Adrienne Skye Roberts Traces Her Radical Roots

On August 8, 2011, CCA alumna Adrienne Skye Roberts (MA Visual and Critical Studies 2009) began a six-week residency at the hip new Philadelphia Art Hotel, tracing her radical roots. "My grandfather, Joseph Roberts, was a Russian Jewish immigrant, a chairperson of the Communist Party, and general manager at the Communist newspaper the Daily Worker. He was prosecuted in 1953 under the Smith Act, wartime legislation passed to stop alien residents from trying to overthrow the U.S. by force. When I get to Philadelphia, my plan is to first visit locations that were important for him: his family home on North Douglas Street, the Shubert Theatre at 250 South Broad Street that housed the Communist Party offices, the courthouse, and Holmesburg Prison where he was held.

"This was a radical city -- whole city blocks were the residences of Communist families. The culmination of this project is a performative lecture about the story of my grandfather, which will combine my research, memories, interviews, and imaginings, as well as acknowledge the gaps -- the things that I don't have access to and will never know for sure. I also plan to produce a newspaper based on the Daily Worker that will include my research. The ideas are evolving, but the project will layer the different histories. I'll present it at various locations in Philadelphia, then again when I return to San Francisco.

"In researching my grandfather's part in the Smith Act and the Civil Rights Congress of the 1940s, I get a better sense of myself. I was raised in a feminist household where my own radical politics were supported. Being queer and a woman, I have a certain perspective on oppression, and yet part of this project is exploring this lineage, where my values come from and what gets passed down through our families. I only met my grandfather once, and the more I learn about his life, the more I understand that the foundation of both of our work is the ability to imagine a different system, a different world."

Ideas of home are central to Roberts's practice. In searching for genealogical bedrock in Pennsylvania, the teacher, artist, and activist is cementing her place in California. "A lot of my past work was about questions like, How do we know when we're home? How do we know where we belong, and who has a right to spaces?" In 2009 she curated Home is something I carry with me, transforming three Mission District homes into exhibition spaces for 40 Bay Area artists. In 2010 she co-curated the exhibition Suggestions of a Life Being Lived with Danny Orendorff at SF Camerawork, and she has written about queer art and the intersection of urban politics and public art for Art Practical and SFMOMA's Open Space blog.

Home not only anchors Roberts to the past, but also enables her to shape a radical future. "I feel a responsibility to San Francisco. I've lived here long enough to experience legislative and cultural shifts that make it unsustainable for low-income people to remain in the city. At the same time, I'm conscious of my role as a young white person who lives in the Mission. In everything, I'm implicating myself." That consciousness pervaded her CCA thesis, which analyzed the young, white volunteers in post-Katrina New Orleans. "They were doing the work that the government was not doing. But in the process, they were gentrifying the city. Often I find that people are not having conversations about how to be effective as artists or organizers within a particular scenario -- that is, how to be conscious, accountable, humble, and yet fierce."

Earlier this year, Roberts completed the Anne Braden Anti-Racist Training Program, a four-month political education for white social-justice organizers. "There were 35 participants, with backgrounds ranging from union organizers to long-time prison abolitionists. I was the only person from the art world. Among the many topics we studied was the impact of white supremacy on patriarchy, class, heterosexism, and history of the black liberation struggle. I interned with the California Coalition for Women Prisoners, a support and advocacy organization for women in prisons across the state. The whole thing was an education beyond my imagination."

Roberts plans to use her Anne Braden training in various ways. "The first is developing a feminist, queer-centered art curriculum that challenges the Western, mostly white, male canon of art history. At CCA, I took a class titled Critical Race Art History with Jacqueline Francis. She was incredible. It's probably the only art history class I've taken that explicitly talked about race, and explicitly challenged art history's white supremacy. At school, I felt really supported by professors like Tirza True Latimer, Karen Fiss, and Miriam Paeslack. I've utilized that learning in my own teaching at UC Santa Cruz's sculpture department.

"The second aim is to examine the role that artists play in gentrification. In San Francisco now, there is a lot of emphasis on the Midmarket Arts District, a newly branded neighborhood that includes part of the Tenderloin. The renaming of a neighborhood is one of the first indications of urban renewal. The residents of the Tenderloin are low-income families, many of them immigrants. While I believe that cultural workers play an essential role in cities, it is painful to know that the city-sponsored Midmarket Arts District will undoubtedly affect the residents of the Tenderloin by increasing property value, which will shift the demographics of the neighborhood, which may ultimately result in displacement of those who make their home there now. My questions here are, How can we, as artists, act in solidarity with other residents of San Francisco to create a city that honors all of our basic needs? And how can we see our struggle for economic sustainability in San Francisco as connected to -- not separate from -- those whose homes may be jeopardized in this neighborhood?"