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Where Are Oakland's Black Artists?

In the face of gentrification, local Black artists and curators are working to ensure that no one ever needs to ask where they are, or whether they've been here all along.

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Samella Lewis' biography is impressive by any standard. She was the first Black woman to receive a PhD in both art history and fine art in the United States. She has four academic degrees overall, has written eleven books, and her art work is in the permanent collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. She taught at a number of universities throughout her career, and in 1976 she also founded the Museum of African American Art in Los Angeles. In 1978, she wrote the first textbook on African-American art, called African American Art and Artists. She was a student of the Black artistic icon and activist Elizabeth Catlett, as well as a close friend. Those who knew her in her younger years describe Lewis an absolute pleasure to be around — and a formidable woman who knew what she wanted to achieve with her work.                                                                    

The purpose of publishing Black Artists on Art was, in a sense, a response to an issue that seemed to drive most of her career. "Number one, we had no representation," she said in a recent phone interview from her home in Los Angeles (she was unable to attend the February 6 opening at Oakstop). Despite the fact that she and Waddy had a difficult time gathering enough funding for their first book, they were determined to publish it. Even though Lewis worked for the National Endowment of the Arts for fifteen years, the organization offered no funding for their project. "We just struggled and said, 'We're gonna do it,'" said Lewis. Ultimately, Lewis founded the publishing house Contemporary Crafts, which published both of her and Waddy's books.

Forty-six years later, it's clear that their perseverance has paid off many times over: Black Artists on Art has inspired untold numbers of Black artists throughout the country. Among them was Duane Deterville, who first encountered the books in 1979 in the library at the California College of Arts and Crafts (now California College of the Arts) in Oakland when he was a student. Although the books were ten years old when Deterville first discovered them, they were the only ones available at the time on contemporary Black artists. The books were a source of inspiration and recognition in an environment in which Deterville and his peers didn't see any work by Black artists reflected in their studies. "It gave us hope," Deterville said in a recent interview.

Deterville described his time as an undergrad at CCAC as a "fight," because he was consistently being taught in class that the only version of art history was the history of white male aesthetics. "The traumatizing thing was having all this history spun out before you as if other aesthetics and other worlds of creativity didn't exist at the time," he said. Deterville noted that, in contrast, the vibrant art scene in Oakland during those years was full of Black painters, poets, and dancers. The inconsistency was jarring. "Those types of things really got underneath our skin," he said.

Ultimately, though, the experience proved to be motivational. Now, Deterville, who still lives in Oakland, is a respected artist, writer, and scholar who in 2007 co-authored the book Black Artists in Oakland, which employed photography to bring recognition to underappreciated artists, musicians, and dancers from throughout the city's history. He is also a participating artist in the revival of Black Artists on Art, adding him to the list of Oakland artists that he once worshipped from inside the CCAC library.

Samella Lewis' work, however, might have had its strongest and most lasting impact on her grandson, Unity Lewis. Today, he not only has an encyclopedic knowledge of her accomplishments, but much of his work also relies on the same principles that she preached, including the importance of taking the initiative to write the history that you want to see remembered. "We have to be excited about preserving our cultural heritage, otherwise it will die out," he said in an interview. "And we can't expect anybody to keep track of it except us. We have to be the authors and the organizers and the archivists, because a lot of people out there in power would like to see it die off so that they can claim it for themselves. People have strategically erased whole sections out of history about our culture — about Black culture in particular."

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