by Lydia Gans
The current show in the African-American Center in the main branch of the San Francisco Public Library is more than an art exhibit. It is an affirmation by 16 local artists — most of them are homeless, and many are African-American — that “My Art Makes My Life Matter.” The show will be on view at the library until August 10.
Curator Kheven LaGrone is African-American, a Bay Area native born in San Francisco who now lives in Oakland. He is a writer and playwright and has written a play which is soon to be produced. He has curated shows with different themes in New York, Atlanta, Oakland and Richmond. This show has a particular message.
“When you say Black Lives Matter, it doesn’t really tell us anything because we know life matters. So what do we mean by Black Life matters?” LaGrone asks.
That is the question he wants to answer with this exhibit. LaGrone talks about the increasing gentrification which is putting people out of their homes, forcing them into encampments “where their lives really don’t matter.” They have no value, no dignity, they become outcasts.
“This exhibit basically is more proactive,” he says. “It’s saying my art makes my life matter, and it’s saying my art matters.” The show is an opportunity for the artists, most of whom are homeless or have experienced homelessness in the past, to demonstrate the value of their work to the community at large.
Many of the artists are in the Creative Arts program at St. Mary’s Center in Oakland or at Hospitality House in San Francisco. There is a great variety of media used. Paintings with oils, water colors, acrylics, adorned with beads and glitter, ceramics, fabrics, a large, elegantly dressed doll and even a painted skateboard. Several of the participants have more than one work in the exhibit. And there is still more to the show.
Along with their artwork, each artist has written an extensive statement which is posted on the wall near their work. LaGrone explains why the statements are important. He describes what happens to people living on the street or in encampments. “Society dismisses them. They become dehumanized. They are invisible.”
The statements are a way for the artists to introduce themselves. “By telling their stories and telling their truths they give themselves visibility and portray themselves as who they are,” La Grone says.
What they have written is fascinating and often very moving. Reading their words, one wants to meet them in person, to see their faces and thank them for sharing their thoughts and feelings with a society that has cast them out. The statements are long, a page or more each. Having the statements typed in small print and hung at eye level makes them very hard for many people to read. Paper copies that visitors could read while sitting at a table would be helpful. The library is working on a solution.
Putting all the material into a book has also been considered. Whatever may come out of it, the show has cast a bit of light on some misunderstood and unappreciated members of our community.
We are printing excerpts from the artist’s writing to give a sense of what their art means to each of them.
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My Art Makes My Life Matter
Thoughts, Feelings and Reflections by the Artists
Art is the way I inspire people of all races to use their gifts and reach for their dreams. The main idea of my art is concern for people. We’re here to serve, love and encourage one another. I share connection with people from the heart. A feeling of power and gratitude flows into my heart. When I receive a vision, I hope it helps someone. I love when people feel their heart touched by the art.
I create art as a way to bring love and faith to people who face hardship. My art is offered to uplift people who strive to overcome oppression. My art is for people who find strength and unity in our community’s historic and endless struggle for justice.
My artwork tells my story because my work focuses on creating a repertoire of photographs of the African American experience to give the prominent generations to come an empowering historical photographic documentation. I have a driving force that guides my work and that is to take the definitive portrait of that person in that moment.
Photography has helped me keep my sanity in this insane world we live in.
Photography has become therapeutic for me because I use the camera not only as a tool for artistic expression, but as a conversational piece to spark dialogue between myself and my subjects I’m shooting.
My photography has become my home because whenever I pick up my camera and wrap my fingers around it I know that I’m not just taking a picture but realizing that I’m documenting someone’s life, and that is a powerful experience.
Sylvester Guard Jr.
My art makes my life matter because I am a human being. I have a voice, a heart, a spirit and a set of values. I have my own view on life and culture. Through art, I can view the world and its beauty, its ugliness, the simple serendipity of everyday complicated societal shortcomings, and at times beautiful highpoints.
I use my art to uplift, educate, beautify, and help those in my neighborhood, the Tenderloin. My art inspires my neighbors to believe they can attain positive goals. My art shows them that their lives matter and that they deserve beautiful things.
My art is not so much therapy as it is an appendage, like a limb or a digit. It is wholly and automatically a piece of just who I am. Growing up, it was the one thing that was unequivocally mine and mine alone. Sometimes my art intimates; other times it is comical and even wrathful. My art is a piece of me; like my life, it matters to me…yeah
I used art at an early age to interact with people, to connect with people socially. I feel art brings me success in every area of my life.
Art is a racial equalizer. It gives me the culture to step up to the rest of society. It affords me the opportunities that otherwise might be out of reach for me as a Black man.
In San Francisco now, there’s not many places for creative people to spend time without pressure of cost-of-living and so there’s a broken connection to creative thinkers in the community.
There have been times when I was surprised to see hate groups, and episodes of violence and harassment, in San Francisco. I’ve seen it in different parts of the city. Yelling stuff out of cars, attacks in the news.
Throughout my life, therapists prescribed art to me. It’s always kept me out of trouble. It guided me out of hard times.
Here in the San Francisco Bay Area, African Americans are one of the smallest ethnic groups. Very little of the public discourse around identity, power, class and space is informed by our priorities and interests.
In the work of every African American artist are the memory and spirit of the people and places, the images and ideas that shape and define our lives. I draw and paint and create comics in order to portray the world as I see it; and, in some very real ways, it’s this work that makes my life matter. My role in this culture and in this time is to serve as a witness and chronicler of our Black world.
My art makes my life matter because without it, I’m just moving through space and time without the inner purpose that fills my spirit.
