What’s in a name? Well, for the San Francisco-based 3.9 Art Collective, it’s a poignant signal of the city’s shrinking black population and the heightened struggle facing the city’s black artists. Years ago, the San Francisco-based group of black artists came together to talk about the struggles facing black artists — using art as a vehicle for the group.
“The collective is holding onto this name to really speak to this exodus,” said writer and art historian Jacqueline Francis, a member of the group, “and in some ways the invisibility of black Americans in San Francisco.”
The group, a collective of artists, curators and writers, takes its name from a newspaper article that predicted that San Francisco’s black population would drop to 3.9%. The actual percentage of black residents fell to just under six percent, but the headline sparked an artistic soul searching for the members of the collective.
“The band was basically meant to be about the decline of the black population in San Francisco,” said photographer Ron Moultrie Saunders. “And coupled with that, you’re also talking about a small black artist population that’s disappearing because they can’t afford to live here.”
In the face of the discouraging economic conditions facing artists in San Francisco, the group has held workshops, art exhibits, and grant-writing seminars to try to help young black artists navigate the future.
“We all want to stick together and support each other,” Francis said, “and be part of what the fabric of the city is.”
Currently, the collective has a video installation titled Black Magic in the San Francisco Arts Commission Gallery, which reflects on themes of protection and self-care that its members experienced during the “twin pandemics of Covid-19 and of racism”. The installation takes place on five video screens projecting images created by the individual artists.
In a small studio in the SOMA district, artist collective Ramekon O’Arwisters used zip ties to bundle broken pieces of ceramic and fabric together to create sculptures that blended hard, ragged edges with brightly colored textiles. He said the plastic ties symbolized the makeshift handcuffs police sometimes use, while the ceramic shards were reminiscent of something broken but beautiful.
“For me, they supersede my feelings about what it’s like to be black and queer,” he said.
As a longtime artist in San Francisco, O’Arwisters watched the city’s black population shrink over the decades, with the exodus accelerating as the tech sector of the economy soared. . And yet, he sees the band as a kind of survivor story.
“We’re still here, we’re still fussing, we’re still fighting,” O’Arwisters said, “through the arts.”
At the same time, the group’s own composition may reflect the very problem it warns about.
“Our collective at one point was twenty people,” Francis said. “Right now there are four of us, but we are still looking.”
Inside a photo lab darkroom, Saunders used a photo developer to create photos without a camera – an ancient method of photography that predates the camera where an item is placed on sensitive paper to light and exposed to light. Saunders said he uses water elements in his work, to symbolize the black population of Bayview-Hunters Point, who once worked en masse in the now-defunct Naval Dockyard, but are now displaced by gentrification. and the lack of job opportunities.
“It’s a way to have a discussion about the disappearance and decline of black people in San Francisco,” Saunders said.
Photos of Saunders are displayed at some BART stations, a location he prefers to an art gallery.
“The thing about doing art in communities,” Saunders said, “is that you want to create something that they can relate to in response to their history and their culture.”
The importance of black voices reflecting their community goes right to the heart of the collective’s philosophy. That to reflect something, you must first have a real source to reflect from – the very thing that is lost, when a community is gone.
“If we don’t have those voices, we get edited out, taken out of the narrative,” O’Arwisters said. “And that’s a lie.”