By Jane Vick
The Museum of Sonoma County opened a new show June 25. Collective Arising: The Insistence of Black Bay Area Artists will run through Nov. 27.
The show is co-curated by Ashara Ekundayo and Lucia Olubunmi R. Momoh, and features work from 11 different artists, all of whom have belonged to Black, femme and queer artist collectives in the San Francisco Bay Area. This is the museum’s first ever Black art show, and first ever Black-curated show.
It began with director Jeff Nathanson reaching out to Momoh in the wake of the multiple murders of Black Americans in 2020, asking if she would curate a “Black Lives Matter” exhibition that spoke to the moment. Rather than say yes and curate a show specifically addressing only the Black Lives Matter movement, Momoh saw an opportunity to expand the scope and impact of the exhibition.
“I reached out to Ashara to see if she would be interested in co-curating an exhibition with me; we came up an idea that spoke to this moment, but wasn’t necessarily a Black Lives Matter political protestation, but an exploration of art made by Black artists in the Bay Area, who are all also very socially engaged and all participate in artist collectives.”
Both Momoh and Ekundayo saw the opportunity to amplify Black voices on a diverse level. In the gallery, a new road of Black representation is paved, not just in terms of Black suffering or oppression, but also Black talent, creativity and joy. In terms of social justice and supporting the Black Lives Matter movement, both Ekundayo and Momoh were aware of how politically active Black artist collectives were in the summer of 2020, among other things calling out white supremacy culture in art institutions, and holding them accountable for their biased behavior.
The show is a representation of Ekundayo and Momoh themselves in that way, or they represent these two important categories of Black culture.
Momoh, who is currently working as the Constance E. Clayton Curatorial Fellow at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and has worked as a curatorial assistant at the UC Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, and as a curatorial fellow at the New Orleans Museum of Art, is no stranger to arts institutions and their skewed representations of Black culture, often finding herself the singular Black person.
Ekundayo, by contrast, is an arts organizer and independent curator, who works outside the institutional systems.
“I was very close to, and a participant with those artist collectives who work literally in the streets when Breonna Taylor was killed in her home while asleep in her bed,” said Ekundayo. “I have a platform called Artist As First Responder, in which I document and participate with these artist collectives who show up on the front line.”
Together they have curated a show that represents the power, joy and creativity of Black artists, while also highlighting their political power. It’s Black Lives Matter plus Black Joy Matters, plus Black Creativity Matters, plus Black Art Belongs in Museums. It is an uninterrupted show, deepening the roots of Black representation in an all too predominantly white field.
“There has never been a show like this in Sonoma County before, ever. Including painting the wall black for the show, which was a deal breaker for us that the museum resisted for months and months. It was a non-negotiable for us, because this is not a white-wall show. It was our dealbreaker,” said Ekundayo.
The opening of Collective Arising: The Insistence of Black Bay Area Artists Saturday, June 25 was an incredible success, despite half the staff, including the director, contracting Covid the week before. The Sonoma County Black Forum, The Sonoma County NAACP and the Sonoma County Chapter of 100 Black Men all attended the opening, to celebrate the museum’s and Sonoma County’s first show of Black art.
“This show is a continuation, of the kinds of conversations, opportunities, inquiry and challenges that Lucia and I have had the chance to engage in with the museum leadership and staff, and with the surrounding community, who are being invited to look at themselves, check their privilege, and look at what it means to be a partner and accomplice in art equity. There’s so much additional labor and work that we had to do to curate this exhibition, and it continues on.” said Ekundayo.
Collective Arising: The Insistence of Black Bay Area Artists showcases work by Lukaza Branfman-Verissimo of CTRL+SHIFT Collective; Sydney Cain, aka sage stargate, of 3.9 Art Collective; Erica Deeman of Black [Space] Residency; Cheryl Derricotte of 3.9 Art Collective; Sasha Kelley of House of Malico and We Are the Ones; shah noor hussein of House of Malico; Ramekon O’Arwisters of 3.9 Art Collective; yétúndé olagbaju of nure, and no neutral alliance; Karen Seneferu of The Black Woman Is God; Muzae Sesay of nure; and Adrian Octavius Walker of nure.
These artists represent a vast array of media and subject matter, and each comes from a collective located in the East Bay and Bay Area about which attendees are encouraged to learn.
The show has garnered much attention in the 10 days it has been open, including a preview with artist Lava Thomas, Dr. Leigh Raiford of UC Berkeley, and Dr. Bridget R. Cooks of UC Irvine. The East Oakland Black Cultural Zone is planning a field trip to see the show, as is the SECA Board at SFMoma, and the Museum of African Diaspora. Funding permitting, more programming will be scheduled to accompany the exhibition between now and November.
Ekundayo and Momoh are excited about the precedent this show sets for the Black and Brown communities in Sonoma County going forward.
“What we’re seeing happening, what some folks are calling a moment, maybe it’s a movement, is the acceleration and amplifications of art made by Black artists. It all of a sudden appears that Black art is very valuable. So museums want to have their Black show now. Black curators are popular now. And it’s like okay. But there has to be an instance that this is not a moment. This is the way it is from now on and forever more.”