Relationships of all kinds, including cursory encounters, all add a certain degree of external flavor and texture. But the essence of who I am has remained the same. I was born to art, to create, to be compelled and overwhelmed by the intricacies of my imagination.
It never stops . . .
My art is also a dialogue and a journey, which is channeled through the offering of art to spirit. It is a conversation through the creative ritual of art, inspired by the African Caribbean culture of my childhood, that gave shape to my consciousness, and translates my life, as Black woman, living in the Bay Area.
So much change, so much loss of color and culture, leaves me reminiscing.
The colors and symbolism of the African fabrics, woven in my youth, are the place I call home.
When my mom passed in 2011 in Oakland, the pain and grief was all-consuming. I created a doll of my mother that I could hold and keep close to me when the pain was too much. My art healed me … it saved me.
I began creating art to bring awareness to the causes and issues of homelessness. I created art as a person with lived experiences of sleeping in parks and seeking a safe place to rest during the day. When I drew “Homelessness Has Faces” I began to feel like my life mattered even while I was homeless.
I drew “Waiting” to express the fatigue and frustration that comes with waiting — for housing, food, medical care, a job interview, a change of life … justice.
I was born with a talent for visual art and music. As a child, creating art felt calming and relaxing. Art has been a refuge for me when I have felt so angry. Artmaking saved my life. Art has kept me from throwing bricks in someone’s windows and has kept me out of jail and hospitals. When I have felt life as overwhelming and have not understood why things have happened, I have created art. Through artmaking I have found peace in the midst of the storm and trust in my maker, Yahweh, to mend all that is broken in my life.
When I make art, I open to a flood of ideas, feelings, and emotions; then my hands get busy. Art is about going with the flow of what’s going on. When I connect with a power greater than myself, it’s easy to bring inspirations into Being. I tap into a bigger flow and consciousness of the whole. I open and see in new ways. Possibilities are revealed. I utilize what comes with purpose to achieve something. I take chances and see what happens.
I created “It’s All A Mask” as part of a group project called Masks of Re-Formation designed and facilitated by the artist Adella. We created an outer mask in response the question, “How do I perceive people seeing me through their eyes?” The purpose was to name and cut through limited self-perceptions, and to see who we truly are and want to be.
I cared to use colors that accurately represented myself as an African American: nuances of browns and glimmers of black, green, orange, and gold.
I am constantly learning to be more surrendered to my Higher Power and to release myself to God regardless of what’s in front. God will take me through if that’s what he wants to do. When I open to what spirit says and participate with what arises, something functional and fruitful happens. This is how I learn to trust in spirit’s lead.
God loves us all and wants the best for us. He’s always molding us and wanting us to see the wonderfulness that he has for us. He’s all loving, powerful, kind, merciful and generous in blessing us. May we be willing to seek God and be kept in awe.
My life matters most when I am happy with the present and hopeful for the future; not only for my own sake but because that makes me someone others can turn to. Doing art cleanses my mind of ugly or useless thoughts by dredging them from my subconscious into a permanent form that forces me to acknowledge and release them. It also manifests the positive, constructive ideas that I didn’t know were in me. This creates clarity, joy and hope.
Wherever I can do art becomes my home, and every time I do art there it becomes more of a home. A home is really any place with positive memories and associations and any kind of family. Doing art with anyone or for anyone makes them like a family, because it opens my mind and heart to them and increases the bond of trust.
My artwork is therapy because the act of making it eases the tension in my own mind, and I hope that where others look at it they get a bit of the same experience.
Jovelyn D. Richards
I am a writer and performance artist. All of my art exists under the umbrella of what I refer to as: Nappy Headed Love Stories: Black Love & Intimacy. The historical time frame of my writings and performance are specific to the Civil War, the migration of blacks, and World War II.
This work extracts the boundless ways the characters chose to love one another in big and small acts. For me as the artist, I get to claim out loud the narratives of my ancestors’ truths from the stories handed down from family and others. Stories were our inheritance.
The stories I create for the literary world and performance have raised my consciousness and offered me a spiritual path. This has extended beyond self into my work as a healer.
I grew up with seven siblings and I raised three children. As a result of being a part of a large family I learned to crave creative solitude. The characters in my stories invite themselves into my solitude with two main ingredients — laughter and compassion.
I Wish I Knew How It Feels to Be Free
We are on the elder’s property where he is holding court with the younger warriors. All Diaspora men – there are four men, one Ghanaian, one from the Caribbean and the third black American. All arrived in Ghana 20-25 years ago looking for the bush and found it here.
These Diaspora men were looking to get away from the complications of structural racism, noisy capitalism and modernity. They stepped off the grid, yet when I arrived in the conversation, they spoke of how the precious bush was being chopped down, land gone, cultural treasures leased and discarded, sold to the highest bidder.
So these men sell or rent out their houses when the road gets too close … hoping for a spot where they will be left alone. Off the grid, they use solar power, rainwater irrigation. They make small small carbon footprints.
It had been storming; we walked carefully around muddy places on the hillside where the three houses stood. A garden flourished, covered the landscape with edible and decorative plants — many medicine for ailments.
The outdoor porch where Brother Muhammad sat was like a classroom, all of us eager to listen to his stories about the movement and his first time in Ghana and his return for good 30 years ago. When I went into his home, I was surprised to see the lovely marble floors and walls, spacious and open, with beautiful art in each room. The other house further down was round; its walls tiled with beautiful seashells and tiled glass.
I think about my daddy and what it might have meant to his life if he had had an opportunity to visit Angola, Southwestern Africa, rather than Angola, Louisiana, the largest state prison in America. In the African bush, he would have finally known how it feels to be free.