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Art of the African Diaspora: 2024

Gray Loft Gallery, Oakland

March - April 2024


In a part of the U.S. where diversity is one of the most prominent social features, the East Bay in California increasingly feels more like the real destination of the Bay Bridge than just one of its two anchors.


But historical arrivals of peoples of African descent need not have had any earlier stop in San Francisco before arriving in Oakland or its contiguous neighbors. There are many ways in, and the land mass taken up for habitation is surprisingly large to survey.


Scholars of migration note that multiple communities form at the resting points of a diaspora (dispersion), and we naturally wonder what cultural features survive the trips and still represent the origin throughout the various new grounds.


Do we see it in art? Well, the nature of art means that knowledge of both the old and the new of people’s experiences will get representation that is meant to communicate. So when we go visit any art gallery participating in the Richmond Art Center’s annual Art of the African Diaspora event, we are likely to encounter a range of experiences both historical and current.  


Those experiences also vary across one’s attention to memory, identity, desire, and discovery. It is tempting to see that “attention” as a  four-part storyline about diaspora, one that is a recurring theme spawning endless variations. And the story can be one individual’s story or a story of a whole community.


Importantly, as one of the annual event’s several satellite galleries, founder Jan Watten’s Gray Loft Gallery in Oakland’s “Jingletown” district (www.grayloftgallery.com)  is virtually one of the communities that are formed of African American artists who have arrived in the East Bay.  Eleven of these artists went on view together there in early March, for a stay deep into April.


Gray Loft shows continually distinguish themselves by the way the works are positioned to resonate or even reveal each other’s inner workings. Watten, who curated this event, is masterful with arrangements that illuminate connections and themes. And an additional dimension this time is the reappearance of several artists who exhibited different work at this same event one year ago. At the opening, that allowed the show to also host conversations between artists and visitors about how the artists’ recent experiences, both in and outside of art, became new works that turned corners, or dove deeply, from their previous ones.


More than any particular pieces, those inner workings are the star and subject of

the show. Artists of course are always their own first audience and are deeply responsive to the work they have made real. As their next audience, we viewers have first impressions that are not necessarily the same as those reached by the artist; but all of the artists here made the work of finding expression a work-in-progress that we could join now.


So, what does that mean, work in progress? Several of the artists spoke about how their work allows for open-ended meanings. We are intended to not just receive a meaning but to help decide it.


In some work (Cynthia Brannvall), vintage materials become both social critique and anthropology, neither excusing the other, while pulling us into an active conversation. And in one prominent other piece (Malik Seneferu), ritualistic craftwork assembles found objects into a form that oscillates between being an object exposed to us and a persona felt by us.


Branvall: Frances Ellen Watkins Harper


Another artist (Arthur Norcome), compared to a year ago, found a deceptive fusion of assertive flat design and understated expressionist color space that now projects room-like emotional chambers. A not-so-obvious correspondence here is between those works and some large abstract expressionist works done by an artist (Anna W. Edwards) who came from a long journey in external urban landscape to her current concentration on her internal spiritual landscape, which she offers to us as a place for ourselves.


Three more groupings (Ray L Haywood, Jimi Evins, and Dawn Rudd) show their artists’ decision to take elements from within earlier more complex paintings and grant those elements the freedom of being soloists apart from their previous roles in group performance – a simplification that triggers intensity through our intimacy with the gestures, while we also imagine making those gestures ourselves.


Some works that are more like drawing (Kelvin Curry, Dulama LeGrande) initially seem highly contradictory of each other, one with a quiet orderliness and the other an energetic rawness. But they both have refined their way to personal and somewhat glyphic iconographs that are holding a story in place rather than organizing space. We “read” these as much as see them.


LeGrande: Self Portrait as a Temple

 

Storytelling, meanwhile, has more overt display (Chuck Harlans, Tomye Neal Madison) in works that, unlike most of the others in the show, are specifically illustrating people. We can feel their commonalities, and our connection – or perhaps biographically, measure our current distance and differences.


Harlans: Ghana – The Jamestown Girls


Considering the sweep of subjects and expressive strategies, the show’s major statement is that the diaspora naturally expands migration into exploration and exploration into diverse values. But in turn, this says that the human spirit on the journey of the diaspora is a rich spirit.  


All the more notable that at the opening of the show, numerous artists spoke of the most recent few years as a time in which something that gained especially high priority in their endeavor was finding Joy.

 

The Art of the African Diaspora exhibit at Gray Loft Gallery opened March 9th and closes April 27th, 2024 at 7pm. See more of the works online at www.grayloftgallery.com during this time.

 

Malcolm Ryder, an Oakland-based Black photographer and critic, writes about art at www.artdotdot.com and particularly about East Bay art at Oakland Art Murmur’s Art About Town, https://oaklandartmurmur.org/art-about-town/


 

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