Oakland’s Black Artists Make Space for Themselves
Responding to gentrification and the political climate, artists are creating work reflecting an increasing urgency to preserve the local legacy of Black culture.
Published January 17, 2018
By Janelle Bitker
About 100 people crammed inside UC Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive’s tiny reading room one evening last November. As soon as it felt like no one else could possibly fit, a few more folks would lurk in the hallway, craning their necks to see what cool, inspiring night The Black Aesthetic had in store. More white folding chairs emerged. More delicate steps over bodies ensued.
It was The Black Aesthetic‘s season three finale and the film screening collective’s most well-attended event yet. The five-person team formed in late 2016 with the goal of showcasing the multidimensionality of Blackness in under appreciated films or works by emerging filmmakers. On this particular evening, one of The Black Aesthetic’s original founders showed his short film A Moment of Truth + Sin, a dark thriller about a Black man who fantasizes about killing his progressive white wife — Oakland filmmaker Christian Johnson’s spit in the face of the Bay Area’s suffocating white liberalism.
Despite the piece’s intensity, the resulting panel discussion bloomed with laughter. Johnson and collective member Malika “Ra” Imhotep deftly navigated both racially charged realities and motivations behind Johnson’s creative decisions without any film school jargon. It’s not surprising that The Black Aesthetic has become something of a media darling. These events capture Black joy at a time when it’d be far too easy to be beleaguered.
Looking back on 2017, it felt like a significant year for Black arts in Oakland and the rest of the inner East Bay. Countless events explored Black identity in different ways: visual art exhibits, one-off dance classes, and full-blown festivals celebrating Black culture, plus new books, magazines, podcasts, and films. Of course, the city has long been a bastion for Black culture, activism, and life. But what’s happening now feels particularly informed by the region’s declining Black population coupled with the housing crisis. In turn, much of the art reflects an increasing urgency to preserve the local legacy of Black culture, to hold space, and to explore questions of belonging.
During the Great Recession, the Black arts scene stagnated — and with fair reason. Who is going to start a new arts organization when many people are struggling to feed their families? The Black Aesthetic’s Leila Weefur witnessed this first-hand. Born and raised in Oakland, she left in 2007 to attend college in Washington, D.C. and Los Angeles and returned in 2012 as a graduate student at Mills College to find her community had already vanished.
“Oakland was the hub of Black art when I was growing up, but leaving and coming back and that being gone was devastating,” she said. “I think right now, there is an increase in Black creatives making space for themselves because it’s missing.”
As Black folks continue to get priced out of Oakland and the inner East Bay, Black artists are affirming their presence through these events. At the same time, higher rents and costs of living are making it challenging for artists to continue their work — especially with the knowledge that they could earn more money in a less expensive region.
The Black Aesthetic, most of whose members are graduate students scraping by, doesn’t make any money for its efforts. They organize film screenings, moderate discussions, and publish books, but they won’t turn anyone away who can’t afford the $5 ticket. They believe in accessibility. At the same time, given that they donate their own limited funds to The Black Aesthetic’s needs, members like Zoé Samudzi aren’t sure how much longer they can keep it up.
“Nobody wants to pay Black people to live, to eat, to make the things that they want see, to put on Instagram and be like, ‘Look at this cool thing that I went to,'” Samudzi said. “Everybody wants to consume Blackness but nobody wants to make sure we don’t die.”
The history of Black culture in Oakland runs deep.
In the 1940s and 1950s, Oakland had a vibrant entertainment district nicknamed “the Harlem of the West.” In 1966, the Black Panther Party was born, becoming hugely influential for its activism as well as the bold artwork that would grace its popular newspaper. Soon after, Oakland had an African-American artists’ advocacy group, Art West Associated North, that protested the exclusion of Black artists from local galleries and museums. All of this helped shape a city that would become half Black by the ’80s, a place well-known for art with a political bent.
By 2000, the city’s Black population started declining. Black folks made up 35.1 percent, down from 43.9 percent a decade earlier. By 2010, it had dropped to 27.3 percent, and according to 2016 Census estimates, that figure has further dipped to 24.1 percent. And the city’s white population has been climbing. For the first time since 1970, white people were estimated to become the dominant racial or ethnic group in Oakland in 2014 at 26.5 percent.
