1976 and Its Legacy: Other Sources: An American Essay at San Francisco Art Institute

5.1 / Half-Century

1976 and Its Legacy: Other Sources: An American Essay at San Francisco Art Institute

By Mark Johnson September 11, 2013

Other Sources was built on Carlos Villa’s personal strength, drawn from his foundation in Bay Area Filipino American culture—itself open to broad multiethnic engagement.

In 1976, the San Francisco artist Carlos Villa (1936–2013) curated a transformative multidisciplinary exhibition that overflowed the Walter and McBean Galleries at the San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI), filling the courtyards with unprecedented installations, performances, and cuisines. A bolt of saffron-colored fabric was hurled from the school’s bell tower by the surrealist fashion designer Kaisic Wong to inaugurate an unexpected and unprecedented recontextualization of Bay Area contemporary art. Titled Other Sources: An American Essay, the exhibition showcased work by artists of color, then dubbed “Third World artists,” in an alternative celebration of the national bicentennial. Inspired by the energy and ethos of the civil rights movement, it was among the first exhibitions in the burgeoning art movement that would become known as multiculturalism.

Northern California’s art scene has always boasted a strong cohort of non-white artists, many of whom are today well documented and represented in major museum collections. These include the hotly collected Native American basket weaver Elizabeth Hickox (1875–1947), the early Mexican American and African American landscape painters Fortunato Arriola (1827–1872) and Grafton Tyler Brown (1841–1918), and Asian American water-media painters like Toshio Aoki (1854–1912). In 1976, these historical artists were still little known, and American art history was almost exclusively white and male, except to scholars and specialists. 

Carlos Villa was of Filipino ancestry. As an art student in the late 1950s, Villa had been told by a teacher that there was no Filipino art history to learn (Alfonso Ossorio was apparently not then on anyone’s radar). But in 1969, Villa emphatically identified himself as a Filipino American artist, and by 1976 he had developed a powerful body of highly original work exploring Pacific Islander and other non-Western source material. He incorporated feathers, bones, teeth, and blood in a series of unstretched canvases, several in the form of ecclesiastical or shamanic robes. Villa’s feathered works were featured in the 1973 Whitney Biennial, and one was then acquired by the museum. He was perhaps the second artist of Filipino ancestry to exhibit at the Whitney Museum of American Art (Ossorio had exhibited there in 1966).

Villa was a central figure in a generation of artists and scholars in San Francisco who sought to reconfigure the landscape of Bay Area art and its academy. Among this cohort was the Nicaragua-born mixed-media artist Rolando Castellon, who was a cofounder of Galeria de la Raza in 1969 and its first director. Beginning in 1972, Castellon became an influential curator for a decade at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA), responsible for its groundbreaking Museum Intercommunity Exchange (M.I.X.) program. Another key figure was the Chinese poetry scholar and ink painter Kay-yu Hsu, who was the academic architect of the first-ever College of Ethnic Studies at San Francisco State University (SFSU) in 1969. But Hsu died in a mudslide in 1982, and Castellon relocated to Costa Rica in 1992, after spending some time as the gallery director at UC Santa Cruz.

By the late 1960s, San Francisco was at the forefront of the development of multiculturalism. In 1967, the San Francisco Arts Commission (SFAC), working with faculty from SFSU and members of the newly formed Artists Liberation Front, initiated the first community arts program in the country: the Neighborhood Arts Program (NAP). Beginning in 1968, the modernist sculptor Ruth Asawa developed arts education programs that worked with NAP and soon proposed hiring artists using federal job-training funds. This ultimately transformed the national Comprehensive Training and Education Act (CETA) program into support for cultural workers embedded in diverse communities. By 1976, SFAC had almost completed the unprecedented acquisition of four large buildings at the epicenters of various ethnic communities to be transformed into neighborhood art centers, as well as the development of art centers inside mixed-use buildings. The exhibition Other Sources was a part of this zeitgeist.

