Not the Usual Crowd at Fort Mason

Thomas Dunn

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Me and the other gentrifiers are on the 22. Our heads buoyed to the rhythm of the bus drivers’ lead foot. I’m lulled into a false sense of security by the soft hum of car tyres along Fillmore Street. I was the back row of an unholy choir, bobbing along to the music from the rattle of sheet metal while it shook against the unevenness of 16th. I listened to the long hiss of wind as it ribboned through the open window above my head. The plan was to take the 22 to the end of the line, hop off the bus at Bay Street, then walk three blocks to Fort Mason. I was on my way to a gallery show but thought calling this place Fort Mason felt silly. To an outsider it’s just the Marina with a different name.

The bus crossed over the red-painted street and we rumbled in our seats as we passed over the trolley tracks on Market Street. The vibe of the city had changed. The Spanish architecture had now shifted into more Victorian styles. I rolled my eyes, fucking rich people—but remembered I wasn’t exactly sure where the split was anymore. San Francisco at one time might have been split between rich and poor, but now the divide simply rests between old and new money.

The entire sky was swallowed up in a dull grey overcast as the Marina Crowd floated onto the 22 on clouds of Chanel no.5 around Fillmore Street. They refused to look in my direction. I was grey Carhartt atmosphere, the wrong kind, the one with holes in my slacks that were faded from their overuse. Without a word or stray glance, we continued down the line. I was the only Black man on the bus after we passed Geary.

Before the Marina crowd jumped ship, the whole vibe of bus-passengers changed. There were almost no white people before 16th and Mission, and if they were white, I had already seen them around campus at California College of the Arts. However, when the bus passed through Pacific Heights, I was a dime a dozen. Meaning one of five Black men on the bus and all of us were almost dressed the same.

Many displaced locals and former-San Franciscans talk about the emergence of new neighbourhoods. Over the past two years, I’ve heard them referred to as “imaginary”. “Imaginary” because they were existing places with updated names. Names that do nothing but up-the-market value of the housing in those particular areas. San Francisco is small compared to the cities in Michigan. The stacking of these imaginary places continued to add to its sweltering sense of overwhelming inaccessibility. Not necessarily just in terms of travel from afar, but even how I’m able to navigate the city on a daily basis. I might have been born wrong: too midwestern or middle-class to belong in certain parts of San Francisco. I wanted to claim that reason as the reason for my discomfort on my way to the exhibition, SWEAT + DIRT, which was Charles Lee’s first solo photography show in the city. He was a recent graduate of California College of the Arts. On the day of the conversation, the show was in its last week at SF Camera Works.

Eventually the once crowded bus had bled itself empty. The only people left were me and this man wearing a green quarter-zip fleece who was seated beside his girlfriend who donned a black puffer North-Face Jacket. You know the one with the white logo. That one everyone has. The driver waved to us as we were on our way to the exit. She told us to “have a good day.” I cupped a hand to my mouth and shouted thank you as I walked down the steps toward the exit. The driver’s eyes got wide, like she was startled by a response to her own voice. I felt my eye twitch when I stepped onto the sidewalk, but gathered my bearings before I started the three-block walk to the gallery from Bay Street.

Within seconds I realised how tense the Marina made my shoulders. The streets were entirely too wide, too quiet, and too empty. Nobody was outside at four on a Saturday afternoon. Everything was bare. Even the trash somehow fell into a well-kempt pile beside a green-city trash can. It stacked itself neatly on the corner. The neighbourhood looked more installation-piece than real life. The scene felt sterilised. Even the air itself smelled like it had been scrubbed from itself. I kept rolling the top of my shoulders to stop slouching. Since arriving in the city, I’ve become increasingly aware of how bad my posture is. I had to be the only crooked thing on Bay Street that day. Even the grass stood straighter than I could.

Recently I discovered the Marina wasn’t even real land. In an KQED article Kelly O’Mara clarified what we colloquially refer to as ‘fill’ in the Bay Area are two different things: artificial fill (created by piling up soil, mud, rocks, rubble and dirt) or former marsh and wetlands. The fill was initially used for the Panama-Pacific International Exposition, a world fair that was held in San Francisco in 1915.  It’s poetic that as a nature poet I felt completely disturbed while walking through this residential area. How uncanny it was for a place that wasn’t supposed to be there, could make me feel wrong for being there.

