Video still from Leila Weefur, 'Blackberry.' Leila Weefur
Video still from Leila Weefur, 'Blackberry.' (Leila Weefur)

A Reclamation of Power for Black Women in Oakland

A Reclamation of Power for Black Women in Oakland

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“It’s kind of wild to be here at seven years,” Anyka Barber says, founder of Oakland’s Betti Ono gallery in downtown Oakland. “Space is a premium, as we all know. So being able to hold this space for seven years was no small feat.”

It's also no small feat that Betti Ono opened in the first place. Tucked into the corner of Frank Ogawa Plaza, Betti Ono has brought exposure to emerging artists and fostered critical conversation around topics like race, sex, politics and identity in ways that simply did not exist in Oakland seven years ago.

At the time, while working in both museum spaces and community art centers, Barber noticed a lack of opportunity for women of color to enter into leadership positions — as well as a pronounced void of accessible spaces inclusive of black, brown, and indigenous bodies and art.

Sasha Kelley, 'Circle of Black Women / ABRACADABRAKAAFRIKA.'
Sasha Kelley, 'Circle of Black Women / ABRACADABRAKAAFRIKA.' (Sasha Kelley/Betti Ono)

“In terms of actual venues and spaces to make your work visible, to put your work out there professionally, that provided artists of color opportunity to exhibit — those were the barriers we were pushing against [in Oakland],” Barber expresses. “Breaking the mold, breaking the boxes [by saying that] artists of color — black women, black men, people of color in general — have things to say with their work. That they are talented. And deserve a platform.”

In an era of Oakland’s rapidly changing landscape, Betti Ono became a haven of community, accessibility, and cultural stronghold.


Now, for its seven-year anniversary, Betti Ono Gallery is collaborating with Black Women Over Breathing, a movement co-founded by Adrian Walker and Danielle McCoy that seeks to emphasize the historically underrepresented importance of black women in our everyday lives. Surrounded by women his whole life, Walker wanted to pay tribute to the integral, moving roles black women have held throughout his own personal journey, as well in the world’s history.

Danielle McCoy, 'SayHerName.'
Danielle McCoy, 'SayHerName.' (Betti Ono)

“Black women artists — they’re amazing. I look up to them the most because their stories are so deep. Family-oriented. How they were brought up,” Walker says. “All that is rooted in my work in a way. They own this. It’s because of them...I’m honored — this seven-year anniversary — just to be a part of it.”

Building opportunity for emerging artists — and artists of color — is something that’s central to both Betti Ono Gallery and Black Women Over Breathing. For the upcoming show in particular, Walker and McCoy have curated works from artists of vast backgrounds, experience, and mediums; exhibiting artists include Lukaza Branfman, Jade Fair, Kierra Johnson, Jay Katelansky, Sasha Kelley, Yetunde Olagbaju, Danielle McCoy, Lelia Weefur, and Zakiya Zazzaboi.

Lukaza Branfman-Verissimo, 'As Bright as Yellow.'
Lukaza Branfman-Verissimo, 'As Bright as Yellow.' (Betti Ono Gallery)

“The curators have done a great job of... really tackling critical issues affecting black women in ways that may not be so superficial, really getting into the undercurrent of what life is like. Everyday,” comments Barber. “We celebrate the culture of everyday people, but one of the intentions is to say that who we are, how we are, and how we show up is good enough. It’s enough to be seen, be respected, and be valued.”

Walker adds, “I just wanted black women to be able to express themselves. And how they portray what Black Women Over Breathing is. [Across] all types of mediums. [To] do what they want and show their work in many different forms.”

Ultimately, Barber envisions the upcoming show simultaneously as a celebration of black womanhood and all the work done at Betti Ono over the last seven years. Both she and Walker want audiences to walk away from the space with a new cultural understanding and consciousness that may have been missing before.

“I think there has been a lot of pretending about how critical black women have been to the formation of this country, even while being discriminated against [and] being oppressed. So, I feel like the statement is about that: a reclamation of our power and our agency. Our lives. Period. In whatever shape or form,” Barber states. “[And] I feel like Betti Ono is going to continue being the space that continues to elevate conversations to this point.”

'Betti Ono 7 Year Anniversary: Black Women Over Breathing' runs Oct. 6, 2017–Jan. 5, 2018 at Betti Ono Gallery, with an opening reception from 6pm–9pm on Oct. 6. Details here.