Other Sources featured works in painting, sculpture, and video, as well as contact information for influential artists including Ruth Asawa, Bernice Bing, Rolando Castellon, Claude Clark, Robert Colescott, Frank Day, Rupert Garcia, Mike Henderson, Oliver Jackson, Frank LaPena, Linda Lomahaftewa, George Longfish, Ralph Maradiaga, Jose Montoya, Manuel Neri, Mary Lovelace O’Neil, Darryl Sapien, Raymond Saunders, James Suzuki, Horace Washington, Al Wong, Rene Yanez, and many more. Performances scheduled throughout the opening weekend of the exhibition included Winston and Mary Tong’s Bound Feet puppet piece (which won an Obie Award when it was performed in New York in 1978), Tahitian dancing, Taiko and intertribal drumming, salsa and Caribbean bands, and jazz and blues music. Musicians and dancers like Mark Izu and Ray Robles performed, and there were poetry readings by Janice Mirikitani, Jessica Hagedorn, and Al Robles. The cover of the exhibition catalog, designed by the collaborative Wilfred Owen Poster Brigade, depicts multiethnic people pulling apart a barbed wire fence. The lead essay by Paul Kagawa, of the San Francisco Art Workers Coalition, is titled “Third World Art as a State of Mind” and advances a Marxist, class-values ideology. Kagawa writes: “Talking about ‘Third World’ artists in terms of class values rather than color may be useful in distinguishing those people of any race who are working for democracy in the arts and in society from those who are not…Our criteria for inclusion is ideology not color.”1 This is followed by the Sacramento State University art historian Allan Gordon’s essay, which also explores “Third World” ambivalence toward Western culture. The artist Rupert Garcia contributed a valuable summary of contemporaneous mural projects, like those of the Navajo artist Eugene Curley. The critics Thomas Albright, Fred Martin, and Charles Shere provided theoretical commentary. The catalog also includes several poems and a dialogue between Villa, Castellon, and the critic Jan Butterfield, which articulate the need for understanding the diversity of “Third World” cultural expression as something more than protest art. 

Read Charles Shere, "Art With a Different Point of View," Oakland Tribune, September 26, 1976, n.p.

Today, in a supposedly post-racial environment, the debate about exploring ethnic identity in curatorial projects continues.

It is important to note that Other Sources featured a vigorous representation of Filipino and Pacific Islander artists, including two recently deceased Filipino elders, Carlos Carvajal, Sr., and Victor Duena, as well as Larry Dumlao, Sekio Fuapopo, Benjamin Lagasca, Eveni Levi, Harry Louie, Leo Maalona, Leo Valledor, and Villa himself. It is also noteworthy that, while ethnic music and food had been featured in San Francisco Arts Commission festivals as early as 1950 (NAP is generously acknowledged in the catalog and likely helped arrange many of the performances), it was revolutionary at SFAI, an art school that was still teaching solitary studio practice, almost ivory tower in nature. Raymond Saunders famously wrote in his influential pamphlet titled Black is a Color (c. 1968):

Racial hang-ups are extraneous to art, no artist can afford to let them obscure what runs through all art—the living root and the ever-growing aesthetic record of human spiritual and intellectual experience. Can’t we get clear of these degrading limitations, and recognize the wider reality of art, where color is the means and not the end?2

Today, in a supposedly post-racial environment, the debate about exploring ethnic identity in curatorial projects continues; artists like Daniel Joseph Martinez, who has articulated an aversion to exhibitions that foreground minority ethnicity above the content of the work, add that it is a complicated and fragmented topic—a very different situation from that of 1976.3 Although Carlos Villa’s exhibition installation was crowded, it seemed relatively free of such art politics.

Villa later wrote that the exhibition, performances, cuisine, and film that composed Other Sources were “conceived as ONE community expression. The essays, interviews, poetry, contact information and work reproductions of artists in the San Francisco Bay Area in [the catalog] are THE single document of the San Francisco ‘shadow side’ and margins of that mainstream Art world of the San Francisco Bay Area, 1976.”4  What made Other Sources uniquely significant was that it conceptualized a diverse but holistic art community without marginalizing ethnic minorities and by including European American voices. Villa also saw it as an art action—a creative expression not separated from his studio practice—and began postulating new paradigms about the need for what he called “street scholars” who would delve the city as studio.

