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Art of the African Diaspora: Gray Loft Gallery

Updated: Feb 24, 2023

February 2023, Oakland Curator: Jan Watten



Diaspora is a vivid word. We sense it in two ways. Saying it feels like saying “disperse.” At the same time, our ordinary response to hearing it is in the mind’s eye; we see it – the scattering of one thing into many.


Then, there’s the matter of where things scattered to, and what we see when we find them. We’ll find meanings in that, but we also imaginatively make meaning of it.


It’s like looking at constellations, taking a snapshot of the diaspora of stars, stars that like all stars presumably came from the same place, but not at the same time. We see them together in the same single moment and try to connect the dots.


America’s Black History Month itself creates a constellation of the African Diaspora, but to put it that way queries mostly the “American” part. While many different places subjected people of African descent to the same kinds of degradation, the descendants nonetheless crafted lives in their journeys apart that were as diverse, as different from each other, as the many different places that they reached – here being among those places.


In Oakland’s award-winning Gray Loft Gallery, we get a view of that difference through one of several “satellite” exhibits of works in the Richmond Art Center’s annual Art of the African Diaspora event, which opened February 11th for a month long run showcasing eight Bay Area resident artists of African descent.


Given the diaspora theme, we go to the show expecting it to connect the dots, the works, with some view-in-common of the diaspora itself. But also, we might arrive with a range of questions about how it will do that. Will that theme explicitly feature in most works as subject matter? Or does this collection of art by African Americans have a special sensibility, traceable to the experience of a shared ancestral homeland? Or instead, will the works mostly express something about African American artists in their home today, the Bay Area?


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The show at the gallery starts before you even get in the door.


A work* by Raymond Haywood stops me in the hallway, almost arrogantly unrestrained in how it transforms a canvas into visual space that triggers an imagined environment. All of the painting’s color has a physicality revealed as if by abrasions or splatters. The shapes of the colors are captive to the energy that marked the canvas. It makes me hyperaware that the image and its illusory effect was hand-built from material, not illustrated.


[* excerpt of a Haywood piece ]


That work signals to me what I should most intently focus on across the show’s works: personalized technique. And, hearing several artists talk at the opening, I realize further that for them technique in these works is not just a fait accompli on display but a running current, with each artist still finding out and sharing where it can go, what works, and why.


The group of works shows us that ongoing activity in three ways.


In some of the works, moving from one piece to another by the same artist, I feel the pieces commenting on each other as if they are in the process of deciding what to agree on. In doing that, a group of works is in effect more forceful than its individual pieces.


Some of the artists, seeking very different imaging, have recently taken on some technique new to them, amounting to a big change of style from earlier accomplished work. With these works, while a single piece is already a “finished” work, it feels like it is previewing possibilities, other future work, as much as it commands attention to itself now.

And in some cases, various types of imaging– drawing, colors, lettering, cutouts, more – are mixed together in an individual work; the work’s visual composition is the container for a complex narrative, blending a set of multiple experiences but in a non-linear way.*


Those three differing aspects are not mutually exclusive. And whether separately or together, they originate much of the variety experienced in the show.

[* excerpt of a Tomye: Living Artist piece ]


Also in that variety: autobiography, explorations of identity, and personal experiences are found in many of the works whether conveyed in abstraction, figuration, or collage. Meanwhile, in other works, despite dissimilarity to each other on the surface, there is commonality in a kind of expressionism that seems to combine memory with an offer of more philosophical idealism.


The work does not merely intend to show us these things but to engage us. In that engagement, we bring our own sensibilities – our feelings and ideas – to the encounter with each piece. So, the influence runs both ways. It’s a dialogue.


Sometimes, a given work’s way of handling ideas, feelings, or memories gets us to look, in its way, at what we had brought in our own minds to that artwork. In fact, several times I overheard one artist talking to another about how the other’s quite different work was making the first artist think about “trying out what you did.”


But as viewers we also affect what a given work might appear to do.


Here I’m thinking about my response to Jimi Evins, whose work at Gray Loft exudes what I keep thinking of as a “profound faith in paint”. His work relative to the other artists’ is immediately bolder graphically while also moodier, and the paint is aggressively gestural.

It takes up the space of the canvas in a way that is architectural but also seems done fast, mainly because much gets done economically without a lot of things being manipulated. [Excerpt of an Evins piece at left.]

In one Evins piece, the technique resonated with the musician in me – my memory, as a band member, of a certain big horn player’s confidence improvising in solo while knowing in advance there was limited room in which to work. Evins’s abstract graphical treatment here pushes paint into the space of the canvas like big sounds pushed into the building of a solo in real-time. Other viewers may not experience the work that way, but as we say, to each his own.


Evins, by the way, has plenty of dramatically different and detail-laden figurative work, in a series called “The Village” on display elsewhere within the group of satellite galleries under the Richmond project. The display of his abstractions at Gray Loft is testimony to more than “versatility”; rather, it is to artistic diversity.


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So here’s a good point at which to make this observation: the artistic diversity of the show reflects a truly important political dimension of the diaspora: freedom, found and demonstrated by African descendants’ individual discoveries, expressions, and achievements; and certainly there is an argument that an “American” ideal aspires to manifest in that way.


In a more conceptual vein, I’ll also bring up my well-used idea that most art is celebratory, analytical, or philosophical but can certainly blend those aspects in differing proportions. That is, we can see celebratory art amplifying, even advocating, certain cherished values or preferred qualities; see analytic art questioning the origins of given beliefs, or their validity; and see philosophical artwork proposing a worldview, whether imaginary or real, colloquial or lofty.


None of these aspects are denied to the African-descendant artist of the diaspora.

Nonetheless, in their respective individual freedom of expression, the eight artists address subject matter that to this viewer does appear as shared territories. For example:

  • emotional landscaping by Raymond Haywood, Stephen Bruce, and Jimi Evins, featuring intensive use of color

  • iconographic portraitures and identities presented by Yolanda Holley, Cynthia Brannvall and Tomye: Living Artist, combining multiple perspectives into wholes greater than the sum of their parts

  • retro abstract modernism by Kelvin Curry and Arthur Norcome, highlighting how design aesthetics can influence feelings, and possibly renovate nostalgic art icons into contemporary expressive language.


Seeing similarity helps to push us back to this review’s opening question. In a show focusing on the diaspora as the common reference, is the mission of the artwork to put some singular common legacy or consequence in high relief?


Across the eight respective artists at Gray Loft, no two sets of works look alike. As travelers in time’s cultural and personal histories, the artists have individually decided what to make of the places they have adopted, as of now. In general, this show openly invites us to dwell on why they decided to show what they care about, the way that they show it. The viewer senses that invitation as the artists’ intent.



The work that seems most explicitly concerned with that is Cynthia Brannvall’s dialectics of multiculturalism. It features her compositional use of contrasting materials, of “material as (information-carrying) media”. Here, some of it invokes meanings as do souvenirs, evidence, talismans, and similar signifiers of history living in the present, juxtaposed with other factually objective elements. With that, her pictorial composition first attracts us and then results in our real engagement. The work argues that one’s journey from geographic origin to now is about a difficult and uncertain opportunity for self-recognition, and Brannvall wants us to join in the challenge.


Each artist, in a distinct way, invites us to join in. My take: little more than that is required of the show’s reach into the diaspora. It results in great richness, not just variety, in the work by the artists. Metaphorically at least, any ground that is shared among all of these artists is one that “let a hundred flowers bloom”. But literally, in this show, curator Jan Watten’s emphasis on the community’s powerful creative diversity is the most obvious shared ground.


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