SAN FRANCISCO — San Francisco’s Financial District isn’t the busiest part of town on the weekend. That’s doubly true in late 2020 as the Bay Area teeters on the brink of a second coronavirus lockdown. Walking along Market Street from Embarcadero to Civic Center, most of the people I encountered along one of the city’s primary thoroughfares are unhoused. I tried not to disturb anyone who was sitting or sleeping along the route while completing my appointed task: looking at bus shelter posters. As I walked, I thought about how we define family and community, and how we look after one another in crisis.
Notions of care, kinship, and community survival against tall odds motivate Kin-Streets, a commissioned public art project presented as part of the San Francisco Arts Commission’s (SFAC) Art on Market Street Kiosk Poster Series. In 2019, San Francisco-based, Colombian artist Marcela Pardo Ariza invited LGBTQ community members to their Dogpatch neighborhood studio for portrait sessions. After COVID-19 set in, Ariza and the sitters met in public spaces for socially distanced photo shoots. Many of the participants — dancers and drag queens, mentors, healers, educators, activists — posed with images that Ariza sourced from San Francisco’s GLBT Historical Society, rephotographed and printed to life size. Ariza describes the final project as a celebration of “transhistorical kinship, tenderness, and resilience” in 2020, a year defined by unrivaled chaos and, after the bruising general election, a hint of hope.
Kin-Streets benefits from one of photography’s generous acts: the seeming ability to shrink temporal gaps. Ancestors represented by grainy, black-and-white photographs are embraced and revered by artists in the present moment as though they were all friends. It’s easy to imagine admiring the unbothered queer elder photographed by Crawford Wayne Barton in 1977 holding space with dancer JanpiStar, or meeting members of the Stud Collective in front of their cooperatively owned South of Market (SOMA) bar before it closed amidst pandemic freefall. Ariza’s thoughtful intervention centers community and chosen family as generational roots within queer communities, one giving life to another.
A poster featuring Vertel Jackson, Juli Delgado Lopera, Juan Carlos Rodriguez Rivera, and Matti Bautista is the first in the Kin-Streets series, and one Ariza staged in the studio. “It features dear friends who I’ve spent a lot of time with in the oasis of queer camps, Groundswell,” Ariza writes. The sitters touch, appearing to surround a trio of men embracing in another Crawford Wayne Barton photograph. The poster’s dimensions barely contain the serene, monumental grouping. The intimacy that binds them despite the passage of time is poignant when considered in light of the physical estrangement from family, friends, and lovers that defeating the COVID-19 virus requires.
A mournful aura shrouds Kin-Streets, one that illuminates a historical crisis as much as the contemporaneous one through which we’re living. Forty years ago, San Francisco was one of the global hubs of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Though their names and fates may not be known, it’s reasonable to think that the vibrant peopole in Ariza’s project may have met premature deaths from HIV/AIDS, or the virulent systemic diseases that shadow queer communities both then and now: employment and housing insecurity, limited access to overpriced health care, racism, bigotry, homo- and transphobia. As celebratory as Ariza’s project is, Kin-Streets is also a reminder of how many were lost the last time our political leaders failed to act against sweeping biological and social contagion.
Since 1992, the SFAC’s poster project has commissioned artists to produce a new body of work that visualizes a theme specific to San Francisco. Under “normal” circumstances, each project is on view for three months. Like everything else in 2020, the commission’s schedule is out of sync, which means that Ariza’s project won’t enjoy a full three-month installation. But the radiant, larger-than-life characters who inhabit Marcela Pardo Ariza’s Kin-Streets will not be confined to posters or the display cases in which they are hung. Before too long, they — we — will be on the streets again, witnessing the community that sustains us, and honoring those who came before.
Marcela Pardo Ariza’s Kin-Streets posters will continue along Market Street in San Francisco through mid-December. The Art on Markets Street Poster Series is a project of the San Francisco Arts Commission and is funded by both SFAC and the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Authority.