Dropping the Bomb 

Local artist riles port with explosive proposal, and 21 Grand finds a new home.

The Port of Oakland's public art program began with a bang this year, when local artist Keba Konte proposed decorating Jack London Square with forty-foot cargo containers adorned with pictures of a lit bomb on one side and an ostrich with its head in the sand on the other.

The port has received $7.9 million of a requested $180 million in security funding since 9/11, and a mere 5 percent of American cargo containers are searched annually. Oakland resident Konte wants to spark debate about such issues, but the Board of Port Commissioners is evidently nervous about his method. Konte -- a former longshoreman -- expects his art to be rejected at the board's February 22 hearing.

"Art is always going to be controversial," said port communications director Harold Jones, who voted for the project as chairman of the port's public art committee but has since spoken with full commissioners who have their doubts. "It's good that this project generates dialogue and discussion, but there are other ways to do it."

The port contacted internationally exhibited photomontage artist Konte late last year as part of its two-year-old, $300,000-a-year public art program, which encompasses both the port and the Oakland Airport. Konte submitted models of a container with a cartoon bomb and the ostrich -- both with slashes through them -- indicating an antibomb, antiwar, anti-ignorance stance. "I was expecting hesitation from the beginning," Konte said. "I knew it was going to be a fight. The whole thing kind of played as I first envisioned it."

Debate ensued during two meetings of the port's public art committee this winter. Most of the committee supported Konte's vision, but Jones said the commissioners are of another mind. "The question was raised, 'Do you think this would be alarming to people?' and the response was, 'Yes, it will be alarming, and that's the thought behind it,'" Jones said. "An argument was made that this was an opportunity for the port to educate the public about all of the things that are being done to make sure that there are no bombs and to make sure the public is aware that, no, we don't have our head in the sand."

The committee voted seven-to-one January 26 to forward Konte's model to the full commission. The catch: Konte agreed to design some backup ideas in case the commissioners don't bite -- he doesn't expect them to. But his original proposal seems likely to live on in some form.

Mills College Art Museum director Stephen Jost said the college will fund Konte installations throughout the city. "I think it's important that it happens; we're going to make sure it happens," he said. "If the Port of Oakland doesn't want to do it, the only question for us is when -- next month or in the summer. I'm kind of against censorship, and Konte's in good company. A lot of interesting art gets censored; it's sort of an odd honor."

Grand New Horizons

Light up the kerosene-soaked bowling pins and reprogram the drum machines: Experimental art in downtown Oakland just got a new lease on life.

Popular art gallery 21 Grand and its neighbor Smythe's Accordion Center secured new digs January 19, just three months before developers bulldoze the gallery to build 475 condominiums.

After Signature Properties notified the businesses last October of their impending eviction from 449B 23rd Street, gallery codirectors Sarah Lockhart and Darren Jenkins began planning the third move in four years for the small but active nonprofit facility. "We were looking for raw space that we could build out, that was in the neighborhood," she said. "And not anywhere where we could get noise complaints."

21 Grand's new home at 416 25th Street is behind God's Gym on a block of auto-body shops. The 4,000-square-foot space comes with a five-year lease, boosting 21 Grand's footprint and adding stability. A sterling landlord recommendation sealed the deal, Lockhart said.

"Because the block has so many different owners, we don't see a developer coming in and being able to buy up the block," she said. "The building has been in the owner's family for quite a while."

Just two blocks from 21 Grand's current location, the new building requires several weeks and tens of thousands of dollars in construction to create fresh gallery walls, two art studios, and space for Smythe's. But overall, the move should be a boon, store owner Kimric Smythe said: "It turned out to be a pretty cool thing. At first it was like, 'Not again,' but then we realized we just had to deal with it."

Lockhart said she has asked Signature Properties to donate $10,000 in moving costs, but hasn't yet received an answer. A March 12 benefit at 21 Grand will help raise moving money; all-out day is April 7.

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