by Lydia Gans
“Black Artists on Art: The Legacy Exhibit” is a wide-ranging exhibition of the work of three generations of Black artists now on display until March 28 at Oakstop Gallery at 1701 Broadway in Oakland.
It provides a showcase for the work of 36 artists. Art lovers visiting the gallery will recognize some familiar names and be introduced to new talents.
Oakstop is a large space which opened just one year ago. Trevor Parham, 32, an art entrepreneuer, is the founder and director. He describes it as “a 10,000-square-foot mixed-use facility dedicated to shared workspace, events, meetings and the proliferation of local entrepreneurs and artists.”
There are small rooms where people can meet or work individually, a large workroom, and the gallery. Artworks are on exhibit throughout the space, including in the halls and stairways.
Parham is a businessman as well as an artist. He is a man bursting with ideas and the energy to carry them out.
Art is not just for hanging on walls, he maintains, but is used in all sorts of businesses, and he sees Oakstop as a place for artists to “grow Black artists and art as a business … to make (sure that) the work that we do as Black artists in arts is sustainable.”
Oakstop is located in downtown Oakland, a neighborhood seeing increasing artistic and cultural developments. Shared workspaces — Parham also uses the phrase coworking communities — are proliferating in the Bay Area.
As membership in Oakstop increases, Parham will be acquiring more equipment and providing more resources and services, running more workshops and public events.
The “Black Artists on Art” exhibit was inspired by the publication of two volumes of Black Artists on Art by Samella Lewis. The first volume came out in 1969 and the second soon after. Dr. Lewis is a distinguished African American historian, artist, author and educator.
Seeing that works of Black artists were generally not represented in museums and galleries, she decided to make the images of them accessible to the public in the form of inexpensive books.
Parham and Samella Lewis’s grandson, Unity Lewis, have collaborated on various projects over the years. One day, Lewis suggested that they work together to continue and expand his grandmother’s Black Artists on Art book project.
Parham was enthusiastic at the idea of reviving the legacy of Samella Lewis and “going further from a perspective of figuring out how can we use some business practices in this and make this book project more relevant in the 21st century. How can we take Black Artists on Art and turn it into a larger brand, not just put out a book or two, but also use all these other new forms of media.”
The intention was to get more public exposure for these important forms of art. So when he started Oakstop a year ago, he established the gallery and mounted the Legacy Exhibit.
The title, “Black Artists on Art,” expresses the deeper, underlying idea of both the book and the exhibit. The vision is to go beyond simply displaying works of art, and also having the artists articulate their reasons and intentions in creating art.
There are about 100 works by 36 artists accompanied by their statements describing what moves them to express themselves as they do — the emotional and intellectual activation they get from producing this art to share with others.
Artist Abba Yahuda writes: “Even though a great majority of the artists from the African Diaspora are heavily influenced by the traumatic effects of post-colonial oppression, many are drawing from a different more glorious past….”
For Karen Seneferu, “Claiming beauty or resurrecting beauty against a history of demoralizing constructions resists death, so, I create work that is both beautiful thus dangerous.”
Kara Fortune explains, “I attempt to peel back the skins and layers of history and expose things that have been forgotten. Artists such as Charles White and John Outerbridge inspired me to create my own visual concepts.”
Oakland artist Leon Kennedy was profiled in “The Visionary Folk Art of Leon Kennedy,” in the April 2014 issue of Street Spirit. Kennedy wrote: “There is a need for what I am doing, a need for the truth and a need for people to be inspired. The world is filled with despair and people need some light. They need to know all the possibilities. That’s what my art is about.”
Trevor Parham and Unity Lewis also have works in the show. Parham writes, “We need to connect, We need to share. We need to build. We need to be artists so that we can be ourselves again.”
Lewis explains, “One of my objectives is to preserve the cultural traditions of my ancestors that have been passed down to me through art. At the same time I am adding my own unique insight.”
Parham describes the plans for the future. “In the same spirit as we were putting this exhibit together, we realized that, for whatever reason, many of the artists that we had relationships to were men.”
So with Black History month being followed by National Women’s History month, he promises that “in March we’re going to reconfigure the entire exhibit focused on Black women artists.”