Peering out over the San Francisco Bay toward Alcatraz is a monumental statue that pays homage to an American Indian Movement activist who’s been incarcerated for decades. Created by Portuguese-American artist Rigo 23 in 2016, the 12-foot-tall figure resembles a small self-portrait that the activist, Leonard Peltier, painted while imprisoned.
Wearing a simple white shirt, yellow pants, and no shoes, Peltier sits on a cement base, which is the actual size of his cell, in a pensive position. “There was something Buddha-like about the pose, and it reminded me of Rodin’s ‘The Thinker,’ which is so muscular and epic,” Rigo 23 told Hyperallergic about the original portrait. “Usually, images of heroism and humanity are epic, and this is just a man sitting on the ground wearing prison-issued clothes. It has this different kind of spirituality.”
A member of the Turtle Mountain Chippewa and also of Lakota and Dakota descent, Peltier was a well-known leader in the American Indian Movement throughout the 1960s and ’70s, having spearheaded multiple protests and marches to end injustices. Despite denying the charges, he has been imprisoned since 1977 after being convicted of killing two FBI agents in a 1975 shooting on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. He was sentenced to two terms of life imprisonment for the incident, which has resulted in campaigns for his clemency.
Rigo 23 designed the work with detachable feet, which have traveled to Standing Rock Reservation, Alcatraz, and Crow Dog’s Paradise. The decision has allowed activists, including Angela Davis, to stand on top of the wooden pair in solidarity, an act that an Instagram account has been documenting.
The oversized statue was moved to the roof of the San Francisco Art Institute in October—watch the full dedication ceremony with speeches from Peltier’s children on YouTube—where it received one of its more celebratory welcomes. Met with both support and animosity throughout its history, the work was removed early from a 2016 visit to the Katzen Art Center at the American University in Washington, D.C. Spurred by a complaint from the president of the FBI Agents Association, the action resulted in the statue’s displacement for about a year, the artist says.
Its current position facing Alcatraz has similar significance, considering an activist group’s occupation of the former federal prison during the Nixon administration. In 1969, Indians of All Tribes seized the site in hopes of turning it into a school, cultural center, and museum. As the U.S. government attempted to regain control, the group established a clinic, kitchen, and education centers for the 19 months it claimed the island.
The statue will remain at SFAI until March 28, 2021. Although the institution is closed to visitors, it’s offering a virtual tour of the work on its site.