OTI Online
Winter 1995

Unfurling A Maestrapeace: Mythic and mortal female ancestors grace this San Francisco landmark
By Diana Scott

Unfurling A Maestrapeace: Mythic and mortal female ancestors grace this San Francisco landmark. By Diana Scott

A bold new mural on the landmark Women's Building in San Francisco's Mission District

On first encounter, it makes you want to shout. The size, boldness, and richly vibrant color send out an elating visual energy. Four two-story heads representing mythic female ancestors of African, Native American, Asian, and European origin frame the building, gazing at each other from the corners. Their enormous scale (3/8 inches=l foot) are part of what makes the mural so impressive.

"I like to paint big. There's something nice about the physicality of it. You move up and down and go back... You use all different size brushes," said muralist Meera Desai, twentysomething, the youngest of the seven muralists who were chosen competitively to receive the joint commission.

Veteran muralist Miranda Bergman, closer to 50, believes that, "a history of women of the world over time calls for monumental space. You have to speak in a loud voice to be heard over the din of TV and sexist billboards."

The board of directors of the Women's Building in San Francisco decided to commission the new mural two years ago, to celebrate the building's upcoming 15th anniversary. Founded in 1979 by the San Francisco Women's Centers, the Women's Building describes itself as the only women-owned and -operated advocacy, service, cultural, and social action women's center in the country. According to executive director Shoshana Rosenberg, the building provides meeting space and such services as rape counseling, job training, and legal aid to over 1,000 women each week. It hosts aerobic and self-defense classes, shelters dozens of nascent projects, and is also home to the San Francisco National Organization for Women (NOW). This "room of our own community" is located in a four-story landmark building in San Francisco's predominantly Hispanic Mission district.

The muralists chosen—with over 100 years of combined experience—seized the opportunity to reclaim women's history with openly, powerful images from women's culture that patriarchal societies have long suppressed. High above the doorway on the building's entrance facade, a seated nude goddess with butterflywings sits, pregnant with girl-child. The goddess holds the sun on high: below her cascade streams of water, alive with fish. She's the single fantasy goddess of the piece, created by Susan Kelk Cervantes to embody light and life-giving energy. "All women can learn to have control over their own destinies. She holds the sun [symbolizing] that potential," says the artist.

The procreative goddess, culturally subversive in her unabashedly uneroticized corporalicy, provoked an early challenge: The San Francisco Landmarks Preservation Advisory Board found her out of character with the historic building facade and threatened to block municipal funding of the project. As repeated delays threatened the project's implementation (dependent on much donated labor), "We called in the press," says Cervantes. Opposition dissipated with the painstaking demonstration that paints could be removed.

The completed Maestrapeace, which covers two 65' by 80' window-punctuated walls of the building at 18th Street near Valencia, illustrates the contributions of women throughout history from all parts of the world and the healing power of women's wisdom over time. The roughly 12,000 square foot (including gables), colorsaturated painting rises to heights where only a few core muralists ventured, atop seven and a half levels of scaffolding. "It's very big, it's very public, it's beautiful—a spectacular visual celebration," said Tim Drescher, muralist, teacher, and author of San Francisco Murals: Community Creates Its Muse.

The "San Francisco seven" muralists worked collaboratively for nearly a year and a half along with about fifty volunteers to complete the two-part mural. They are carrying on a community-painting tradition that dates back to the New Deal era work of Diego Rivera and the thirty-odd Coit Tower muralists, four of whom were women. Women have been leaders in this city's community-mural movement since the late 1960s, when mural-making spilled outdoors from the visually vibrant interiors of the Haight to become politicized, and enjoyed a militant renaissance in the Mission district. The predominantly Latina group, Mujeres Muralistas (Women Muralists) took to the scaffolds in the early '70s demonstrating that women could become visible in their own image. (Cervantes and Alicia belonged to this group.) According to Bergman, "A strong women's movement here created a whole body of women raring to go," coupled with good art school programs in the '60s and '70s for women of color, in which key muralists enrolled. "Murals are what made art and politics come together."

