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San Francisco Art Gallery Attacked
for Displaying Political Art

And the poem "Defiant"

by Jack Hirschman
San Francisco, California

Jack Hirschman is a poet, author, editor, and translator and lives in San Francisco. He has published more than 25 translations of poetry from eight languages. Several collections of his poetry have been published in the U.S. and Italy.

North Beach, the old Italian (and now more and more Chinese) village in San Francisco famous for its bohemian life, the Beat Generation and City Lights Bookstore, is in uproar and outrage after a series of attacks on one of its many small galleries.

The Capobianco Gallery’s owner, Lori Haigh, 39, a single mother with two children, in may put a painting by Berkeley artist Guy Colwell into the gallery’s front window. The painting, called “The Abuse,” was part of a group show of painters from the Bay area. It was inspired by the photographs published worldwide of the abuse and tortures of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib.

The day after the painting was exhibited, Haigh began receiving death threats on her answering machine. The following day, garbage was strewn in front of the window and the threats continued. A man entered the gallery and spit in her face.

Frightened by this time, Haigh removed the painting and covered the two front windows of the gallery with newspaper. She had notified the police and the press but was seriously thinking of closing the gallery because of the continuing threats. When she opened the door the following afternoon, a fist broke her nose and sent her reeling with a concussion.

During the process of these attacks, many artists and local poet-painters, such as Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Agneta Falk, and myself, visited the gallery to encourage Haigh to remain open. She said that with community support she would.

One Saturday in late May a crowd of more than 100 community supports and activists held a solidarity rally in front of the gallery, as it was the day on which the May exhibition was finished. Guy Colwell was present to take away his paintings.

“The Abuse” painting depicts two American soldiers (the painting is in black and grays but the American insignias on the shoulders are in red, white and blue) who are leering ominously at a group of naked, hooded Iraqi prisoners hooked up to electrical wires. In the background is another American soldier escorting a blindfolded Muslim woman into the room.

Colwell has said: “Apparently people are quite shocked by my painting. I don’t know why they are not equally or more shocked by the pictures they are seeing on television of the actual torture taking place.”

Haigh decided to re-open the gallery with her June show. In the meantime a rumor had circulated that “The Abuse” painting might be exhibited at another North Beach gallery, Live Worms, run by an abstract expressionist painter Kevin Brown. Even before such a possibility, Brown was confronted by a man who entered his gallery, observed Brown’s paintings, argued with the painter about the war in Iraq and then threatened, “You’re going to be next.”

A follow-up community support meeting was held at Live Worms, where Aaron Peskin, the North Beach representative on the Board of Supervisors, said that he and Matt Gonzalez, the president of the Board, would propose that “The Abuse” next hang in the City Hall itself! In addition, the community arranged to be present at the Capobianco Gallery, when it reopens, on all-day, everyday vigilances.

In effect, the closing of Capobianco has sent shock waves throughout not only the North Beach community, but all of San Francisco, and even nationwide.

It’s as if “brown shirt” forces of reaction had, instead of writing “Jew” on the window, written “Artist.”

For it isn’t only Colwell’s work which has been forced to be censored. Many other art works in its group show were also on display -- all of them in effect censored.

The one positive dimension that has emerged in this continuing air of intimidation and community anxiety is that, in an age where photography has for the most part overwhelmed the graphic realm so far as provocation is concerned, Colwell’s painting -- in fact inspired by the photographs of Abu Ghraib -- has restored to painting a provocative dimension that’s been missing for many years.

For the Capobianco Gallery

Not just elsewhere
but right here
in North Beach
the power of painting
to provoke and endure

has called out
the old hatreds:
death-threats, spittle,
a physical attack on
a gallery owner by

detestable worms
from the fascist can of abuse
that’s been thrown wide-open.
Enough! When the people
gather, what’s been terrifying

turns to dust.
And brushstrokes turn into
the proverbial thumbs
in the eyes of
the censoring war thugs,

because the freedom
to create a work of art
is of the deepest affirmation
of the human heart
and its very deathlessness

is why no violence can
ever long prevent the beauty
of its truth of liberty from being
triumphant I its struggle
against the lies of the living dead.

-- Jack Hirschman

Jack Hirschman is available to speak through Speakers for a New America. For information call 800-691-6888 or visit Previously published in the People’s Tribune.

Published in In Motion Magazine November 26, 2004

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