Once a month at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, visitors will find themselves in the presence of an unusually expansive range of cultural practitioners, from poets to pastors -- and those who do a little of both. These guests are part of a new monthly series of public programs called Black Life, organized by freelance curators Chika Okoye and David Brazil, that focuses on the cultural production of the African diaspora.
Untied to the exhibition or film calendar at BAMPFA, the list of performers and speakers for Black Life is necessarily broad, and intentionally hard to pin down. The lack of discipline-based constraints allows Okoye and Brazil to explore black epistemology, a core idea behind the series.
Epistemology, according to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, is “the study of knowledge and justified belief.” It’s a way of looking at what beliefs are held to be true, and exploring the factors that enable those beliefs.
Okoye explains, “Our dominant cultural epistemologies have segmented and sedimented categories -- like how museum spaces typically show and value only certain types of cultural production, work that [figuratively] you can look at under a microscope. The idea of black life is more alive than that, and we’re interested in showing different types of knowledge.”
The history of museums as collecting institutions inherently carries the torch of "disembodied" study, a way of seeing that is distinctly white and European in origin; this has affected what are considered "intellectual" and, thus, valid cultural forms and beliefs. In contrast, Black Life takes on cultural production from the point of view of embodied knowledge -- and opens space for work created in resistance to, or in spite of, the dominant ways of knowing.
The name of the series comes from a talk with professors Fred Moten and Robin D.G. Kelly. “To paraphrase Moten, people talk a lot about how black lives matter in this moment, but he says it's also important to talk about how black life matters, too," Brazil explains. That is, the continuous survival -- the day-to-day existing, and also thriving -- of black people in America is an act of resistance, given that black presence in itself is perceived to be threatening by a white-dominated social order.
“We're speaking against some of the dominant norms of what is knowledge and what is valued in a white supremacist society. [We are featuring] this vibrance and aliveness, even in a time of attempted subjugation and attempted denigration; this is indefatigable life,” says Okoye.
Music and dance are readily obvious forms of embodied knowing. The series has included a participatory drumming workshop with Afia Walking Tree, as well as a multidisciplinary dance-performance and masquerade by artist and creative director Rashad Pridgen.
Brazil notes that another part of black epistemology included in the series is the cultural production stemming from black church communities, including poet and preacher Marvin K. White. “Working with leaders from black churches is not normal for an art museum, and not normal for all kinds of white spaces. We’re consciously trying to push against the force of white space.”
The series highlights black artists, thinkers and creatives living and working in the Bay Area, all without needing to loudly proclaim its local-centric programming. To the curators, it is a natural choice to feature and uplift black artists and thinkers living here now, though they're interested in expanding beyond the region in the future.
The next installment of the series, on Oct. 15, Phavia Kujichagulia & Ma’at presents an interdisciplinary musical event blending spoken word with traditional African music, African-American classical music/jazz, pop and rap.
On Nov. 10, Black Life intersects with another East Bay creative organization, The Black Aesthetic (TBA). Founded by Christian Johnson and Ryannaustin Dennis in 2016, TBA now includes Leila Weefur, Zoé Samudzi, Jamal Batts, and Malika "Ra" Imhotep; they also work closely with other groups, such as Black Mail Collective. The group has already presented two seasons of screenings by and about black filmmakers, each with a culminating publication, and the third season, which begins on Oct. 5, concludes at BAMPFA.
This upcoming event features filmmaker Johnson’s first film, with cinematography by Weefur. A Moment of Truth + Sin, is, according to them, a “pseudo-autobiographical, racially and politically charged thriller.” Johnson, who grew up in the Bay Area learning about film -- in part by studying Pacific Film Archive program calendars -- notes that premiering his work at BAMPFA is both “exciting and terrifying.”
For both TBA and Black Life, the curators operate from a sense of abundance. Rather than curating with a focus on the issues of under-representation (though the topic is omnipresent), both series emphasize elevating what's happening now and what it is that black creatives are doing. There is an open-ended sense to the programming, as though Black Life is in a constant state of unfolding without a definable road map -- and that’s because it is.
'Black Life' takes place on Oct. 15, Nov. 11, and Dec. 9 at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive. For more information, click here.