Artist William Rhodes and a Dr. George Davis Senior Center Team Contributed Black Elements to Showcase the Multicultural Side of the Martial Arts Phenom
San Francisco, CA – On Sunday, April 24th, a major exhibition opened in San Francisco at the Chinese Historical Society of America (CHSA) honoring the iconic martial arts legend Bruce Lee. The exhibit showcases Lee’s life, martial arts career and cultural contributions, however, and more importantly, the exhibition entitled “We Are Bruce Lee: Under the Sky, One Family” also strongly emphasizes Lee’s commitment to multiculturalism. And William Rhodes, a local San Francisco artist, joined several other African American artists to ensure that the exhibition reflected Bruce Lee’s appeal to, and impact on, the Black community.
Rhodes, who is also the Intergenerational Program Coordinator for San Francisco’s Dr. George Davis Senior Center, was invited by the curators of the exhibition, Melonie and Melorra Green, to develop an artistic element to the exhibit that reflected Bruce Lee’s strong multicultural spirit. With that objective in mind, Rhodes re-created replicas of several of Lee’s most recognizable posters that had promoted the movie blockbuster, “Enter the Dragon.” He then enlisted the support and participation of seniors from both the African American and Asian communities, all of whom also participate in the various programs at the Davis Senior Center. He also brought in many of the youth who attend schools in the Bay View neighborhood of San Francisco where the senior center is located. Together, they created several intergenerational, multicultural pieces for display as part of the “We Are Bruce Lee” exhibit.
Comments Rhodes about Bruce Lee’s particular appeal to the African American community, “To many outside the martial arts community, and even to some within, it’s an unknown fact that Bruce Lee’s very first student in the United States was a Black man, Jesse Glover. Jesse went on to become a Kung Fu master. In addition, contrary to Chinese martial arts tradition, Bruce Lee’s martial arts classes were made up of African Americans, Latinos and Caucasians. Prior to Lee’s revolutionary approach, Kung Fu was ALWAYS taught by Chinese instructors to ONLY other Chinese.”
Continues artist Rhodes, “Hollywood’s staunch racism also contributed strongly to Bruce Lee being embraced by African Americans all over the nation. Until Lee burst onto the scene, movies and television programs never featured real Asians portraying leading characters in movies or on television. The famous Charlie Chan detective character in the movies of the 1930s was actually Warner Oland, a heavily made-up Swedish actor. After Oland, there was Sidney Toler, another Caucasian. Authentic Asian actors were relegated to playing the roles of coolies, servants and railway construction workers. Bruce Lee refused to take any of those demeaning roles.
“Instead, Lee recognized that there was an untapped appetite for martial arts movies with true Asian characters. He came to this conclusion when he landed a crime-fighting side-kick role in the TV series ‘The Green Hornet’ which lasted only one season. But his spectacular fighting skills made him a hit in America and a superstar in Asia. Frustrated at not being able to land any more meaningful roles in Hollywood, Lee went back to Hong Kong where he had spent his much of his youth. He formed a production company and began producing and starring in Kung Fu movies. In America, those movies were only shown in movie theaters in the Asian and Black communities. Meshed with the popularity he had already gained through ‘The Green Hornet,’ Bruce Lee had become a super hero among Black and Asian fans because he was someone who used his phenomenal skill to fight against oppression and evil. The mainstream release of ‘Enter the Dragon,’ unfortunately after his sudden, untimely death, catapulted Bruce Lee and his legacy into the realm of an icon.
“Because of this unbelievable popularity among Blacks, some 50 years later, we wanted to properly honor him in a way that was inclusive, like his philosophical approach to his life and the martial arts. For quite some time, I’ve had a vision of developing an art project that would involve an entire community. I found that ‘knotted quilts’ could be the answer. The knotted quilt concept is hundreds of years old. People living in small villages would work together constructing these elaborate quilts. Each family would contribute scraps of fabric to be cut into squares and then tied together.
“I adopted this practice with current craft ideas and invented my own technique. I started by painting a center panel of the Bruce Lee images on a canvas. I then cut slits along the edges of the canvas. By cutting slits along the edges, this allowed participants from the community to tie fabric squares to the existing painted canvas. On these fabric squares, people wrote such messages as ‘We miss or love you, Bruce Lee’ or, they created their own artistic images that reflect their own thoughts and feelings about Lee. Then, those squares were physically attached to the larger, main image. There was no limit to the number of fabric squares that can be added. In turn, this knotted quilt grew and became a living artwork and tribute to Bruce Lee.
“I noticed that the act of creating a knotted quilt allowed for intergenerational exchange, storytelling and conflict resolution. Our Bruce Lee knotted quilt project brought together Asian American and African Americans, working together. Through these efforts, I witnessed years of conflict between the two groups dissolved with the creation of three knotted Bruce Lee quilts. Despite the age and language barriers, Bruce Lee became the common unifier for us. And we are encouraging visitors of the exhibition at the Chinese Historical Society of America to also add their own squares, if they wish.”
At the opening reception for the “We Are Bruce Lee: Under The Sky, One Family” exhibition on April 22nd, Bruce Lee’s daughter, Shannon Lee, toured the exhibition at the CHSA and was impressed by the work created by Rhodes and the seniors. Commented Ms. Lee, “I truly love that this is a living piece of art. That was something that my father always talked about, that his martial art was a living art. He never wanted to say ‘this is it, this is only how you do it.’ To him, it was always a personal expression. He felt there was always more you could learn; more that you could evolve to. This art work fits so well with the way my father approached life. I am so happy that this artwork is here at the exhibit.” She also personally created a symbol on one of the fabric squares that was added to the multicultural exhibit.
Also attending the exhibition’s opening reception was San Francisco Mayor London Breed who offered opening remarks praising the exhibition and the many artists that contributed to it.
The exhibition officially opened on April 24th at the Chinese Historical Society of America in San Francisco’s Chinatown and is scheduled to run for three years. #WeAreBruceLee