A tedious battle at City Hall over the selection of an appropriate monument to poet, author, and onetime San Francisco resident Maya Angelou has seemingly been resolved, and a monument that was selected by committee over a year ago and then rejected has been reinstated as the official selection.
"Portrait of a Phenomenal Woman," the piece by Berkeley-based artist Lava Thomas consists of a nine-foot-tall book cast in bronze with an image of Angelou's face on one side, and her words etched on the other side — and it's intended to be installed next to the SF Public Library main branch in Civic Center. The selection of Thomas's piece was made in August 2019 after a two-plus year process, following calls by activists and city leaders to rectify the dearth of female representation among the city's 87 statues. And Angelou's son, Guy Johnson, served on the selection panel.
But then, as the Chronicle reported last October, Supervisor Catherine Stefani intervened and pissed everyone off by saying she wanted a real statue, the old-fashioned kind, cast in bronze, not a book with a face on it. Stefani was using her power as the sponsor of the legislation that created the selection process and funded the monument itself.
This upended the process and angered Thomas, who told the paper, "Artists in the Bay Area work hard for very little reward, and to be disregarded this way, it’s unconscionable. The fact that this process lacked integrity, it lacked honesty and it lacked accountability defies everything that Dr. Angelou stood for."
But this week, as the New York Times is reporting, Thomas's proposed monument has been reinstated, and everyone including Stefani is very apologetic. The decision comes after a year in which Thomas took the city to task, and other criticized them for a botched process that ultimately disenfranchised an artist of color.
Roberto Ordeñana, the president of the SF Arts Commission, tells the Times in a statement, "Once we understand the power of restorative justice, and that each of us is uplifted by doing what is right, the easier it becomes. We thank Ms. Thomas for holding us accountable."
At a time when statues of men are falling out of favor across the country, some artists see the scrapped Maya Angelou monument in San Francisco as an example of politicians’ thwarting visions of a more diverse future https://t.co/OTT69mOKKT— The New York Times (@nytimes) August 6, 2020
Back in August, Ordeñana issued a formal apology to Thomas, following months in which other Black artists came forward in her support — and in support of monuments like this one that don't conform to the concept of the many bronze statues to white men that have fallen out of fashion anyway.
Also, Stefani has vowed to "reform" how the public art selection process works in the city.
So, now, Thomas has been given a budget of $250,000 to design, fabricate, and deliver the monument — though an installation date has not yet been set.
"Throughout this process, I have tried to uphold the principles of Maya Angelou,” Thomas tells the Times. “Black women should get to decide how we are going to be represented in the public realm, not politicians."