I prefer the Mission District in San Francisco.  There are people living in Technicolour and Dolby 5K. To me, the streets feel lived in; danced in; screamed for; and held by the people themselves. It was one of the most alive areas in the city. One that has retained its San Francisco-ness as one of its oldest neighbourhoods. Known for its Latinx population and culture, its food, its art—but even this landscape has changed. Still, it’s near everything: my personal sanctuary of the 16th & Mission BART Station; the Roxie Theatre; my people. And even in the quiet of the middle of the night, when every unhoused person has tucked themselves away and curled into themselves for warmth, drums are still being played somewhere and syncopating the echoes from a burst of laughter originating from a few blocks down. It’s the sort of joy that turns streetlamps into chandeliers through the late-night hours.

The air in North Point/Fort Mason/The Marina was sharp against my face. On the way to the gallery, I felt embarrassed by the wildfire filling my nostrils before it danced through my chest. There’s a certain shame that stirs from being in a place that you don’t belong. Despite living in San Francisco for almost two years now, this was my first time this far north and for the first five minutes of my walk, I did not see another person.

It was going to rain soon; I could tell that it was. The Michigan in me was trained to smell fresh cut grass mixed with a hint of aluminium weaved into the salty wind as rain. It’s a skill I had assumed was lost since moving here, but at Fort Mason, there was room to breathe, to stand, to think long enough to feel the air on my skin.

A few blocks down, I saw an unhoused man burrito-ed in a thick blanket, drifting asleep in a red camping chair. When I got close enough to notice his beard had bits of sun-bleached red woven between the shocks of grey, I saw that I was standing across from the nicest Safeway I had ever seen. In the 40 minutes to travel from the Mission to the Marina, I felt like I had entered another country. Where a gentle breeze from the Bay would brush against my face. From the walk across the street, I could see the Golden Gate Bridge to my left and to my right I saw a line of people on the dock looking toward Alcatraz. Phones out thumbs clicking the screen to get the perfect pic.

I arrived at the SF Camera Works five minutes before the show began. I grabbed an end seat in the middle row with a clear line of sight of three chairs fronting a huge black and white collage painting. The L-shaped room split the show into two distinct sections: large prints and installations on the long wall near the gallery entrance, with smaller prints on photo paper on the short. My eyes bounced from one wall to the other. Similar to the ways that Black photographers, like Los Angeles-based Widline Cadet and Oakland’s own Sadie Barnette hang their photographs in galleries and museums, Charles Lee’s photographs were arranged in what he refers to as “Grandma’s Living Room Style.” The unframed photographs were informally approached in constellations, each hung using nails and small black binder clips. Cadet often includes her photographs on wooden mantle pieces, and Barnette’s exhibitions have featured an iridescent couch nearby to recreate the feeling of being in a home and situate audiences in an aesthetic. 

The artist’s conversation was simple, direct, and at points, elegant. Lee and Paul-Kevin Jacques II his main collaborator for the exhibition, were seated side-by-side before the massive collage. A frequent model in the photographs, Jacques II’s face was the first thing I saw as I entered the gallery. The name of the piece was “Determination”. The subject was Black man “roping” – it’s the idea of catching a target with ropes. Most often a lasso. In rodeos, the target is moving. The lasso swings above just his head. The knot rests on the far side of his body in the picture. His eyes are fixed on something just the left of the frame. He’s licking his lips and his mouth is pressed to hold his tongue securely in one corner of his mouth. The photograph felt as though the model was caught in the motion of his everyday life. At first, it made me ask what is Jacques II looking at just beyond the frame; later, I wondered if it even mattered? I kept switching places with the person in the photograph, and asked myself the same question: what am I looking for that’s just beyond my field of vision?

There were several points that Lee mentioned his desire to make the mundane ethereal. He referenced the way that wedding photos tend to be over-exposed. He noted his use of this “gates of heaven” or the heavenly glow that’s achieved by over-exposing negatives in the dark room has both an aesthetic and functional purpose that gives the photos the feeling of being larger than life. Lee stated that he wanted his portraits of cow-folks of colour to have a similar effect. In the days after the show, I continued to meditate on what it means to represent a marginalised minority of a marginalised minority by only showing the mundane. Lee insisted that he’s uninterested in showing Black bodies in pain. 

