Black Panther tribute display
It’s a small space. But to many, it feels like home.
Situated on the corner of 25th and Telegraph, the First Love Gallery is right in the middle of Koreatown-Northgate – and in the thick of the monthly First Fridays celebration that, in the past few years, have expanded from the Art Murmur (a monthly art walk started by a few art galleries around 23rd Street) to encompass wide swaths of territory, from 27th Street to 14th/Broadway and beyond. However, until the opening of First Love in March 2010, not only was there no African-American-owned art space in the Art Murmur/First Fridays zone, but few if any of the exhibiting artists were African-American – lending credence to depictions of the Murmur as an event primarily for white hipsters. (Since then, a second black-owned gallery, Betti Ono, has joined the First Fridays mix).
First Love is the vision of Nia Imara, an artist who works primarily with the medium of oil painting and specializes in portraits. Imara is in the process of hanging some new works, to be presented during November’s First Friday event, when this reporter stops by for an interview.
Imara opened the gallery, she says, to “have a space for my work on my own terms,” as well as a space for the African-American artist community. Imara wanted to make black artists more accessible to everyday people; much of the work in First Love is reasonably-priced, well below the hundreds and thousands of dollars being asked in the more upscale galleries nearby.
About eight months ago, Imara brought in Refa Senay, aka Refa 1, an Oakland-based artist with a long history of community involvement and engagement, to help with curating shows. Senay in turn invited the Oakland Maroons - a collective, which includes Senay, Duane Deterville, Karen and Malik Seneferu, Phavia Kijichagulia, Eesuu Orundide, Tureeda Mikel, Chris Herod, Tarika Lewis and Emory Douglas – to present a show last month called “The Point Is … .” This installation focused on the continued relevance of the Black Panthers’ 10-Point Program. Some memorabilia from that show remains on display in the gallery’s window, including a Huey Newton-esque high-backed wicker chair, a “Free Huey” banner and various yellowed news clippings.
Senay casually explains that the purpose of the shows he’s curating is to “highlight cutting-edge artists [who are] speaking to the needs of our people, as well as [creating] technically-interesting art.”
While the Oakland cultural renaissance symbolized by First Fridays is a “very important” happening, which Sanay says has inspired him, he also recognizes it as a “double-edged sword.”
On one hand, he says, the focus on the arts and creativity has been a plus, which leads to “much more critical thinking.” However, he notes, “when the new narrative is homogenous, it doesn’t really tell the true story of a new Oakland.” Instead, he explains, it recasts Oakland as a “new haven for hipster white folks.”
Just then, a shirtless Caucasian 20-something dude - wearing a baseball cap, sneakers and black jeans and carrying a large boombox blasting indie rock - passes by, as if to underline Sanay’s comment.
The current art boom didn’t happen overnight, Sanay says. He references the original Oaklandish gallery on Third Street, which he was the primary director of, as starting a trend toward “edgy, underground” cultural happenings in the early 2000s. Moreover, “Black art helped usher in what we have now,” he adds, with a nod to Lewis and Douglas, still-active visual artists and cultural elders who were part of the Panther era.
First Love, he continues, “speaks to a black narrative. It’s not running to contend with the white narrative, it’s something that needs to be said in an authentic voice.”
When Art Murmur first started, “the crowd was 90 percent white,” Senay recalls. “Some of that is due to the privilege that comes with this kind of gentrification.”
However, as the artists showcased during First Fridays have become more diverse, so too has their audience. The event nowadays is much more of a multicultural affair, which couldn’t have come at a more crucial time, Senay says.
According to him, Oakland is on the “verge of a renaissance” which is “buzzing all around the nation.” For African-American artists who historically have not only been dealing with gentrification, but also the same socioeconomic conditions, which caused the white middle-class to embrace the Occupy movement, the message is clear: “We have to step our game up,” he says.