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Dozens of ‘invisible’ statues coming to Civic Center

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Inspired by Ralph Ellison’s 1952 classic work

San Francisco’s Civic Center Plaza will play host to 40 new occupants this summer—and they’re all six and a half feet tall, 300 pounds, identical, and, by a certain standard of the word, invisible.

The San Francisco Arts Commission announced Thursday that, starting in July, British Trinidadian artist Zak Ove’s sculpture installation Invisible Men will go on display in Civic Center.

[Correction: Although the city initially identified the piece as just Invisible Men, the full, proper title is The Invisible Man and the Masque of Blackness.]

The piece consists of 40 similar human figures, to be arranged in four rows of ten facing San Francisco City Hall. Each piece is sculpted to resemble a Kenyan statuette that Ove has had since childhood and which has served as a muse for him during his career, according to a 2017 interview.

“I was trying to make a work about Africa’s diaspora, what it is to be an African born away from the continent,” Ove said. “[The figures] stand as a regiment, almost as a tribe out of context, heralding what it’s like.”

Ove currently has the figures installed at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park in West Yorkshire, England, under a slightly different title, but they will disperse from that location in June and reconvene in San Francisco.

The title Invisible Men references American writer Ralph Ellison’s 1952 book Invisible Man. The piece’s original venue in London recalled the 1605 performance of Jacobean playwright Ben Jonson’s The Masque of Blackness—a performance in which white actors in blackface were magically “transformed” back into whiteness at the climax—in the same location. Since then it’s made the rounds to various locales; July will its American debut.

The figures weigh roughly 300 hundred pounds each. A presentation to the Arts Commission in December revealed that almost all of that weight is concrete in the base. The actual bodies of the statues are made of relatively lightweight materials like resin and graphite.

Each statue will rest on a three foot by three foot steel plate “to make it more difficult to knock the sculptures over.” (The main concerns in that case being wind and earthquakes rather than vandalism—it would take quite a bit of planning and effort for any troublemaker to tip one of the figures.)

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Procuring Invisible Men for San Francisco cost $90,000, which the Arts Commission received from the Mayor’s Office of Economic and Workforce Development with a mandate to bring public art to Civic Center. His work will remain in Civic Center until October of this year.

Ove, also a filmmaker and photographer, splits his time between both London and Trinidad. This is the first time his sculpture will appear in San Francisco, although his films have screened locally in the past.