Welcome to KQED Arts’ Bay Brilliant, a series celebrating 10 local artists, creatives and makers who are pushing boundaries in 2018. Driven by passion for their own disciplines—music, dance, theater, visual art, performance, writing, illustration and more—these artists are true vanguards paving the way in their respective communities.
When Anyka Barber founded Oakland’s Betti Ono gallery, she intentionally combined the names of two powerful, courageous female artists: Betty Mabry Davis (singer-songwriter and wife of Miles Davis) and Yoko Ono (conceptual artist and wife of John Lennon).
“Both of those women have been relegated to ‘the wife of’ or ‘the lady of,’ and they actually were a lot more,” Barber says. “What they contributed has completely shifted the way, I think, people make art.”
That name is a crucial representation of the space Barber has created over the past eight years: a multicultural community hub that tells authentic stories and encourages participation.
For Barber, who was born and raised in Oakland, every aspect of the gallery—including exhibitions, youth programming and lease negotiation—is an opportunity to promote equity, fight anti-blackness and provide space for audiences to see themselves reflected positively through art.
“It's a stance. It's a demand,” Barber says. “This is not a passive space nor a passive intention at all. It’s very, very proactive.”
What was your introduction to art?
My earliest memories are of going to this really awesome preschool, dancing and making pizzas out of English muffins. Super hippie, but very black.
So that and then growing up in the African Methodist Episcopalian church, St. Paul A.M.E. in South Berkeley—I always call it the theater church. I was in the drama club and the choir; there were always performances. Not just choir singing, but literal performances of our history and our culture as a way to teach and share with the congregation.
My mom just always made sure that art was accessible. So my whole life has just been immersed.
What inspired you to start Betti Ono?
Partly, it was the invisibility of women artists in positions of decision making, authority or power within cultural spaces. When I moved back here [after living in Atlanta], I was searching for community and I wanted to help create connections between other creatives like myself that might've also been searching or I wanted to get to know because I was gone for so long.
I started an art night modeled after one that I used to participate in regularly in Atlanta. Here, I called it Smashbox. It was intentional to create this environment of collaboration and art-making with models and figure drawing, but outside of the academic setting.
Estée Lauder found out about the Smashbox thing and apparently they owned the trademark for it. So I had to come up with a new name and one that still had those underpinnings about smashing the box, breaking that white cube.
How often do people mistake Betti Ono as the person who runs the gallery and call you Betti as a result?
From day one, we always got that. I can't believe eight years later, the campaign that came to me in that moment has still not come to fruition, which is, "Who is Betti? Are you Betti?"
That kind of underlines the whole point of re-introducing people to these namesakes.
Yeah. I'd love to do a deeper look at that and really do a show honoring them. Maybe it'll be our 10-year anniversary show.
Can you sum up your programming or your curatorial motto in one sentence?
Betti Ono is an experimentally minded space for art, culture and community. We celebrate the culture of everyday people and focus our work on inclusion, participation and access.
You grew up here and you've been back in Oakland since 2007. How have you seen the art scene change over that period of time?
Well, I think that it's good and bad. On the more challenging side, we've seen a lot of cultural spaces, and ethnic-specific and culturally-specific organizations go away or have to shut their doors. When I came back [from Atlanta] it was right before the market crashed, and when it did, I saw a lot of pain. I saw a lot of independent artists laid off, really struggling to live and make it. I saw organizations lose funding. And it has been ongoing, I think, in different ways since then.
We lose a lot of talent because the Bay Area creative ecosystem doesn't seem to be able to really fully absorb with depth and longevity a sustainable lifestyle for creatives and artists and cultural workers.
I also have seen a lot more intentional connection and networking and coalition-building between artist groups and collectives towards some of the goals that I think we are reaching for: housing, cultural equity and equity in opportunity. I've seen a lot of people come together around cultural issues that are impacting our lives that we want to harness and bring love and light to.
What's your favorite part about running a gallery?
People. My favorite part is the people that I get to meet, build relationships with, be in mutually beneficial, connected communities with, fight the stuff, cry with. Culture is something that we live, and so yes, there's visual arts on the wall, but there are other ways that culture is created here within this space. And I think that the people, to me, are the most valued component of that, because we're the ones that are generating or responding to creating a culture.
What are you working on right now that you're excited about?
I'm working on the launch of an initiative called The Fire Next Time: A Call and Response. We designed a project that looks at the legacy of people like James Baldwin and others who consider themselves more on the cultural radical side, around how important it is to center culture in a conversation around ending white supremacy, oppression, all these things that we're grappling with.
And the question is, in Oakland—when we have BBQ Becky or BBQ’n While Black, when we have churches and people being cited for their cultural expression, when we have bodies being policed—what is this context that we're in right now, given Oakland's history and legacy over the last 40, 50 years?
We're taking six months to look at this question, kicking it off with a think-tank, bringing a group of experts together. When I say "experts," I mean everyday people. I mean cultural workers, social workers, therapists, makers, artists, philosophers, philanthropists.
And then we'll design creative responses to that conversation that we will present back out with the public and in partnership with community-based organizations and others in the spring and summer of next year.
I also just recently got a grant from the French American Cultural Society and the French American Consulate to go on a research tour to the south of France, to do a transnational walking tour of the life and legacy of James Baldwin. It's my first curatorial research grant. I've visioned this kind of work for myself for a long time. It's pretty amazing. I get to say that The Fire Next Time: A Call and Response is an Oakland-led international project.
A lot of your shows highlight real-life issues with social justice, politics and history within the curatorial framework, what role do you think a visual arts gallery or a space like this occupies within the public discourse?
I think for one, making visible the stories, the authentic stories, as told in first-person experience or closely connected experiences of this black, brown, indigenous, very intersectional audience and set of actors participate.
The themes certainly are there around racial justice, economic justice, cultural legacy, but also I think the work that we do is centered around empowerment. So yes, telling stories and being authentic and using the space as a visibly active space for bringing people together around these issues and building power.
Even in just the location that we occupy—that we fought so hard to remain in—we are present in the main commercial corridor of downtown Oakland, at the site of political action. And something as simple as any person being able to walk by and being able to look in the window and see a vision of a black woman or man that is opposite of, or divergent from, what popular culture might tell you, or what the news or media might tell you, I think does so much for public consciousness and the public good.
I know it does for me as a black person when I'm out and about. I need to feel safe. I need to feel seen and that my presence matters and my life matters, that my experience matters. And unless there are spaces that are specifically set up to provide that opportunity, it won't happen, just by nature of how our country and our system is set up. It just won't.
What does your ideal future look like for artists in the Bay Area?
I think ideally, we'd have in Oakland a network of support and capacity-building that enables artists and creatives to eat, have healthcare, a living wage, affordable housing. In my ideal world, the creatives that play the role of disturbing the peace in a really important way have to be able to live, truly live.
And then they have the room in the space to imagine and be responsive. I see artists as the developers. I see artists as policy makers. I see us as being able to really contribute value in a way that is tangible and practical, that will secure us a sustainable space—not only for artists but for everybody in the future.