Make-your-own protest signs. A tent containing string lights spelling out the word “hope.” A porcelain toilet on a pedestal. These are some of the pieces of art that are immediately visible upon walking into “Landless Not Voiceless,” an exhibition currently on display at Pro Arts Gallery and Commons in Downtown Oakland.
“Landless Not Voiceless” is being curated by the Cardboard & Concrete Unhoused Artists Collective, a new collective of homeless artists from Berkeley and Oakland. With their art and activism, they are working toward the ultimate goal of decriminalizing homelessness and establishing housing as a human right. The exhibit opened on October 10 to commemorate the ninth anniversary of Occupy Oakland, a series of marches, direct actions, and occupations that took place in Downtown Oakland for ten-some weeks in 2011. “Unknown to most folks, the Occupy Oakland movement was held down by the unhoused folks and homies in [Oscar Grant] Plaza,” said Needa Bee, one of the leaders of the Cardboard and Concrete Unhoused Artists Collective. “Given the large number of folks who were the backbone of Occupy were homeless, it felt appropriate to honor unhoused folks in this show.”
The multi-modal exhibit contains a protest mural, installations, paintings, drawings, photography, writing, and short films. All the contributors create from their own experience with homelessness. The result is an exhibition that endeavors to change your perspective on unsheltered life, giving viewers the opportunity to step into the artists’ shoes and understand the issues they face head-on.
“I got involved because it’s a new way for unhoused people to get noticed. Unhoused people are very noticed—they’re already screaming at you silently, being on the sidewalk. But for me, it’s important for unhoused people to be noticed in a different way,” said Toan Nguyen, describing his artwork. Toan designs protest tents. He takes the kind of tents an unsheltered person might sleep in and attaches cut-out letters to the side spelling out messages like “(Un)shelter in place / Sanctuary Behind a Thin Fabric” and “Where Do We Go?” He then illuminates the tents from the inside so they light up and become noticeable to passersby, almost like decorations on the urban landscape.
“I want to create a dialogue with passersby, do it in a place that’s noticeable, and make a statement to the city,” he says.
Next to Toan, Tim Petty stands in front of his installation: a toilet on a pedestal with hands crawling up as if to grasp hold of it. Underneath the toilet read signs that say “white only” and “colored only,” denoting the racist history of restroom access. On top, a sign reads “Customer$ Only”: a commentary on the difficulty unsheltered people experience when trying to find a place to use the restroom.
Petty says the piece was inspired by not having a restroom when living on the street. The reaching hands convey a sense of urgency and pain. However, Petty’s installation also focuses on potential solutions. On the ground next to the pedestal is a composting toilet—a bucket with a piece of charcoal sitting in front of it, coincidentally shaped like a piece of feces. “I tried to show a potential solution—making your own composting toilet,” he says.
These are just two among the exhibits on display at Landless Not Voiceless—the first exhibit curated by the Cardboard & Concrete Unhoused Artists Collective. The show is intended to grow and change throughout its run, featuring guest artists and new additions to give the exhibit a living, breathing feel. “I believe that an artwork is never finished, just a pause, and able to resume as long as the artist feels inspired to perform more,” Nguyen says. “In our case it’s a group of active artists feeling expressive, so we’re collectively inspired to continue the push.”
The collective is made up of seven artists: Timothy Petty, Toan Nguyen, Anita “Needa Bee” De Asis Miralle, Yesica Prado, Ayat Bryant-Jalal, Tracy Lee, and Jodii Everett Le’Grand. Each of these artists is currently on display at “Landless Not Voiceless.” Until recently, the plan was for the exhibit to be open until the end of the year at Pro Arts Gallery & Commons, located in Downtown Oakland at 150 Frank H. Ogawa Plaza, Monday to Saturday from noon to 6:00 p.m. However, due to public order by the City of Oakland, the gallery closed to the public on November 21 due to an uptick of Coronavirus cases. We will update this article if the gallery opens back up and the show is allowed to resume.
Author’s note: This article previously stated that “Landless Not Voiceless” would close on November 24. It has been updated to reflect the fact that the show will now run through the end of the year. Additionally, the article previously stated that the Cardboard & Concrete Unhoused Artists Collective was made up of six artists. We have updated it to reflect the correct number of artists, which is seven.
Alastair Boone is the Co-Editor in Chief of Street Spirit.