In the darkened alley of SOMA’s Annie Street, a crowd huddles in what passes for cold in San Francisco, waiting excitedly for the flipping of a switch. The occasion? The latest in Sites Unseen’s series of site-specific artworks commissioned for Yerba Buena’s alleys: an animated neon sign by New York-based artist Hank Willis Thomas.
Mounted on the tall, windowless side of the Salma Family Building at 165 Jessie Street, 6-foot-6-inch letters now spell out “LOVE OVER RULES.” Each word gets a line; alternating ons and offs encourage different reads. Is it “love over rules” or “love overrules”?
Thomas shares that uncertainty with the viewer. The words come from the lines of a song recorded by Thomas’ cousin, Songha Willis, shortly before he was murdered in Philadelphia in 2000. “He was my life plan,” the artist says of his cousin at a talk hosted by the California Historical Society the night of sign’s inaugural lighting. “I wanted to be his backup singer.”
Thomas moved to San Francisco to attend graduate school at California College of the Arts shortly after his cousin’s death, and says he spent his four years in the city in mourning.
The artist points to his 2005 inclusion in YBCA’s Bay Area Now 4 as a pivotal moment in his career. Thomas hung Priceless, an enormous printed banner (and his first outdoor installation), just outside the arts center’s entrance. It shows an image of a Black family at a funeral with MasterCard advertising language layered over their grief: “3-piece suit: $250; new socks: $2; 9mm Pistol: $80; gold chain: $400; Bullet: ¢60; Picking the perfect casket for your son: priceless.”
His practice now spans sculpture, video and photographic works, public installation and social practice. In all, Thomas challenges accepted generalizations of race, gender and ethnicity by mining historical images and popular culture. One of his most compelling pieces, Question Bridge: Black Males, is currently on view at the Oakland Museum of California. In the video, made with Chris Johnson, Bayeté Ross Smith and Kamal Sinclair, 160 Black men speak on sensitive topics (family, interracial relationships, community, education and love) with vulnerable honesty.
It was Thomas’ work with the Cause Collective on In Search of the Truth (The Truth Booth) that convinced Sites Unseen co-founder Dorka Keehn to commission an alleyway work from him. An interactive project launched in 2011, The Truth Booth is a giant inflatable speech bubble that invites participants to record videos of themselves completing the phrase, “The truth is…”
The night of the unveiling, Thomas embraces the vulnerable truth-telling he elicits from others while in discussion with Marc Bamuthi Joseph, YBCA’s chief of program and pedagogy. “It’s interesting that we’re two Black men up here talking about love,” Joseph says, providing quotes from Ta-Nehisi Coates, Audre Lorde and James Baldwin to prompt Thomas’ discussion of his life and work.
With Love Over Rules, Thomas’ use of language moves from the sharp critique of Priceless to a message of affirmation. For the majority of viewers who observe the blinking neon, the context and source of the text will remain unknown, but Thomas believes love is a word we can’t say enough, as cheesy as it might be.
The piece joins work by Barry McGee and Leah Rosenberg in Sites Unseen’s ongoing project to bring both permanent installations and temporary activations to Yerba Buena’s “under-used alleys.”
The initiative launched just over a year ago with McGee’s Untitled at Moscone Center Garage; a patchwork of geometric shapes and idiosyncratic illustrations interrupt the utilitarian concrete space. Rosenberg’s Local Color adds functional seating, tables and lighting to Natoma Street in a thrilling range of color combos. Future installations include a mosaic piece by Clare Rojas, based on Crochet Jams led by Ramekon O’Arwisters.
Back on Annie Street, cheers erupt from the assembled crowd as the neon flicks on. People raise their phones to capture the scene, and for a moment, love hovers alone above us all.
For more information on all of Sites Unseen’s past and future programming, click here.