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.

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"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.

click to enlarge Hager Seven Asfaha, founder of Alena Museum, says Black-owned buildings are vital to the East Bay’s arts community. - PHOTO BY LANCE YAMAMOTO
  • Photo by Lance Yamamoto
  • 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."

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