“I am not a black artist, I am an artist” was the prolific assertion of late-painter Jean Paul Basquiat. These words served as a defiant declaration of his humanity above all other labels; and yet Basquiat’s awareness of his racial identity pervaded his paintings. According to Stencil Revolution, “Basquiat was afraid, very afraid, and often paranoid of the trouble he faced as both a black man and a black artist in New York.” Fast forwarding thirty years after Basquiat’s death, black artistic communities nationwide are still navigating the link between sociopolitical racial identity and artistry. What are the implications of creating our own spaces, defining ourselves for ourselves, while using artistic and creative endeavors not only as a source of beauty and inspiration, but as a launching pad for the world we want to create?
Navigating the role of the arts in black activism was a central theme of the Matatu Festival held in Oakland, CA September 23-26. It was the brainchild of Maria Judice and Michael Orange and consisted of four days of film, music and performance. Matatu’s vision was to shakedown the dominant narrative of mainstream culture and create a space for black folks across the diaspora to share their stories. All of the films featured actors and filmmakers from across the African diaspora in places like: Israel, Richmond,CA, Dakar, Senegal, and Johannesberg, South Africa. Matatu also hosted concerts by Saul Williams, Black Spirituals, and the Alonzo King LINES ballet dancers. Festival producer Maria Judice states, “There are so many narratives that have never been told; and there are so many narratives being told by someone else who never had that experience. So my hope is that we pick filmmakers, artists, and musicians to come together and amplify these narratives.”
Spoken word artist Saul Williams feels that art plays a large role in black liberation. “Art is like a renewable energy. It’s something that can be used to fuel movement at any angle. Art plays every role in black liberation and in all liberation because it is significant for the very idea of freedom. Art is freedom’s ambassador.” Meanwhile, Eritrean-born painter Mahader Tesfai has a vision for Oakland that he keeps in mind while creating his artwork. “When I came from Eritrea I lived in the Fillmore and Lower Haight (in San Francisco) and I saw how black folks got pushed out and (now) it’s happening in Oakland. I have a vision for Oakland, it’s not very exciting but it’s for black folks to live here and have a very elevated sense of ownership in the city.”
The Matatu Festival is one of many events in Oakland that’s finding ways to reclaim space in the midst of the constant state of flux people of color find themselves in. Oakland is facing a time in which the dreaded “G” word lingers. Black people are getting bought out, pushed out, and locked out. But is this the only story? What does it mean to be black and creative in a gentrifying city that at one time was built for and by the very people who are currently leaving? How do we navigate our own destinies and abilities to declare freedom of expression while holding space? More importantly, what’s your
vision for Oakland and how can we magnify our ideas ensure this city is a place that preserves the diverse scope of black narratives for decades to come?