Fierce Sistahs @ the San Francisco Main Library
I'd read a great review on-line about Lenn Keller's exhibit, "Fierce Women," in the Hormel Center at the San Francisco Main Library and was looking forward to a conversation late Monday afternoon, June 7. When I got home last night, I checked my email for any urgent news and was surprised to learn that a patron had photographed the exhibit and created a slide show with Keller's work on his website. It smelled like copyright infringement. Since when is someone's work public property?
I was sure the person who created the slide show would take it down once Keller expressed her displeasure. If anything, the library was certain to stand by her and support her request for new signage once it was clear, the perp was not taking it down. Surprisingly, the library saw her as a trouble maker and before I could get to there today had snatched it down.
When I arrived at 1:30, I was like wow. Unbelievable! What was more unbelievable was Keller's subsequent treatment by curatorial department staff who yelled at her to take her "stuff" and leave. Later as we sat in the cafe looking through the file box holding the magazines, posters, programs, letters and plans for Gente--an organization started by a black lesbian revolutionary group under the guise of a soccer team. At a time when all eyes are on South Africa for the World Cup, it seems kind of like coming full circle literally.
Gente started clinics and support networks for other black same gender loving women. Fierce Women was a glimpse through the decades: 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s ... when everyone was young and full of youthful ideals.
There was a program for the first Black Lesbian Conference (1980) and the First Black Women's Conference (1978-79). Keller started the Third World Gay Caucus at the Pacific Center in Berkeley. We spoke about her work with women behind bars who didn't know how to sustain same gender loving relationships outside. There were no models and the black community then and now was homophobic, so the former convict would commit a crime to return to the community where she or he found love.
Even today, a lot of the murders and crimes are crimes of passion. Keller said the revolving door turned so quickly it spun like a merry-go-round. The exhibit had lots of memorabilia from concerts hosted by Koncepts Kultural Gallery, the magazines like The Tide and Ache. Many were events I'd attended or knew of. It was a rich time, a time many bay area residents were too young to notice or not yet born. There is so much missing in the story of black gay San Francisco...it is a story no one is telling and many are not asking for because its value is underestimated. These Fierce Women built institutions and relationships across gender and/or sexual preference lines.
When asked about this golden era, Keller said, the community was back to meeting in bars post-civil rights and equal justice. The community infrastructure created by these fierce women is for all intents and purposes gone.
The racism, sexism, and marginalization which pushed these black women and other women of color into radical feminist or as Alice Walker calls womanist politics, exists today, perhaps even more so as homogenized values become the new drink of choice and interracial oppression is as much an issue as external or structural oppressive policies seated on the shelf next to the guest porcelain.
Keller dared add her voice to the discourse where black women have not been invited and the fact that the San Francisco Main Library recognized this important contribution is to be applauded. Where the institution fell down was in not respecting the fact that Keller is a participant in the discourse, an expert who knows the key players and when she called for back-up, the team should have been there to protect her voice for what she brings ...brought...which is now gone. This is the reason why Keller asked the library to take her exhibit down, she said there was no other option.
The library consulted the City Attorney who said the person who took liberties with Keller's images was within his rights since he did give Keller credit for the work. Keller who'd asked for clarification going into the show, but never received it, would have displayed the work differently had she been told of her vulnerable position. Many or some of the women named in the photos 30 years ago are at different places in their lives now, and do not want to broadcast their youthful politics.
Keller's photographs are intimate. She catches her subjects sharing special moments with each other on the front lines and behind closed doors. When she took certain images, she realized the importance of the moment, but not its full impact forty year up the road. Keller has rare shots of women who are no longer here, women like Pat Parker and Margaret Sloan. She also has shots of a young Linda Tillery and a skinny Ava Square.
It's Keller's game and she wins no matter what the call--it's the public that loses. One librarian told me that Keller's "Fierce Women" was the best exhibit the library had ever had in the Hormel Center, perhaps the library, and that she was sorry it was taken down today.
Keller holds the deck and the winning hand. Perhaps we'll see the exhibit mounted again elsewhere, like the Sargent Johnson Gallery where Keller has exhibited before.
I hope in the future, that the SFPL art department communicates better with its curators, so that the library can truly live up to its reputation as a place where freedom of speech and ideas are recognized, respected, supported and celebrated.
Photos: Lenn Keller at the top of the page holding one of a few new plates for the exhibition; this Disclaimer stated "...no assumptions should be made about the subjects (depicted in the exhibit's) past or present sexual or cultural identity."
While we are seated in the cafe drinking tea, Keller sees a member of the library's curatorial staff who tells her she can retrieve her materials. Keller and a friend comply; this is the same woman whom I am told yells at Keller to take her things and leave before the curator can take proper inventory. The final images are of the empty cases where the photos, programs and other memorabilia and exhibit content were just a few hours before. Visit www.lennkeller.com Credits: Wanda Sabir