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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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?"

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