Jerome Reyes has a multifaceted art practice. We shoot hoops at the Gene Friend Rec Center, located on 6th and Folsom Street in San Francisco’s South of Market (SoMa) neighborhood, where many of the local youth, including the ones Reyes works with, hang out after school. Both Reyes and I are clearly out of practice. We pass the ball between misses and talk about the different aspects of his work: Reyes is an educator, an archivist, and an artist. He teaches at Stanford’s Institute for Diversity in the Arts, and for the last few years has traveled between the Bay Area and Korea, where he works as a researcher at the Asia Culture Center in Gwangju and as an artist in residence at the Seoul Museum of Art. As distinct as each role is, Reyes merges his work seamlessly, maintaining a studio practice that encompasses drawing, text, video, installation, and live performance, while working across institutions and countries.
Born in Daly City, Reyes is a true San Francisco native. When he asks me where I grew up, I tell him, “Milpitas,” to which he responds, “That’s hella Bay Area,” recognizing our common upbringing in the multiethnic immigrant enclave that is the Bay Area. Likewise, SoMa is truly Bay Area in its own right, with a sociohistorical legacy of Filipino-American residents—activists, artists, poets, laborers, small-business owners, and families—who have fought hard to stay in the neighborhood, which has long faced threats from developers.
A block away from the Rec Center is the nonprofit South of Market Community Action Network (SOMCAN). SOMCAN has been operating since 2000, when it was first created to mobilize SoMa residents to fight against displacement set off by the economic changes during the late ’90s dot-com boom. Under director Angelica Cabande, the organization has since prompted many campaigns ranging from housing and workers’ rights to new schools and parks, while providing services such as employment assistance and tenants-rights education to low-income families and immigrants.
It is toward SOMCAN that Reyes is directing his efforts as the 2016 Artist in Residence at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (YBCA), just a few blocks away from SOMCAN. It is fitting that Reyes should be chosen for this year’s YBCA Artist Residency and that he should work with a neighboring SoMa organization. Part of Reyes’ award will go directly to SOMCAN to support its ongoing services, but to be clear, Reyes says, SOMCAN doesn’t need him. The organization has demonstrated through many successes that they’re more than capable. Long before Reyes started collaborating with SOMCAN in 2012, they created a strikingly versatile and diverse range of free programs for local residents, including bike repairs, housing-rights workshops, school uniforms, a computer lab, weekly food drives, and even an in-house recording studio. Regarding SOMCAN, Reyes states, “The dexterity of programming they continue to offer shows how SOMCAN relentlessly asks, ‘What does SoMa need and how should it be done ethically, with style, with fun?’”
The personnel and members of SOMCAN play different formal and casual roles, contributing their skills and knowledge in areas where they can. As for Reyes, he helps with their fundraising and outreach, develops workshops, provides college counseling, and serves as an everyday problem solver. For the most part, Reyes hangs out. Simply being there is a crucial part of developing a long-lasting and complex relationship, especially when, as Reyes notes, “You’re working with people that have known each other longer than they have known you.” He further explains, “I’m invested [in] how projects reside long-term by participants already living complex lives as producers, organizers, researchers, timely visitors, and active locals in multi-vocal, intergenerational communities.” Thus, being physically present means that Reyes is there for the ups and downs: He’s there to catch the stories and personal tidbits about their lives; he’s there to laugh with them when they’re goofing off; and he’s there to witness their struggles, family drama, and breakups. “SOMCAN displays this rigorous concept of extended family,” Reyes says. For the locals that come by the space on a daily basis, SOMCAN is also their home.
For the YBCA Artist Residency, Reyes develops collaborative projects with SOMCAN members and the residents of the SoMa neighborhood such as SOMCAN Food Drive (2016), a collaborative project originating from a story about a SoMa resident and SOMCAN organizer, 19-year-old Mary Claire Amable, who goes by Claire. When Claire’s mother, Evangeline, immigrated to San Francisco from the Philippines, her first job was a 6 a.m. shift at McDonald’s. She continued to work there while pregnant with Claire, and while recalling how difficult it was, Evangeline remembered, in particular, the smell of fast food and eating hash browns all day.
In SOMCAN Food Drive, this particular story is written in both Tagalog and Spanish on a flyer that was distributed during one of SOMCAN’s weekly food drives. Every Thursday, SOMCAN clears their storefront computer lab to distribute free groceries to SoMa’s low-income residents, many of whom are familiar with Claire, one of the food drive’s frequent volunteers. The piece was a small gesture—a subtle but significant way of connecting the residents together in a multiracial and intergenerational community. It was a way of revealing a part of Claire’s life that might not have otherwise ever been shared with those who already knew her.
Another project grew out of working with a fellow organizer, 19-year-old Alexa Drapiza, whose family was evicted from a building on Russ Street in SoMa. In SOMCAN Russ Street (2016), a speaker is placed directly in front of Alexa’s former home, broadcasting her voice as she dictates a love letter she has written to the street. Her letter shares what she misses the most about living in the building, expressing the desire for its current occupants to enjoy all it has to offer. As Alexa relays to Reyes, her voice is recognizable to many of her friends who still live in the neighborhood and who walk down that street. Thus, the piece’s audience has a deeply personal connection to its maker—a relationship that Reyes repeatedly emphasizes throughout his work. These friendships that have developed over time are hard to come by, and it’s what makes being displaced that much harder.
Through these and other collaborations, Reyes creates additional layers of experience and intimacy between SoMa’s residents that are based on their personal understanding of time and place. Relationships are deepened not only between residents and specific sites, but to each other as individuals. This attention to time, place, and memory is also found in Reyes’ other work. While his collaborations with SOMCAN are firmly grounded in the specificity of the SoMa neighborhood and its history, Reyes allows for slippages and play in his other works.
At his residency at the Seoul Museum of Art, Reyes is currently producing a series of drawings titled Indefinite Curfew. In these works, Reyes fragments statements made by undocumented activist and journalist Jose Antonio Vargas and places them underneath both fictional and actual buildings. In one piece, the statement “This deceit never got easier” sits under a neatly rendered architectural drawing of the clock tower from Back to the Future. In another, the building that houses Alameda County’s Superior Court is captioned with the sentence, “If anyone asked why I was coming to America, I was going to Disneyland.” The buildings are at times fraught with enduring political weight. Placed with the texts from Vargas, the drawings question borders, notions of truth, and the monuments that hold both our desires in how we place ourselves in the world and what we might call home.
Reyes’ work with SOMCAN and recent drawings represent just a fraction of his work, but they highlight his approach and commitment to developing a personal and nuanced relationship with history and site on both an individual and communal level. Throughout his practice, Reyes demonstrates that he is painfully aware of where he is situated and grounded, and yet, in many moments in his work, he has the ability to let go, allowing the imagined space to set him free.
We leave the basketball court as Reyes makes his last shot. He notes, “I’ll be back tomorrow.”