Celebrated Artist Walter Kitundu Awarded Public Art Commission for New Alameda Creek Watershed Center

Honoring the people, ecology and history of the Alameda Creek Watershed

Artist, musician, and educator Walter Kitundu has been selected by the San Francisco Arts Commission (SFAC) and San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC) to create a multimedia public art installation for the SFPUC’s new Alameda Creek Watershed Center in Sunol.

Spanning 660 square miles, the Alameda Creek Watershed is a dynamic landscape with significant environmental, cultural and historical sites, and home to many distinct Ohlone tribes. Located one mile from downtown Sunol, on a site that is the aboriginal homeland of the Muwekma Ohlone Tribe of the San Francisco Bay Area, the Alameda Creek Watershed Center’s mission is to educate the public about the Watershed, the SFPUC’s regional water system, and the history and heritage of the Muwekma Ohlone people through interpretive and interactive exhibits. The nearby Sunol Water Temple, a 1910 beaux arts landmark, marks the confluence of three sources of water flowing into Sunol Valley.

“At the Arts Commission, we acknowledge that we occupy traditional and unceded ancestral lands of the Yelamu/Aramai Ramaytush Ohlone-speaking tribal groups of San Francisco, as well as the present-day Muwekma Ohlone Tribe of the San Francisco Bay Area, and that our work should support and amplify contemporary Indigenous voices and help reclaim space for Native culture,” said Acting Director of Cultural Affairs Rebekah Krell. “It has been wonderful to work in close partnership with the SFPUC, Muwekma Ohlone Tribe, and members of the Sunol community to develop a public art project and artist selection process that sensitively and respectfully honors the deep cultural and environmental significance of this site.”

Kitundu was chosen by an Artist Review Panel comprised of Bay Area arts professionals and representatives of the SFPUC, SFAC, Muwekma Ohlone Tribe, and the Sunol community. Titled Ruupaywa, after the Ohlone Chochenyo word for “the eagle,” Kitundu’s proposal pays tribute to the history of the Muwekma Ohlone people while recognizing their continued presence and power. Taking the form of a Golden Eagle, a significant figure in the Muwekma Ohlone creation story, the sculpture will be sited at the entrance of the Center’s gardens,16 miles from one of the most significant Golden Eagle breeding areas in the world. The sculpture floats in a protective posture facing Mt. Diablo to the north, with its wings wrapped around 3 benches oriented according to the cardinal directions. Constructed of painted steel tubing with colorful glass insets depicting images gathered collectively with members of the Tribe and Sunol communities during Kitundu’s artist-led “Watershed Walks”, the sculpture will provide a place for reflection, remembrance and visioning.

“The leadership and enrolled tribal members of the Muwekma Ohlone Tribe of the San Francisco Bay Area greatly appreciate being in a close working partnership with the SFPUC, and involved in the process of selecting the artist for this significant community-based educational project,” said Vice Chairwoman of the Muwekma Ohlone Tribal Council, Monica V. Arellano. “Our People have inhabited the greater Sunol/Pleasanton/Livermore/Niles region for thousands of years, and over the centuries our Tribal Elders had, and continue to, instill in all of us the responsibility of protecting our sacred lands, traditional beliefs, and honoring our ancestral heritage sites where our ancestors were buried throughout these San Francisco Bay Area lands. It is our opinion that Mr. Walter Kitundu represents the best qualities of an artist tasked with creating a public art piece that honors the history, heritage, culture and language of our Muwekma Ohlone People and our traditions. His sensitivity and understanding of our People’s connection to these lands is a key reason we support Mr. Kitundu as the appropriate choice as the artist for this project.”

“I’m thrilled to be selected to work alongside the Muwekma Ohlone People and those who are connected to this Watershed to create an artwork that upholds and addresses the significance of this land,” said Walter Kitundu. “This is sacred ground. The cultural, ecological, and historical threads run deep and they touch every aspect of this process. It means the world to me to be entrusted with this project and I know we will create a powerful and memorable work of art for all who encounter it.”

In addition to his sculpture, Kitundu’s proposal includes a sound installation that will be subtlety integrated into the Center’s gardens. Responding to a desire communicated by the Tribe to assert their continued presence and survival despite centuries of erasure and oppression, the sound component will be composed entirely from the voices of Tribe members that have been translated into the songs and calls of the Watershed. Integrated with and woven into the Watershed’s existing aural landscape, the recordings will be played through small weatherproof speakers situated in 8-10 discrete locations throughout the gardens. For Kitundu, the sound installation will be an audio treasure hunt for those wanting to learn about the wildlife of the Watershed, and is offered to the tribe as a repository of language and a document of multigenerational community expression.

“We are honored to work with an artist as respected and revered as Walter Kitundu,” said SFPUC General Manager Harlan L. Kelly, Jr. “Not only has Walter designed an art installation that looks visually striking, he has managed to do so in a way that captures the importance of this site to the Muwekma Ohlone Tribe. We look forward to the date when this wonderful interactive art piece is completed.”

A recipient of the prestigious MacArthur Fellowship in 2008 – commonly referred to as the “Genius Grant” – Kitundu’s work often draws inspiration from the natural world. His sculptures, sound installations, compositions, and public artworks have been exhibited internationally. Kitundu, currently living in Chicago, lived for many years in the San Francisco Bay Area, during which he held artist residencies at the Exploratorium, Montalvo Art Center and the Headlands Center for the Arts. In 2011, Kitundu completed a large interactive public artwork at San Francisco International Airport which was named by Americans for the Arts as one of the best public artworks in the United States.  

The Alameda Creek Watershed Center, planned in partnership with the residents of Sunol and the Muwekma Ohlone Tribe, will be a gathering place for youth and adults to gain an understanding and appreciation for the natural and cultural history of the Alameda Creek Watershed, including its natural resources and its role as part of the SFPUC’s regional water supply system. Planned for the Center are indoor and outdoor features including an exhibit hall, a community room, an informal botanical garden, a Watershed discovery lab and trail, and a picnic area.

The artwork at the Alameda Creek Watershed Center is funded through the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission’s compliance with the City and County of San Francisco’s Art Enrichment Ordinance, which was enacted in 1969 to provide a guaranteed funding mechanism for the acquisition of artwork for new public facilities and civic spaces. The Ordinance ensures that two percent of the gross construction cost of civic buildings, transportation improvement projects, new parks, and other above-ground structures be allocated for public art.

SFAC values access for all to high quality arts experiences, using arts as a vehicle for positive social change and prosperity. As part of the agency’s mission to be inclusive of environmental and community interests, the SFPUC partners with SFAC, local artists and residents to create public art that recognizes and celebrates the people, values, and history of the communities it serves.

The Alameda Creek Watershed includes lands in both Alameda and Santa Clara counties, and contains two SFPUC reservoirs – the San Antonio Reservoir to the north and the Calaveras Reservoir to the south. The Calaveras Reservoir is the largest of the SFPUC’s five local reservoirs, which collectively account for 15 percent of the agency’s total water supply. The Hetch Hetchy Reservoir provides roughly 85 percent of the SFPUC’s water supply.