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'Take This Hammer' Reveals Power of Art and Activism at YBCA

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Oree Originol, 'Justice for Our Lives' (Courtesy of YBCA)

At my very first direct action training some 20 years ago, I clearly remember the facilitator emphasizing the importance of using creativity to get our messages about capitalism, deforestation and racism out there. “It will make people think,” he told us. “And in the very least, the police won’t know what to do you with you if you’re dressed like a clown-tree and performing a monologue about sweat shop labor while riding a unicycle.”

He was right. The intersection of art and activism certainly makes people think. And at this moment in history, critical thinking is desperately needed.

In today’s world of online petition activism and social media political memes, it can be easy to click away and forget the many other forms of action that change makers engage with out in the real world — and the varied creative mediums they use to get their messages to the masses.

Carved and inked particle board from CultureStrike
Carved and inked particle board from CultureStrike (John Cartwright)

Take This Hammer: Art + Media Activism from the Bay Area brings together an extensive, radical and heart-wrenching collection of multimedia activist art that should be required viewing.

The exhibition, which runs through August at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco, covers a lot of ground, a survey that can at once be overwhelming and inspirational. The overwhelm of course comes from the vast range of socio-political and environmental issues we currently face as a society: racism, police brutality, housing crises/gentrification, poverty, the prison industrial complex, the list goes on. The inspiration comes from the seemingly endless creativity utilized within visual, performing and literary arts as tools for individual and collective resistance.


The exhibition begins in the lobby of the YBCA with a row of screens playing various film clips, including Take This Hammer, the 1963 documentary featuring James Baldwin’s trip to San Francisco, Walls into Bridges, featuring Angela Davis and episode 10 of Blacks, Blues, Black! a 1968 documentary series written and produced exclusively for KQED by Maya Angelou.

Anti-Eviction Mapping Project
Anti-Eviction Mapping Project (John Cartwright)

Upon entering the main gallery on the first floor, where the bulk of Take This Hammer is on display, visitors are greeted with a wall of protest posters from San Leandro-based Dignidad Rebelde. The collaborate project focuses on Chicana feminism and the intersection of indigenous rights with autonomy; posters cover issues spanning from the disappearances of women in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico to the liberation of Palestine.

Work from Oakland-based activist organization CultureStrike is prominently displayed as well, including video installations, a collection of protest signs, and executive director Favianna Rodriguez’s 13-by-30-foot Pleasure is Freedom mural.

Other video work inside the main gallery includes ‘Tasha, a video piece written and performed by Cat Brooks of Black Lives Matter and the Anti Police-Terror Project, Leslie Dreyer’s anti-Google bus tactical intervention and William Rhodes’ Cross Burning, a short video documenting his construction of a 12-foot-tall cross made of mirror, glass and gold leaf.

Oree Originol, Detail from 'Justice for Alex Nieto'
Oree Originol, Detail from ‘Justice for Alex Nieto’ (Dani Burlison)

Adrienne Skye RobertsA Living Chance: Storytelling to End Life Without Parole project includes stacks of eight different postcards (and accompanying audio) that visitors are free to take. Each card includes a portrait of a woman incarcerated for life without parole (portraits by Billie Simões Belo), with commentary about life in prison — in the women’s own words — on each card.

The ambitious exhibition also includes installations from the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project, The Guantanamo Bay Museum of Art and History, Emory Douglas, Tucker Nichols, an incredible analysis of San Francisco’s activist culture written by Rebecca Solnit (available for free in the YBCA lobby) and so much more.

Yet the most punch-in-the-gut installation for me, personally, was the timely presence of Oree Originol’s Justice For Our Lives. A collection of simple sketches of people of color killed by law enforcement since 2014, the bright sheets of paper cover an entire wall. The names and faces of victims from our greater Bay Area community include Oscar Grant, 13-year-old Andy Lopez, Mario Woods and Alex Nieto, who was killed in San Francisco in March 2014. Just a week before Take This Hammer opened, the four police officers who fired 59 shots at Nieto were cleared of any wrongdoing.

Take This Hammer makes us think. And then it makes us think some more. I suggest a long, thoughtful visit to the exhibition before going home and working on some creative resistance of your own.


Take This Hammer is on view at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco through August 14, 2016. For tickets and more information visit ybca.org.

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