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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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In 2004, while he was still an undergraduate at California College of the Arts in Oakland, Unity Lewis did a performance piece called "Wild California Negro." It was a re-staging of The Year of the White Bear and Two Undiscovered Amerindians Visit the West, the famous piece that performance artists Guillermo Gómez-Peña and Coco Fusco displayed during a world tour that lasted for two years beginning in 1992. The Hispanic pair pretended to be two recently discovered "natives" found on a fictional island off the coast of Mexico, wearing costumes that included a grass skirt and a lucha libre mask, fooling crowds at museums and art fairs from inside of a zoo-like cage.

Lewis' take involved him standing behind a pane of glass, effectively enclosed in a box, surrounded by a pastiche of props that alluded to stereotypes of African Americans. "I had my Dave Chapelle playing and black velvet paintings," he recalled. One of his white friends played the "zoo keeper" and gave him the "brotha" handshake as he brought the class around to view the specimen, who was dressed like a Black Panther.

When listening to Lewis reflect on his time spent at CCA, it begins to make sense that he would put together such a piece. He said he came to the Bay Area from the most culturally diverse high school in Los Angeles — Fairfax High — and that it was a "culture shock" for everyone involved. At CCA, he was often the only Black student in his classes. He said there were a few teachers that he gelled with really well, but otherwise he felt ostracized, tokenized, and boxed in at the same time. He said he was told by a white professor that he should make his work more "Black," while a famous Black professor told him he should tone down the "Black shit." Like many Black artists, he struggled to define himself, wavering between wanting to pay homage to the Black arts legacy that he was born into and not wanting to be limited by the idea of being another incarnation of the "Black aesthetic."

Luckily, Lewis thrives on adversity. In 2000, he co-founded the first Black Student Union at CCA since the 1970s. Through his role as a community student fellow, he also designed a syllabus for and taught a class on hip-hop with graduate student Bayete Ross Smith at Far West High School in Oakland. And in his senior year, Lewis had shows in both the San Francisco and Oakland CCA galleries at the same time (a very rare occurrence), covering the walls with the lyrics from his most recent hip-hop album in one show, and presenting sculptural interrogations of racial identity in the other. The list of accomplishments continues.

Growing up in a revolutionary household, Lewis began organizing youth against gang violence when he was in high school. At that time, he also started rapping about Black power and political issues. And throughout his life, he has disseminated positive messages about Black culture through whatever means feel relevant to him. Along the way, he met Parham — who has a similarly long and impressive list of accomplishments — and the two began working on rap music videos. In 2008, they made one that promoted Obama's presidential campaign, and even traveled to his inauguration, handing out fake $25 bills with Obama's face printed on them, asking people in the crowd if they could "make change."

But the two agree that Black Artists on Art is their most serious project so far. In a sense, it's what they've been building toward their whole lives. "It's almost like we were destined to be doing this," said Lewis. "We were given the tools and the resources to fulfill this specific mission that has already been paved before I even came to this planet."

Still, it wasn't until they started the project that they realized the impact it could have. They found that the same issues of underrepresentation that the original books addressed are still highly relevant in Oakland today.

Once word about the project leaked out into the community, Black artists of all ages began showing up at Oakstop with portfolios in hand. "At least five new artists a week show up," said Parham during an interview at the end of March. Lewis and Parham decided that as long as the artists took their work seriously, and presented something of quality, they would welcome them into the show. So the roster quickly grew from the original 38 artists to 56 in all. According to Lewis and Parham, many of the artists said that they had struggled to get their work into other galleries — for many of the same reasons that Samella Lewis described 46 years earlier in her introduction to Black Artists on Art.

Lewis and Parham say that many curators assume that Black artists only make work about race and thus are not marketable, or they subconsciously view Black artwork as being inferior. In addition, many galleries maintain a strict standard for credentials before considering an artist's work. In a recent interview, local Black painter and illustrator Aambr Newsome joked that she has thought about asking a white person to take her portfolio into a gallery for her to see if the reception would be different. Painter Abba Yahuda, whose work reflects his Rastafarian beliefs, said that he doesn't even try to reach out to galleries anymore, because it's discouraging and he's not willing to compromise his subject matter.

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