The current exodus of Black folks stems from the Bay Area’s housing crisis. Rents have doubled and sometimes tripled in places such as West Oakland, a historically Black neighborhood that’s now popular with white tech workers who have fled San Francisco’s even higher prices.
Deep East Oakland native Brittani Sensabaugh lives with her mom in North Oakland on a block that used to include a few fellow Black families. Now, there are no more.
“With gentrification, we do not feel like we exist anymore,” the photographer also known as Brittsense said. “When you don’t feel like you exist, you don’t feel worthy. You don’t feel like you should be in certain areas, even when the areas you were in were yours.
- Hager Seven Asfaha, founder of Alena Museum, says Black-owned buildings are vital to the East Bay’s arts community.
“A lot of these events are ways to keep the culture alive, ways to exist in our spaces and be able to be us,” she continued. “For the little spaces we do still have, we want them to be full of us.”
Hager Seven Asfaha, founder of Alena Museum, said the housing situation has been a “kick in the butt” for some Black creatives. “There is a certain degree of angst in realizing the landscape is changing,” he said. “We kind of need to show our presence and be an example for the next generation.”
Alena Museum officially became a nonprofit last year, occupying a sprawling, 6,000-square-foot warehouse in West Oakland, right across the street from the last Black Panther shootout. It’s a space where folks can come together and co-create. There’s a fashion co-working area, a roomy events space, individual artist studios, and a communal kitchen, all housed in an industrial, brick setting splashed with vibrant color — and all with the intention of preserving the culture of the African diaspora. In Tigrigna, a language spoken in Eritrea and northern Ethiopia, “Alena” means “we are here.”
In his creative circles, Asfaha said the housing crisis is the central driving force behind many of these arts events intended to hold space. But some artists point to the national political climate, the election of Donald Trump, and the alarming rate of police-involved killings of Blacks folks over the past couple of years as contributing factors.
“It’s a time to stand in our truth,” Sensabaugh said. “It’s a time to show we are much more than what is being displayed. It’s time to show up for us.”
Oakland resident Lauren Mayfield pointed to the shooting of Philando Castile and other Black individuals as a motivator for finally working on a long-discussed podcast with her roommate Jordan Bailey.
“That was just a really tough summer for Black women,” she said. “This is our chance to really put our voice out there.”
Last year, they released the first season of Black Girl Book Club, which alternates between discussing books by Black authors and personal conversations on topics such as interracial dating and representation on television. Themes are universal for women of color, but the pair often keeps the energy light. Sometimes, Mayfield even raps. Season two, which is slowly being released now, features interviews with notable Black women in the Bay Area.
North Carolina natives Mayfield and Bailey moved to Oakland less than three years ago, specifically drawn to the city’s history of Black culture. They speak carefully about not wanting to intrude at a time of rapid displacement, and they hope to eventually use their podcast to lift the voices of Black folks who feel silenced in a changing Oakland. Bailey said local events this past year have shown her so much diversity within Black culture.
“I grew up in really white spaces, so being able to go to Black events where I feel comfortable is a big thing for me,” she said. “Being in Black normative spaces in general is really transformative.”
Betti Ono celebrated its seventh anniversary with the exhibit Black Women over Breathing, which just wrapped up this month. Showcasing work from emerging Black female artists in the Bay Area, the exhibition included colorful quilts, video, sculpture, and, perhaps most strikingly, a line of blue prayer flags depicting the names of Black women who died at the hands of police officers.
It was a natural fit for downtown Oakland’s Betti Ono, but it’s one of few Black-owned art galleries in the East Bay. There are far more Black artists in Oakland than Black galleries eager to highlight them. Asfaha sees Black-run spaces like Betti Ono as vital to the East Bay’s arts community but argues that Black-owned buildings are even more important.
“Without ownership, you’re in a really fragile situation in this economy,” he said, adding that Alena Museum doesn’t own its building. “We have to think outside the box at this point to hold space.”
Asfaha said the Black creative community is just starting to convert warehouses into arts spaces, something white-dominated Burning Man circles have been doing for decades. He wonders if there are Black homeowners who could somehow transform their houses into creative spaces — same with gardens and empty plots of land.
Michael Orange, founder of Matatu, feels less strongly about the need for Black-owned spaces. He understands the sentiment, but ultimately, space is a challenge in the East Bay no matter what.
“Black-owned or South Asian-owned, they’re paying high rents or high mortgages and need to assess fees to sustain their space,” he said. “If it’s Black-owned, I don’t really want the hook-up since they’re all too often barely surviving. I’m not going to pay them less because they’re Black.”