The image of 1993 Nobel Laureate Rigoberta Menchu, herself an activist for indigenous people's rights, figures prominently in this latest, space-claiming vision. Menchu's head towers on a gable above the adjacent rooftop, radiantly backlit with moonbeams which illuminate her flower-emblazoned Guatemalan blouse (huipil).An ornate Aztec speech glyph denoting "special speech" curls, snakelike, from her lips. In each of two, enormous outstretched hands she holds a goddess: on the left, bare-breasted Yemayah, the Yoruba goddess of rivers and the sea, source of earliest life; and on the right, similarly bare Coyoixauhqui, the Aztec moon goddess, breaking out of dismembered captivity. Goddesses proliferate: the elegant Guanyin, Chinese goddess of compassion; an African funerary mask that represents the spirit of the ancestors; the Indian goddess Dakini, in warrior stance, destroyer of divisive, egotistic ignorance. A Hopi rainbow goddess and ancient Slavic oracle doll round out the feminist pantheon.

Beneath Rigoberta's billowing skirt, larger-than-life mortal women are clustered, Georgia O'Keeffe and Joycelyn Elders among them, as well as a Latina healer and a traditional female African drummer. The shadowspirit of poet Audre Lorde reaches high to inscribe the words "future generations."

For the sake of inclusiveness, a single figure of the New Man (modeled after muralist Edythe Boone's young son) is depicted next to the drummer.

Detail of Yemayah, Yoruba goddess of rivers and the sea.
Detail of Yemayah, Yoruba goddess of rivers and the sea.

Given the pitfalls of literal inclusiveness—"It obviously wouldn't work for artists to do two million portraits," Bergman notes—along with the problems posed by the building's many windows, some clever means of symbolic inclusiveness were needed. Artists devised two key ways to incorporate suggestions culled from hundreds of responses to a community survey which guided their work. One strategy was to incorporate hundreds of women's names—historical, protean, and divine (including sponsors)—on color-layered bands in gold calligraphy. Another was to use cloth patterns (researched by muralists and painted predominantly by volunteers) to represent many different cultures.

Streams of boldly patterned cloth, from Africa, Asia, Latin America, India, the Pacific Islands, and Native America, represent women's traditional forms of creativity and wealth. Cloth binds both sides of the painted narrative together and gives rhythm to the "flow lines," blank ribbons on which over 450 women's names are inscribed in gold (the sure-handed work of master calligrapher Olivia Quevedo, teacher, healer, and former nun).

"There are some fairly serious omissions, but you can't say it all." Bergman concedes. "I wish we had a tradeswoman in there." A computer was added after an objection expressed at a major public design review, that technology had been omitted. "There are as many white women [proportionally to their numbers worldwide] as other ethnicities," the artist adds, noting from experience that this question invariably arises when women of color are depicted in numbers.

Expressive of a more inclusive, 1990s feminism, the mural evokes a range of healing emotions, spiritual strengths, and proud actions. Below Rigoberta's left hand, Lolita Lebron, the imprisoned Puerto Rican nationalist, reaches her arms wide in freedom. To her right, a Warsaw Ghetto resister signals halt to aggression. At street level, a joyous lesbian dances with her disabled, red-shoed partner; a nurturant tribal grandmother bathes a toddler; a sariclad mother suckles an infant while painting. Beneath Rigoberta's right hand, anti-apartheid activist Lillian Ngoya burns her passbook; and United Farm Workers founding organizer Jessica Govea invokes solidarity.

The name for the mural came from Rigoberta Menchu's assistant, who called it a "maestrapiece." "The semantic overturning of masterpiece grew on us," says Bergman. The artists liked playfully changing a term traditionally applied to "white male European art," with connotations of supremacy and submission, into a bilingual assertion of women's worth and mission.

"Maestrapeace is easily one of the most significant mural projects in the history of the city," says author Drescher, who has documented murals worldwide.

Muralist Bergman thinks of it as "a standing ovation for women's liberation; a non-negotiable demand for respect; a healing waterfall of women's love; a prayer for everybody in the world; a sweet subversive dream of peace."

Diana Scott writes about architecture, public art, and ecologically-sound design.

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