“It was on my bucket list to do a mural of Yolanda López,” explained Jessica Sabogal, the lead artist of a series of new murals on the 127-unit, fully affordable building on Folsom Street near 16th Street.
The murals, which reach as high as 60 feet up the northern side of the building, honor Yolanda López, a Mexican-American painter based in the Mission who is known for her early revolutionary political posters, her feminist artwork, and her engagement with identity issues.
Over the years, she has been a friend and mentor to many young artists including the San Francisco-born and Daly City-raised artist Sabogal.
“She’s so monumental, yet often overlooked as a Chicano artist,” said Sabogal, a muralist who was selected by the Mission Economic Development Agency, or MEDA, and is known for large-scale murals focusing on the intersectionality between issues such as queer and transgender visibility, indigenous rights and gentrification.
Her son, Río Yañez, an artist and curator, agreed. “It’s really amazing to see her work in the community being recognized.”
For López, who continues to produce art, the new mural is “radical, highly skilled, and fabulous.”
“I was totally stunned,” López added, clearly surprised by the attention. “Even now, I don’t know quite what to do with it.”
It made sense to her only after putting it in perspective.
“What she is doing is actually not just about me,” but is a gesture to all women, López said.
“Indigenous, women of color, smart women … women who are not afraid.”
“This is her homage to that, and I recognize that she is using me as part of that meaning, part of that symbolism, but it has taken a while to figure that out.”
Sabogal finished painting the four large walls of the affordable housing building on Sunday, May 30, after more than a year of planning and negotiations with the Mission Economic Development Agency, which developed the housing project at 2060 Folsom St. that is now partially occupied.
The $140,000 budget comes from a partnership between the Tenderloin Neighborhood Development Corporation and MEDA. The project ended up going over budget, and Sabogal said she had to plead to MEDA for an extra $25,000.
López, too, was surprised that Sabogal initially had to ask for money for equipment.
López has lived the life of an artist, arriving in San Francisco in 1965 to become involved in the local art scene, and working with Los Siete, a social justice movement group in the Mission. In San Francisco, she also met René Yañez, who is the father of her son, Rio. Yañez died in 2018.
The meaning behind the artwork
To get Sabogal’s experience of the mural, I joined her on Friday, June 4, when the printmaker and muralist put on her yellow harness and stepped into the lift 60 feet above the ground. After descending to the roof below, she described the meaning behind the portrait of López, the black panther, and the phrases taken from past social justice movements on the three 60-foot-tall murals and one 50-foot-tall mural.
While working on this mural during the pandemic, a time when the murder of George Floyd sparked protests across the country, Sabogal was also asking, “How did folks work toward our liberation historically when things felt unjust?”
To find answers, she looked to the past to encourage fighting in the future.
“It was one of the hardest things I have ever done,” she said.
The project’s focal point is the portrait of López, now 79, painted from a photograph taken by Alexa Trevino, a portrait photographer based in the Mission.
The images and designs that adorn the portrait’s background are patterns and designs drawn from traditional Colombian jewelry and artifacts.
Sabogal’s parents are from Colombia, and this project was a chance for her to learn more about Colombian culture and the history of San Francisco. “To me, this is like a return to indigeneity, a return to the earth, a return to how we used to do things before colonization.”
As Sabogal spent time listening to López talk about the history of San Francisco, she learned about Los Siete, the label given to the seven young men who were accused of killing a police officer in 1969.
The incident spurred the formation of the “Los Siete” Defense Committee, which fought for the eventual acquittal of the men. Centro Legal La Raza, Centro de Salud, and Basta Ya!, a Latinx social justice newspaper modeled on The Black Panther newspaper, also came out of the activism around the trial.
Lopez’s work for Basta Ya! helped define its iconography.
The mural’s panther recalls that history. López’s work for the newspaper included a poster insert, Free Los Siete, a poster that was recently in a group auction for Paseo Artistico.
Sabogal, 34, studied political science at UC Santa Barbara and says she likes to be very political and confrontational in her work because she feels she “cannot afford not to,” as people are dying because of who they are. “This is my way to fight back,” she said.
It’s a quality she shares with López. In “The Heart of the Mission, Latino Art and Politics in San Francisco,” the University of Texas professor writes, “López has characterized herself as a “provocateur,” using the words and images of everyday life to illustrate power, gender, and race.”
That quality is clear from the images Sabogal has included in the mural.
The third wall features a painting of a Virgen de Guadalupe, based on López’s mixed media collage work that was on the cover of Fem magazine in the June/July 1984 issue.
López told Sabogal that while painting the Virgen, she asked herself: “Well, how is she supposed to walk, how’s she supposed to get around?” And her answer came in depicting the Virgen wearing a dress with a modest hemline, and showing her her feet in short heels.
The Walking Virgen on the cover of Fem magazine caused an uproar. López said people told her that religious Mexicans were outraged at the image, and the offices of Fem magazine in Mexico City, as well as newsstands selling the magazine, were vandalized.
For Sabogal, the legs represent freedom for working-class women; this depiction of the Virgen allows her to “have her own life, too.”
López’s son Rio was four years old when the walking Virgen image was published, and he remembers his mother being distressed.
“That is when I knew the image was really touching people’s core beliefs,” López later explained.
Above the Virgen in the mural are the words “INDIAN LAND,” a reference to graffiti sprayed during the 18 month-long Native American occupation of Alcatraz in 1969. And behind the Virgen is the American flag, which is backward and tattered, and includes both Colombian and American symbols.
The final wall of the mural adds an element of hope: Sobre viviremos or (we will survive) and Sin duda (without a doubt).
For months Sabogal worked, planning her designs and getting them approved by MEDA. And during this process, Galería de la Raza executive director Ani Rivera acted as an advocate for her, she said.
“The story of this mural is connected to generations of cultural activism,” said Rivera, whose role was to inform and advocate for Sabogal, to ensure that she was properly compensated, setting a precedent for the future.
Sabogal chose a team of five other women artists of color, many of them queer, and all artists in their own right. These artists include her partner and artist, Shanna Strauss, her mentee and fellow muralist Elizabeth Blancas, Paola de la Calle, a Colombian-American printmaker, and illustrator and muralist Bianca Rivera, and Malaya Tuyay artist assistance at Kala Art Institute, where Sabogal has been in residency.
It’s a team López embraces, as they are doing what she began doing decades earlier with her depictions of the virgen which is to “expand the idea of the women as sacred,” an idea which has seeped into the movement culture of today.
And although at first López was uncomfortable seeing her image high on a wall in the Mission, she is pleased to be “carrying the banner” for young people who are fighting for a better world.
“I’m glad that somehow my history is a paradigm of some way of being a woman in the movement.”