Orange curates the 5-year-old Matatu festival and puts on roughly two dozen events a year under the same platform, which is all about exploring the diversity within people and challenging ideas people have about themselves. Given the number of events Orange puts on, he wishes he could have his own place, but it’s just not financially feasible in the Bay Area. Instead, he returns to favorite spaces like the Grand Lake Theatre, Red Bay Coffee, Starline Social Club, and Duende. He’s constantly navigating whether there ought to be booze, because then he can promise a venue owner bar revenue instead of payment. How does a dry venue change the dynamic? He would need to charge higher ticket prices to pay for the space — but then who would no longer show up? “That conversation is often the primary conversation,” Orange said.
Looking back on the events The Black Aesthetic has organized, its members point to the screenings at Black-run spaces as feeling the most magical. But they were also the nights with the poorest attendance. And the few times The Black Aesthetic gets any money — a modest honorarium — it’s not coming from Black venue owners.
At the same time, nuanced thinking about the Black experience is entering mainstream spaces, such as the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive. The Black Aesthetic’s screening there was part of Black Life, a series that freelance curators David Brazil and Chika Okoye started last year. They focus on African cultural production in the diaspora, which sometimes looks like poets reading over white noise, a communal drumming workshop, or a gospel choir director singing protest songs.
What’s exciting for Brazil is the potential to use Black Life, which will resume on a monthly basis next week, as an activist and organizing venue, not just an art event, particularly at a time when white supremacy seems to be on the rise. The series name stems from a noted academic discussion on the Black Lives Matter movement, an intended “reflection on what it means to live in a state of siege and create meaningful life regardless,” Brazil said.
Oakland resident Okoye said she thinks it’s often the popularity of Black art that unintentionally fuels displacement. “You see how whiteness works to replace culture and consume culture,” Okoye said. “Whiteness signifies a certain emptiness and always seeks to be filled with culture and vibrancy from others.”
The Black Aesthetic’s Samudzi said people have a “pathological need to consume the hyper-coolness of Black culture,” and that spawns gentrification. “You want the proximity to this urban grit and flavor that is non-whiteness, but you don’t actually want them.”
That tends to be the overall narrative: More white people are coming into Oakland, drawn by the art and events created by Black residents, and then they end up pushing those very people out. Asfaha said he witnesses this in West Oakland, where some newcomers arrive with “entitlement and fear of us.”
“I’d think you’d want to learn and give space and in some ways weave in rather than tramp on and take over and sell back to the community,” he said.
But he’s also seen allies. Reality is a little more complicated. A lot of interesting, sensitive people — many of them Black — are moving to Oakland from all over the country because they heard it was an amazing creative hub. They were promised a “West Coast Brooklyn” in newspapers like The New York Times and Los Angeles Times, and Orange thinks many arrive with good intentions.
“We could paint an image of gentrification as ‘settlers arriving at harvest with nothing to contribute.’ It’s familiar, and it’s real, and it hurts,” he said. “Yet, I also know people of all persuasions who have moved here, and they’re like, ‘I’m here. I’ve read about it. How do I contribute? How do I become a patron? But first, where is it? I can’t find it.'”
Some newcomers went ahead and created their own creative outlets, like the transplants behind Black Girl Book Club and The Black Aesthetic. But Orange said he’s having lots of conversations with recent arrivals who feel like they were lied to when they decided to move to Oakland.
“Now that they’re here, they’re finding that our creative movements are too often malnourished,” he said. “So, there is mistrust, even though they might ordinarily be aligned. People are moving here, but people are also leaving here six months after arriving. White folk. Brown folk. Black folk.”
The Black Aesthetic’s members gather every Sunday at Weefur’s cavernous studio in Oakland’s Chinatown. Lately, they’ve been getting a lot of emails to sort through: artists interested in collaborations, journalists requesting interviews, shop owners hoping to restock The Black Aesthetic’s first book before the next one arrives in February. All of their laptops are open.
It would seem like the group is thriving, but Weefur worries about the collective’s sustainability. She doesn’t want them to burn out. It’s tough to dedicate so much time when there’s no money and the group depends entirely on venues like art galleries and museums to continue.
“How do we become less beholden to these institutions and create more independence for ourselves?” founder Ryanaustin Dennis wondered aloud. “What does that mean? Does that mean we commercialize more?”