In 1989 and 1990, when support for community arts had waned significantly, Villa returned to this activist approach. He began working with a new coterie of collaborators, including Angela Y. Davis, Amalia Mesa-Bains, and Moira Roth, to create a series of symposia and related exhibitions he collectively titled Sources of a Distinct Majority. The first three programs explored concepts in contemporary art such as quality, humor, and criticism, showcasing a dynamic new generation of artists and scholars, including Larry Andrews, Kim Anno, Enrique Chagoya, Coco Fusco, Guillermo Gómez-Peña, Mildred Howard, Kellie Jones, Hung Liu, Yolanda Lopez, Jaune Quick-To-See Smith, and Victor Zamudio-Taylor. The fourth program, in 1991, discussed art education and included teachers like Yolanda Garfias-Woo and Marie Johnson Calloway. Excerpts from these four programs were broadcast as fifteen episodes on the radio station KPFA and were published by SFAI in 1994 as a book, Worlds in Collision. Villa taught a popular course, of the same name, in tandem with the symposia. The course was later team-taught with other artists and scholars, including Rigo 23, Laurie Lazer and Darryl Smith from the Luggage Store, and Jennifer Wofford. Artists including the Native American painter Mario Martinez responded to the symposia by cofounding the Salad Bar collective that proposed other multiethnic exhibitions.

Horace Washington. Artist shown with Mask series.

My involvement with Worlds in Collision began in 1989, when I worked with Villa at SFAI. I was especially engaged in organizing in the fifth program in 1992, subtitled Expanding American Art History to Reflect Multiethnic Diversity. This program brought together scholars from diverse American art history specializations to look for pathways to synthesize a more integrated narrative of American art; it involved the renowned national scholars David Driskell, Mari-Carmen Ramirez, Margo Machida, Rick Hill, Lyle Ashton Harris, and bell hooks, as well as the local artists and scholars Dewey Crumpler, Betty Kano, Elaine Kim, Amalia Mesa-Bains, Teresa Harlan, and Hulleah Tsinhahjinnie. The foregrounding of ethnicity over other kinds of communities led to the sixth program in 1993, which explored queer identities and was organized by SFAI students. This sixth installment indirectly informed the major exhibition In a Different Light, co-curated by Nayland Blake and Larry Rinder, at the UC Berkeley Art Museum in 1995. The seventh program, Odunde: The Global Presence of African Spirit in Contemporary Art, cosponsored and co-organized in 1994 with the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, featured the speakers Glenn Ligon, Keith Morrison, Martin Puryear, Faith Ringgold, and Michele Wallace, among others, and was accompanied by a cluster of exhibitions throughout the Bay Area, including the retrospective Black Power/Black Art at SFSU. Villa was less directly involved in these projects, but his inspiration was central to them.

Villa had been a major force at the beginning and apex of multiculturalism, and this program functioned almost as a critical postmortem for the movement.

Villa returned to organizing symposia in 2001, when he developed with the curator Eungie Joo a program entitled World in Collision: Call and Response. It featured the artists and scholars Janeen Antoine, Edgar Arceneaux, Charles Gaines, Karin Higa, Nao Bustamante, Paul Pfeiffer, David Ross, Valerie Soe, and Fred Wilson and the collaborative artist groups Sergio de la Torre/Julio Morales/Domingo Nuño, Mail Order Brides, and Marcel Diallo and the Black Dot Collective. The conversation began by examining the critical and institutional rejection of multiculturalism after the tsunami of negative press that greeted the 1993 Whitney Biennial. Villa had been a major force at the beginning and apex of multiculturalism, and this program functioned almost as a critical postmortem for the movement.

But Villa continued, organizing Worlds in Collision III, which provided a forum for Filipino American art and included the artists Trisha LaGaso, Eric Norberg, Manuel Ocampo, and Johanna Poethig (the program became a curriculum taught by Villa and later Jenifer Wofford at the University of San Francisco). It additionally afforded a Filipino forum for a new generation of scholars like Theo Gonzalvez, Allyson Tintianoco-Cubales, and Dawn Mabalon. In 1998, Villa also co-curated at SFSU, with Trisha Lagaso, Sino Ka? Ano Ka?, the first-ever Filipina American contemporary art exhibition. The exhibition featured work by Eliza Barrios, Terry Acebo Davis, Reanne Estrada, Stephanie Syjuco, Lucille Tenazas, Catherine Wagner, and others; it then toured to the Museo Ng Maynila.

