San Francisco Arts Commission Brings Provocative Political Art To City Hall


Those who’ve encountered a sentry of massive, totem-like sculptures currently occupying San Francisco’s Civic Center Plaza and pondered the objects’ meaning will soon have a chance to hear directly from the artist who made them at a dedication ceremony for the city’s new public artwork tomorrow, Thursday, July 19, at 5pm. The large-scale art installation, titled Invisible Man and the Masque of Blackness, is the creation of British-Trinidadian artist Zak Ové, known for his political works exploring themes of African identity and contemporary multiculturalism.

Smoothly cast in resin and graphite, the 40 identical human figures stand in exact formation in front of City Hall with hands held up in a gesture that could be read as calm surrender, greeting, protection or immovable force. The stance may transcend definition in terms of pure visual aesthetics, but Ové’s intention behind the work is clear. “This installation speaks of the African diaspora and our journey into the future,” the artist notes in a statement, adding he views the figures as “powerful, peaceful and totemic.”

Ové’s installation—brought to San Francisco by the San Francisco Arts Commission—derives its title from Ralph Ellison’s classic novel about race in America, Invisible Man (1952), and also references English poet Ben Jonson’s early-seventeenth-century play involving white actors in black face makeup. Although larger than life at six-and-a-half-feet tall and 300 pounds each, the sculptures were actually modeled after a small 1950s-era wooden figurine from Kenya that Ové’s father gave him as a child.

Since 2016, the artist has produced a couple variations on this project, including similar installations in England at York Sculpture Park and London’s historic Somerset House. This iteration, sited at San Francisco’s nexus of free speech, protest and celebration, adds a potent voice from the global art community to important local conversations about systemic injustice.

Invisible Man and the Masque of Blackness is currently on view at Civic Center Plaza through early November 2018.

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