Cultural Geometry is a new piece of public art by Rigo 23, the San Francisco-based political artist and muralist.  The work is a large stone mosaic which comprises the heart of the “Tenderloin National Forest”, a public space reclamation project led by the luggage store, a San Francisco arts organization.  Many years in development, the Tenderloin National Forest celebrated its official opening with a daylong celebration on May 9.

Cultural Geometry, Rigo 23 and Fernando Cardoso. Courtesy of the luggage store

True to its name, Cultural Geometry weaves together multiple cultural histories in its visual and material elements, and in its situation in San Francisco’s diverse and highly urban Tenderloin district.  The physical/material history of the work begins in a limestone quarry in Porto de Mos, Portugal.  Over 30 tons of stone were excavated and shipped to San Francisco for the project. This video shows stone masons in Porto de Mos quarrying and sizing the stone that would be used by Rigo 23:

To help with the mosaic work, Rigo 23 enlisted the help of Portuguese calçada master Fernando Cardoso.  Cultural Geometry includes two long pathways on either side of the “forest” formerly known Cohen Alley, joined by a central rounded patio.  Geometric designs embedded in the linear walkways are derived from traditional basketry of the Ohlone Indians native to the Bay Area and Northern California.

Tenderloin National Forest

In contrast, the central plaza is dominated by a large figurative representation of a hummingbird in red marble.  According to the artist, the hummingbird was chosen because “it is a bird that is revered by many different cultures,” and also because it represents an element of nature that can often be seen in the new urban gardens of the Tenderloin National Forest.

The project website notes that Rigo 23′s  weaving together of European and Native American vernacular traditions in Cultural Geometry was undertaken “to honor and celebrate our ancestors and affirm the possibility of multiple worlds co-existing in time and place.”

Cultural Geometry helps to formalize the transformation of Cohen Alley and symbolizes, to our very transitional and richly diverse neighborhood, a lasting engagement of the space with the community–a place for reflection, shared cultural activities and experiences.”

The Tenderloin National Forest installation also includes a diverse array of murals by a number of Bay Area artists, garden plantings, and gathering places encompassed by the pathways of Rigo 23′s mosaic. The site’s transformation from a waste-strewn, dead-end alley to a public art space is the result of over 20 years of effort by luggage store directors Darryl Smith and Laurie Lazer.  This video tells the story of the project:

Portuguese-born Rigo 23 was the perfect choice for the Tenderloin National Forest mosaic.  The artist has lived in the Bay Area since the early 1990s and created a number of well known works of public art, often addressing political  or social justice issues.  His eight-story Ground/Sky mural adjacent to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art was a local landmark, until it was removed by new construction in 2003.

Ground/Sky

While perhaps best known locally for his block letter or street sign-based murals, stone mosaic work has long been a part of Rigo 23′s practice in California and in Europe.  The artist is also featured in the Human/Nature exhibition running all summer at the Berkeley Art Museum / Pacific Film Archive.

The Tenderloin National Forest and Cultural Geometrycan now be visited every afternoon; gates are locked in the evening.  The site is adjacent to the luggage store 509 cultural center, at 509 Ellis Street between Hyde and Leavenworth.

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