By Genoa Barrow | OBSERVER Senior Staff Writer
Museums are known as places that showcase beautiful things and artifacts that have withstood the test of time. Often that means alabaster statues and still life from a European perspective.
Treasured activist Angela Davis made a life of shaking things up and did so again as the subject of a special exhibit at the Oakland Museum of California. “Angela Davis: Seize the Time” enjoyed an eight-month run before closing June 18.
“Seize the Time” showcased Davis in all her Afroed glory and examines the image, influence and activism of the Oakland-based icon. The exhibit originally debuted at the Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers University in New Jersey. The Oakland residency was its introduction to the West Coast.
Focusing on her 1970s arrest, incarceration, trial and the global campaign to free her, “Seize the Time” highlighted Davis’ legacy and her ongoing role as an important contemporary figure for artists and activists. Material included contemporary and historical artworks, media, literature, sketches, rare manuscripts of Davis’ philosophical and activist writings, and a dedicated archive on Davis drawn from the collection of Lisbet Tellefsen, an Oakland archivist specializing in Black Power art, photography and material culture.
The exhibit reminded me of the international reach of the movement and calls for civil rights in the United States. Resistance is not futile. It reminded me of the power of our voices. When we speak the truth, people listen. We cannot stop speaking our truth.
Black is beautiful. Struggle is ugly. How Black people have been historically treated in this country is ugly. What’s beautiful is how we’ve survived and how we show up and speak out. That’s what I walked away from the exhibit with: a renewed sense of commitment to telling our stories. What is it they say about history? If you don’t know it, you’re doomed to repeat it.
We are the keepers of our own image and we can celebrate those who have worked to see us do better and have better. And when museums, galleries, libraries and theaters highlight their contributions and legacies, we have a responsibility to show up and support them. Attendance speaks volumes.
The Oakland exhibit was extended to allow more visitors to experience it. I have visited several museums throughout Northern California in the past year and I have been thoroughly captivated by the awesomeness of us. I’ve visited the deYoung Museum in San Francisco for recent exhibits on the wonders of Egypt and the works of Kehende Wiley and quilt artist Faith Ringgold. I traveled to Washington D.C. last summer and took in the Smithsonian’s much-talked-about National Museum of African American History and Culture. I had hoped to visit the African American Civil War Museum while in the nation’s capital, but it was closed for renovations. Definitely worth a return trip. I also saw vibrant Afro-Cuban art while in Cuba in October.
I also enjoy going to the local Sojourner Truth African Heritage Museum. I discover something new with each visit. Artist and founder Shonna McDaniels has built, and continues to build, something special. And I’m not just saying that because she put an article of mine in the exhibit on the life and legacy of civil rights advocate and longtime Congressman John Lewis. The museum exhibits African American history every day, all year long. As does the Brickhouse Gallery and Art Complex in Oak Park.
Mainstream museums are increasingly hiring staff to diversify their offerings. I’ve also been amazed by the innovative ways museums and galleries are displaying art and memorabilia these days. “Seize the Time” included video of Angela Davis speaking about her work and a photo of a 1970s speech was accompanied by a QR code that allowed those with smartphones to watch and listen to the speech. Museums also have done well to create add-ons that enhance the museum or exhibit experience, offering artist talks, related entertainment, videos and hands-on demonstrations. During “Seize the Time,” visitors could sit and listen to Angela Davis speak.
On Display in Sacramento
- There was a time when Black and white folks weren’t allowed to break bread together, so Black entrepreneurs created their own restaurants. Locally, there was Dunlap’s Dining Room, operated by George T. Dunlap. History buffs can learn more about the historic location and other gems at the Sojourner Truth African Heritage Museum. Other visit highlights include “Harlem Renaissance” and “Sankofa: A Journey Through African American History and Culture.” For more, visit sojoartsmuseum.org/current-exhibitions.
- “Mike Henderson: Before the Fire, 1965-1985” continues at UC Davis’ Jan Shrem and Maria Manetti Shrem Museum of Art through Friday, July 15. Professor Emeritus Mike Henderson offers new ideas about Black life in the visual languages of protest, Afro-futurism and surrealism. For more, visit manettishremmuseum.ucdavis.edu.
- Artist Ayanah Moor’s work “under cover” will be on view at the Shrem Museum of Art from October-January. In “under cover,” the viewer is invited to consider how recent paintings offer a platform for meaningful questions around race, gender, sexuality and the visual. For more, visit manettishremmuseum.ucdavis.edu.
- “Black Pioneers: Legacy in the American West” continues at the California Museum through Sunday, Oct. 1. The exhibit explores the path of Black history in the West with a timeline of original pictorial quilts from 1528 through the Civil Rights Movement. The Women of Color Quilters Network created the 50 quilts especially for this exhibition. An exhibit celebration is scheduled for Saturday, July 15, and includes hands-on activities and artist presentations from 10 a.m.-2 p.m. For more information, visit californiamuseum.org.
- “A Gathering: Works from Contemporary Black American Artists” continues at the Crocker Art Museum through Sunday, Aug. 20. This exhibition, curated by co-authors Chotsani Elaine Dean and Donald A. Clark, presents sculptural and functional ceramics from 35 artists, celebrates their contribution to studio pottery and outlines their history, challenges and triumphs. For more, visit crockerart.org/exhibitions/a-gathering.