What would an inclusive film series look like with corporate sponsorships?
Money is always an issue with the arts, but the lack of available space in the East Bay has made funding even more crucial. “It’s difficult when you are competing with private companies who are supporting their wives’ friends and personal colleagues,” Weefur said. “That’s how you get a lot of white spaces — it’s because people who already have access are the people who already have money.”
About a year ago, Oakland hired its first cultural affairs manager, Roberto Bedoya. The move suggests a recommitment to the arts, with Bedoya tasked with managing grant funding and reviving the city’s arts commission, which dissolved in 2011. Bedoya gave out $1.1 million in grants in 2017. That figure is only slightly down from the city’s peak of arts funding — $1.3 million in 2003 — but the cost of living today is significantly higher.
The issue here isn’t that the city’s grants ignore Black arts. In fact, 57 percent of 2017’s individual arts grants went to Black artists. There just isn’t enough money for the number of artists living here. According to Bedoya, 64 percent of grant applicants are turned away due to insufficient funds.
This year, Bedoya has $250,000 more to work with, and given that the funding comes from the city’s general fund and hotel room taxes, it’s possible it could grow more in the future. “There will be a little bit more coin — not a lot, but enough to comfortably strengthen the support system for individual artists,” he said.
The city recently started working with the Community Arts Stabilization Trust (CAST), a San Francisco nonprofit that purchases and leases space to local art nonprofits in an effort to fight displacement. CAST is also behind Keeping Space Oakland, which works with Oakland arts groups to find workspaces.
“Cities change and struggle to maintain spaces for creativity,” Bedoya said. “We’re trying to address that through our partnership with CAST, but there are many variables at work going on here that are beyond my division: the economy, development, housing.”
With a full year under its belt, The Black Aesthetic is starting to apply for grants, but the process is time-consuming — and given the city’s grant rejection rate, it’s no sure bet. Instead, many artists turn to crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter or GoFundMe in an effort to secure money for projects — or, according to Samudzi, even rent.
“The thing that’s fucked up is the people who are helping these people pay their rent are also broke-ass people who could also probably benefit from a GoFundMe,” she said. “On one hand, it’s beautiful. There’s always been this history of alternative cultural productions but … if there’s no capital being injected and we’re making things that require resources, we can only do it for long. We cannot depend on our broke homies.”
While Oakland’s current Black arts scene feels like a response to the city’s changing landscape, many artists agree that these overall conversations about funding, equity, and the concept of holding space aren’t new.
“It’s a certain kind of chronic crisis where Black people are always having to organize themselves around forces that are trying to separate them,” said The Black Aesthetic’s Jamal Batts. “Right now, it’s expressing itself spatially.”
Some members of the community doubt there are actually more Black-centric events and art productions than usual these days. Perhaps, they’re just more visible. Okoye of Black Life said she thinks media outlets across the country have shown more interest in covering Black communities ever since Barack Obama was elected president in 2008. Meanwhile, The Black Aesthetic’s Imhotep sees a correspondence with the rise in coverage of police brutality and the wider public seeking out Black culture. “When people are forced to engage with Black folks in the news, they look for them in art to satisfy white guilt,” she asserted.
The idea that Black artists are having a moment is problematic for Orange for two key reasons.
“One, the need to categorize art by perceived race. Two, that the resilience of Black folk is most aptly displayed under duress. There’s more at play,” he said. “White is an idea, Black is an idea. If there is a whitening of the canvas, then anything with color is going to appear more vividly.”
Is the East Bay in the throes of a Black arts renaissance? Artists say that’s the wrong question. What’s more important to ask is if we want to keep seeing Black art at all. With the affordability crisis, Asfaha said all the progress the Black creative community has made could crumble quickly. Even the future of Alena Museum is tenuous. Asfaha’s lease is up next month and he expects the rent to rise by at least a third.
“My landlord stands to make a lot of money when he sells this building and he bought it for really cheap,” he said. “I’m building that relationship, but I don’t know. It’s his call.”
When rents become unaffordable, artists leave. The Black Aesthetic’s members said they are constantly having conversations with fellow creatives about folks who have left, folks debating leaving, and folks who have no choice but to pack up soon. Weefur wonders if it’s a cycle: “If people are starting to move again, how many times is this going to have to happen? How many times will we have to start and build something new over and over again?”