Safety First poses in front of his painting at Nneka
As midnight nears on a Monday night at Disco Volante, Isaac Hayes’ “Ike’s Groove” sets a soulful, chilled vibe, courtesy of DJ Fflood. To the left of the turntable set-up, Reshawn “Bushmama” Goods lays seated on the floor, a paintbrush in her hand. Goods contemplates the canvas in front of her. At the start of the evening, it was just a slab of wood. Hours later, it’s a nearly finished work, a portrait of a Harlem Renaissance-esque black woman in a yellow dress, wearing a veil. Goods carefully applies brushstrokes, sometimes rubbing the paint into the canvas with her hand. Occasionally, she pauses from the detail work to look at the entire picture before resuming work.
Goods is among the regularly featured artists who paint live at Soul Selector, Fflood’s weekly club night, which has been going for about a year and a half. Other artists include Safety First, Ras Terms, Deadeyes, Jack Eastgate, and noa. Fflood, a New York Jamaican who relocated to Oakland a few years ago, is both a DJ and an artist. He invited visual artists to paint live, he says, “because it made sense.”
At Soul Selector, he explains, there’s “a lot of live mixology that creates synergy – mixing drinks, mixing colors, mixing sounds.” This results, he adds, in “more dynamic energy.”
The dynamic isn’t just limited to this particular night at this particular venue.
Once the province of upscale galleries and collectors, visual art is increasingly becoming a part of Oakland’s cultural fabric. Art adds flavor to bars like Era and SoMar, enhances club nights like Disco Volante’s Soul Selector and the People Party at the New Parish, and informs multi-use venues like Omiroo, Betti Ono Gallery and Solespace.
It’s hawked on the streets during the monthly First Fridays artwalk, and pushed through artists’ Facebook pages. Alongside the concurrent food justice, media justice, and social justice movements, there’s even a new term to describe politically and culturally-relevant works: Art Justice.
Visual art in Oakland isn’t new by any means. The city’s Cultural Arts department has long touted the claim that Oakland has more artists per capita than any city in the United States; many of the artists currently enjoying increased visibility have been here for decades.
What has changed is that visual art is becoming more accessible – and affordable. Favianna Rodriguez prints retail for as little as $15. A limited-edition Orundide t-shirt is just $25, a Safety First-designed Dreamers Rule t-shirt runs about $35, and an airbrushed, graffiti-style trucker cap by Refa One will set you back $40. A small canvas by Safety First or Ras Terms can be had for between $150-$300, while a custom portrait by Eesuu Orundide goes for $200.
Art, Fflood says, is driving Oakland’s cultural renaissance.
“I can say the R-word,” he jokes. When he arrived in Oakland, he remembers, “There was no Betti Ono.” Goods notes that spaces like Warehouse 416 are exhibiting as many as 40-50 artists at a time, while Fflood remarks that Oakland’s urban art aesthetic encompasses “street art as well as studio artists.”
“More of us are creating spaces for ourselves,” Goods says. “We have more opportunities to showcase.”
What’s happening isn’t a trend, she says, but more of an evolutionary step. “We’ve come to a point where we can’t turn back. We can’t do a venue if it doesn’t have art.” This philosophy even extends to retail shops like Nneka, Owl’n’Wood, and Solespace, all of which prominently feature large art pieces on their walls.
The newest addition to Oakland’s cultural mix is Solespace, a combination shoe store, art gallery, and event space, which opened last November. In its brief history, it’s hosted an election night party, a Pecha Kucha night, a Day of the Dead-themed gallery exhibition, and an environmental justice panel discussion. Oakland artist Favianna Rodriquez is the curator of the gallery and her art will be featured prominently throughout the year.
As principal Jeff Perlstein explains, having the retail business takes pressure off the gallery to show overly-commercial art, which in turn, allows for artists to express themselves in more experimental or political ways. The venue, he says, is “a place for artists to connect,” while shoes represent “an engagement strategy” which helps to broaden the audience for the art.
While Perlstein notes that downtown Oakland hasn’t yet arrived as a retail destination, “it’s become nationally recognized as a cultural destination.”
Locally-created art also infuses Nneka, a small retail shop situated next to the Betti Ono Gallery, at the mouth of downtown on 14th and Broadway. Two canvas collaborations by Safety First and Ras Terms adorn the window display, while two larger works by Githinji Wa Mbire and a stunning Nefertiti-esque portrait, also by Safety First, decorate prominent locations in the small shop. Owner Penelope Adibe estimates she features 15 local artists and designers, but “still doesn’t feel like that’s enough.”
Visual art, she says, “adds a different aesthetic – it’s something that affects the eye.” The presence of local artists helps to educate people about the community, she says, at the same time helping artists to validate their art. The overall effect, she says, is that “you feel like you’re getting something organic.”
Safety First isn’t from Oakland, yet he’s become a mainstay of the local visual art scene in a relatively short time. He’s been one of the most visible of Oakland’s street-influenced painters, and can often be found vending his wares at events with his girlfriend, who goes by the handle Tuff Gyal 808.
Stopping through Nneka on his way to drop off some art he recently sold through Facebook, he says living in Oakland has been inspiring; “people are open and accepting to art, especially art of an Afrocentric or political nature” – which wasn’t the case in upstate New York, where he grew up.
He credits Oakland’s recent explosion of art to the fact it “dawned on half the artist community at the same time” that they could sell their art locally, especially after seeing others do it at First Fridays.
“Making affordable art if you’re talented is like, ‘no duh’,” he explains. Currently, he maintains two price points: one for large canvases, which average around $500, and another around $10-$20 for when he’s out vending at events. Overall, he says, “I feel the aesthetic is cool. Oakland street art represents the people.”
Much of the buzz around the emergent downtown art scene is centered around the Betti Ono Gallery, now in its second year of operation. Gallery owner Anyka Barber has embraced a multicultural vibe rooted in Afrocentricity; recent shows have featured local artists such as Karen and Malik Seneferu and Joshua Mays.
In the last year, Barber says, the conversation around visual art in Oakland “has expanded… there’s a lot of attention. People feel like they can come here and create and get things done.” In addition to a supportive community, there’s “an outside validation that’s happening.”
Recently, she says, representatives from South by Southwest contacted her to get in touch with Oakland-based artists. That’s an encouraging sign, one which suggests the evolutionary phase Oakland culture is currently experiencing has only just begun.
We need your help today! DONATE NOW to keep independent non-profit media writing about Oakland. $5, $10, $25 or more--it helps to fund high-quality local news. http://oaklandlocal.com/donate