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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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However, it can be difficult to clearly identify whether rejections of Black artists by non-Black galleries and curators are racially motivated, because when they turn away Black artists, they often give innocuous sounding reasons — that their waiting list is already too long, for example, or that the work does not "fit" into their vision. As a result, many Black artists simply stop trying.

"It's unfortunate, but it is what it is," said Parham. "You go somewhere and you see somebody that looks like you, the chances that you're going to talk about something that caters to your interests are just much higher."

The problem is, there are few Black-owned galleries in Oakland. Art Murmur's Black-owned spaces include Betti Ono, Joyce Gordon Gallery, Thelma Harris Gallery, and Oakstop. Outside of Art Murmur, other primary venues for representing people of color are Omiiroo, Soulspace, and Eastside Arts Alliance. But that's a small percentage of the one hundred or so galleries in Oakland.


Local creator Sasha Kelley wanted a platform to promote artistic women of color so she started the Malidoma Collective with Charmaine Davis (aka the rapper Queens D.Lite) in 2011. The group of twelve women includes artists, musicians, healers, and educators (one of whom is Aamber Newsom). Currently, they're doing a residency at Omiiroo Gallery at 15th and Harrison streets in downtown Oakland and have created a store in the gallery called Shop Maater. The space is exquisitely decorated, and offers handmade wares by artists in the collective. There's a box of toys for children, and a bookcase stocked with some literary essentials — including Richard Wright's Native Son, Octavia Butler's Fledging, and a collection of essays by James Baldwin. Kelley's one-year-old daughter spends her days in the shop, too. Creative women fly in and out all day — the store acts as their home base of sorts. It's important for them to have a place to work and be centered, especially at a time when space is at such a high premium in the Bay Area.

Kelley is a photographer whose work reflects contemporary life as an African American. Until a few years ago, she was determined to only show in spaces owned or run by African Americans. "I wanted to keep my work in spaces that were accessible, and where folks felt comfortable to come," she said.

She didn't open up to the idea of working with a white curator until an elder in her community — artist Karen Seneferu (who is featured in the Black Artists on Art exhibit) — told her that she could trust Jasmine Moorhead, the director of Krowswork Gallery. For many local Black artists, Krowswork is the exception to the assumption that work by Black artists won't be appreciated in Art Murmur galleries. That's because Moorhead has made a conscious effort to shift her curatorial practice away from what she sees as the prescribed taste of mainstream galleries, and now offers space to artists whose work reflects relevant social issues. Many of those artists, it turns out, are people of color.

But Moorhead admitted that she had to overcome a steep learning curve. "I looked back after my first couple years and I had only shown two artists of color in that whole time," she said in a recent interview, referring to a time about three years ago when she realized that she had been playing into a closed value system with which she didn't agree. So she started seeking out artists of color who were doing work that fit in her space, as well as scholars such as Duane Deterville to do lectures. "There's no blame [on other galleries]," she said. "But if you're actually interested in showing work that's reflective of a larger picture, then, in my mind, you have to [address] that narrow focus that I think the art world tends to channel people into."

In July, the Malidoma Collective will be doing a residency at Krowswork in which Moorhead is giving the collective members free rein to curate the space how they see fit. The show will include artwork from their own collective, as well as a number of healing art workshops. Moorhead said she is trying to further shift away from the typical system of curating — a system that can often silence voices of color instead of amplifying them. "I have this tiny little corner of the world that I call Krowswork, and it happens to be in Oakland at a very critical moment of protecting what I see as the most interesting thing about Oakland, which is its diversity and its potential — through that diversity — to lead."

Conrad M. Meyers II, president of the board of directors of Art Murmur, said he's well aware of the issue of underrepresentation for Black artists and artists of color in Oakland. It's often been a topic of conversation among Art Murmur members, he said. But Meyers, who is also director of Aggregate Space Gallery in Oakland, a space that focuses on experimental video work and large scale sculpture, said he was sad to admit that since it opened in 2010, Aggregate has only had one solo show by a Black artist (Christopher Burch in 2013). Meyers said he's been trying to seek out artists of color to show in his space, but has had a difficult time finding ones who make the type of work that his gallery is geared toward — adding that many gallerists he's worked with have expressed the same struggle. He thinks that part of the problem is that he mostly collaborates with recent graduates of CCA, San Francisco Art Institute, and Mills College — all of which are mostly white institutions. Plus, artists often have to expend significant amounts money to create their works, which then almost never sell.

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