During the second half of the conversation, I was struck by something that Lee and Jacques said about reverse migration. After a 100-year long exodus many Black Americans are leaving cities to move back to the South. Particularly following World War II, Black Southerners left the Deep South for factory work and working-class jobs across the country. As a Michigander, I recognise the importance the Great Migration played in shaping the Midwest, but Southerners also relocated out to the northeast, and to California. Walter Mosley famously painted a portrait of this move in The Devil in a Blue Dress. In most cases Black people from the South moved for better opportunities than what was available in their home states.

The day before Lee’s talk at SF Camera Works, Adam Mahoney, a national reporter at Capital B News, published a guest essay in the New York Times that tracked the lives of six Black Americans who have recently moved to the South. Mahoney’s article offers a new slant, citing pollution within major cities as another possible reason, but the people he interviews fall into the similar category. Young, well-educated, and community-minded. These traits make up a majority of those migrating from larger cities back to the South. According to a report by Brookings, over 100,000 Black Americans have moved South between the years of 1995 and 2020. However, this news isn’t new. In fact, the Brookings report has shown a steady increase in Black Americans moving down south for the last 35 years, with more exiting from the Midwest than any other area.

Lee stated he wanted his work to explore new imagined futures and possibilities for Black men to emote in this country. During the Q&A, I asked Lee to clarify if he could name some of the imagined futures that he wants to explore Black Men’s emotions. Lee didn’t have an answer yet, but I was struck by how Jacques II responded. Jacques, who had been silent for most of the conversation and had let Lee do most of the talking during the event, had widened his eyes when I asked the question. Jacques II motioned to the interviewer, asking her to pull up a particular photograph of him as he calmed a horse. He started to speak about the ways “horses are so powerful” and how sometimes while interacting with forces that are more powerful than themselves, people have to “meet that power with tenderness.” He looked around the room before he continued. “Sometimes we have to allow ourselves the space to bring ourselves to the same level before any of us can move forward.” I wondered how his words idea relate to Black men “roping”. I think about how incredibly powerful the image of Jacques II and every cow-folk of colour in Lee’s exhibition, who are seemingly reclaiming a space that is traditionally seen as violent toward Black Americans, have been rendered as art. What makes Lee’s work so powerful is that we, as viewers, have to engage with this “Revolutionary idea” as exactly what it is: an everyday occurrence. We, as his audience, are confronted with a revolutionary practice that has been firmly situated within something remarkable as the mundane. This makes the work all the more powerful.

In the month following the exhibition, I’ve thought about Jacques II’s words often. About the ways that my parents didn’t allow me to cry or display my emotions. I’ve reflected upon where my parents are from. They were from the South, like their parents, and their parents, and their parents and their parents probably born into slavery or at least their parents were enslaved on the same plantations and that my parents were born sixteen kilometres apart from each other in the 1960s. Despite the boom in recent years, I wish there were more media attention given to this Southern migration, one involving a return that involves roots and moving in the opposite direction of what history had previously suggested.

After the show, I called my mum on my way to 22. I asked her about my cousin, the one who rides bulls professionally. Before we ended the conversation, I described how happy Lee was by quoting something he said about this was not the usual crowd at Fort Mason.

On the bus, I realised how right he was. There were more Black people than white people in an art gallery, it was something that I hadn’t seen before in my time in San Francisco and the kicker was, as we stood around talking after the show, most of us had roots in Louisiana. 

While walking back to the bus stop, deep in thought about how many artists are moving toward constellated living room gallery hanging techniques, I was proud of the miracle I had just seen. As I neared Bay Street, I saw that the same unhoused man I had run into a few hours prior was now standing with an empty paper bowl of Mac & Cheese. He had moved his chair under an awning near the front steps of a home, placing his water bottle on top of the metal mailbox near the door. It was going to rain soon; I could smell it. He took one glance at me before he returned to looking at his phone. He didn’t have to see me; I wasn’t a part of the usual crowd here.

Ecology Not the Usual Crowd at Fort Mason 003 Charles Lee Install SWEAT DIRT 2

© Charles Lee / Courtesy of the photographer

Ecology Not the Usual Crowd at Fort Mason 008 Charles Lee Yung Ridah

© Charles Lee / Courtesy of the photographer

Thomas Dunn

is a

Guest Contributor for Panorama.

Thomas Dunn is a full-time student in the graduate writing program at the California College of the Arts.