures are based on a small African one made around 1955 that Ové’s father, the British filmmaker Horace Ové, gave him in the 1970s. Horace Ové got the original sculpture in Kenya, near Nairobi.

Ové, who is British-Trinidadian, says he made the sculpture with “the plight of the African-American male” in mind, and “his invisibility within the context of the United States. How many steps away is any African-American male from becoming an invisible member of [society]?”

Standing next to his work on a recent morning, Ové says that the works’ graphite foundation — different from the wood of the 1950s-era sculpture his dad gave him — “re-contemporizes the design. It breaks away from the backstory of how we look at ebony wood in African art-making, and [lets us] create our own story with the works. I’m a big fan of Old World culture. In the Caribbean, we’re very much into the practice of resistance art — that’s really resisting global change that might take away our culture. In thinking that through, and looking at the origins of African art-making and how we move into a new millennium, I’m very interested in how new materials impregnate new conversations. Graphite to me felt very futuristic. I wanted this work to be something that was very traditional in looks and features but completely removed from its origin and its source. So now the dilemma is: How do I move forward, and from whence and where have I come?”

Ové will speak on site at the sculptures’ official dedication on Thursday, July 19, 5-9 p.m. Invisible Man and the Masque of Blackness will remain at Civic Center through Nov. 2 — four days before the midterm elections. For years, the area where the sculptures stand has been a meeting ground for political rallies — which have escalated since Donald Trump took up residence in the White House.

“I’m very fascinated,“ Ové says, “to see what this looks like amidst protests. Yesterday, a lady came here and explained how her son had been stabbed to death around the corner — and how this almost felt like a memorial. This work will take on a life of its own in the United States, and speak to people about what they see.” 

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