News & Opinion » Feature

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.

by

12 comments

Page 6 of 7

Meyers pointed out that, although it may seem as if a gallery is doing well, the vast majority of galleries in Oakland aren't breaking even financially. Both he and McDonald are sure that, as property values rise, Oakland's artistic culture will dwindle and disperse — unless there's a conscious effort to preserve it. And McDonald thinks that Black-owned spaces will likely be the first to go. "Look at Black gallery owners, look at Trevor, look at Joyce Gordon, look at Anyka Barber," she said. "These will be the canaries in a coalmine for the art scene in Oakland."

As Oakland continues to boom, many fear that the culture and history of the place will gradually get erased. In a recent interview, Joyce Gordon and Eric Murphy, who run Joyce Gordon Gallery on Broadway and 14th Street, expressed frustration with the fact that as Oakland garners more and more attention for its new "diverse" arts scene, little credit goes to galleries like hers that preceded the formation of Art Murmur. "For some reason, when people talk about the galleries, they always kind of miss the Black galleries," said Gordon. "All of the conversation I've heard about the art that's going on in Oakland and how it's really growing and this and that — that's all based on white galleries, because there have been Black galleries here all the time. We just have not had a spokesperson."

Her gallery opened in 2003, but she pointed out that long before hers, there was Samuel's Gallery (which was open for eighteen years before it closed in 2003) and Thelma Harris, which has been open for 25 years, the last 23 of which have been on College Avenue in Rockridge. They've both shown internationally renowned artists, and yet rarely have received credit locally.

Still, Thelma Harris represents a success story for spaces that focus on Black artists. When she opened the gallery in 1990, she did so because she knew of nowhere to buy artwork by African-American artists. Over the years, Harris and her husband have become internationally known as a resource for African-American art. Many of the artists that they started collecting early on are now being collected by museums, in part because of all the work they did to promote them throughout the years. "We didn't think we were making history — we still don't," said Terry Harris. "But at the same time, you are making history and you are exposing and you are setting aside and creating value." That's why projects such as Black Artists on Art: The Legacy Exhibit are so important, Thelma and Terry Harris said. These projects not only contribute to cultural memory, but also provide a sense of legitimacy to those who require it.


The closing of the Black Artists on Art exhibit on April 17 was only the end of the beginning. The night marked the release of another important aspect of the project: the online submission form. Although it's simply a web page requesting a bio and each creator's "perspective on art as an artist of the African diaspora," it's a crucial step in the project because it brings art by Black artists to the next level of accessibility. Through the online form, artists can submit images of their work along with personal information that will act as a submission to the book.

In early 2016, the accepted submissions will be available on the Black Artists on Art website (BlackArtistsonArt.com) in a database that will be searchable by artist, type of art, specific art piece, and location. It will also serve as a resource for local curators who want to find artists outside of their immediate community doing a specific type of work. In that way, Lewis and Parham hope that the website will help to increase the visibility of Black artists in some of the higher profile galleries in town. "I think it would be almost laughable in another year if we keep doing what we're doing for someone to say, 'Well, I would love to show more Black artists but I just can't find them,'" said Parham, "because somebody would easily say — just like they told the artists who submitted to us — well then you need to go down to [Oakstop] because they're doing something around that."

Another advantage of the database is that it's not limited to Oakland. Over the long term, Lewis and Parham would like the Black Artists on Art exhibit to travel around the country, and then the world. Ideally, only the legacy pieces by artists who were in the original two books will travel with the show. The other artists displayed in each show will be curated through submissions to the database, filtered by location, depending on where the exhibit travels. That way, the show will continue working toward increased local representation wherever it goes, and offer more artists the opportunity to show with historic works.

Comments (12)

Showing 1-12 of 12

Add a comment
 

Add a comment

Anonymous and pseudonymous comments will be removed.