Carlos Villa’s last major organizational action included a massive web publication and related exhibition. Funded in part by an SFAC Cultural Equity Grant that replaced NAP, Re-Historicizing the Time around Abstract Expressionism launched online and at the Luggage Store in 2010.Still available on the web, it features extensive interviews with artists of color, including Oliver Jackson and Mary Lovelace O’Neil, who were featured in Other Sources, as well as several female artists like Deborah Remington and Cornelia Schultz, who were not. In video interviews and their transcriptions, Villa revisits the artists’ personal experiences that shaped their creative work that colored their pre-“post-racial” engagement with abstract painting. Re-Historicizing the Time around Abstract Expressionism afforded Villa the opportunity to probe and articulate the inspirations for now-senior artists in a way that was not possible thirty-five years earlier, with Other Sources.

Villa’s personal influence and legacy has been profound. It empowered several generations of artists by providing a vital conceptual platform at SFAI and other prominent Bay Area art institutions. He created an art community and network that continues to thrive; friendships he helped forge have lasted. As a teacher, he was generous and modeled intergenerational collaboration in a parallel world, one of noncommercial success within a region without much of an art market, balancing public engagement with studio-based object making. He inspired a curiosity to uncover hidden histories and developed original content by working with both mainstream and alternative spaces and galleries. 

Other Sources challenged us to uncover what existed before the dawn of Asian American studies.

Villa inspired “street scholars” to pursue original critical and historical research. Terezita Romo’s brilliant detective-like work, exhuming careers and locating art objects for L. A. Xicano, is an example of Villa’s art historical excavation. Published in 2011 by the Chicano Studies Research Center at UCLA, and featured in a related exhibition at the Autry National Center, Romo’s project profiled Chicano artists like Eduardo Carrillo, Domingo Ulloa, and Hernando Villa. My own recent scholarship is also indebted to Villa’s example. Beginning in 1994 at SFSU, I began researching Asian American art history with a collaborative team. That project eventually partnered with students and institutions, including SFSU, the Archives of American Art at the Smithsonian Institution, Stanford University, and the de Young Museum, and individuals, including Gordon Chang, Daniell Cornell, Karin Higa, Mayching Kao, Paul Karlstrom, Margo Machida, Irene Poon, and Sharon Spain. Our research culminated in a publication and exhibition. The publication, Asian American Art: A History, 1850–1970 (Stanford University Press, 2008), documented more than a century of forgotten artists and turned the spotlight on many previously unknown and surprising Asian American artistic collaborations. Appearing as the publication’s opening colophon was an excerpt from Villa’s 1995 poetic meditation about his artistic ancestors, Utang. The related de Young Museum exhibition and catalog of the same name, Asian/American/Modern Art: A History, 1900–1970, opened in late 2008 alongside Maya Lin’s Systematic Landscapes, in conjunction with a host of other Asian American programming that was independently scheduled throughout the Bay Area. The most recent historical object featured in the de Young exhibition was the earliest of Villa’s magnificent feathered capes. Other Sources challenged us to uncover what existed before the dawn of Asian American studies; we learned that Asian American art history was richer than anyone had imagined and that San Francisco was its historic ground zero, the home of artists like Theresa Hak-Kyung Cha, Chang Dai-chien, Dong Kingman, and Chiura Obata.

Now we can see that Other Sources was among the most influential early exhibitions exploring multiculturalism in Northern California. It was built on Carlos Villa’s personal strength, drawn from his foundation in Bay Area Filipino American culture—itself open to broad multiethnic engagement—and Villa advanced this agenda over more than four decades. Villa contributed significantly to a distinctive regional history of arts policy and cultural integration that is essential to celebrate.

Notes

  1. Paul Kagawa, “Third World Art as a State of Mind,” in Other Sources: An American Essay, ed. Carlos Villa (San Francisco: San Francisco Art Institute, 1976), 8.
  2. Raymond Saunders, Black Is a Color, pamphlet, c. 1968. 
  3. From an e-mail exchange between the author and Daniel Joseph Martinez, June 26–27, 2013.
  4. Carlos Villa, description of Other Sources: An American Essay—1976, http://carlos-villa.com/other-sources.html, accessed August 9, 2013.
  5. For more information, see http://rehistoricizing.org/.

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