Bay Area Artists Shine in This Year’s Creative Capital Awards

The Bay Area's 2021 Creative Capital Awardees, clockwise from top left: Sita Kuratomi Bhaumik, Jocelyn Jackson, Saqib Keval, Reid Davenport, Débora Souza Silva, Kurt Rohde, Meng Jin, Anne Finger. (Courtesy the artists and Creative Capital)

The Bay Area arts community has a strong showing in the latest round of Creative Capital Awards, a national granting program that provides artists with up to $50,000 to realize ambitious, often large-scale projects. The funds are also combined with mentorship and advisory services to develop the capacity of the artists in each cohort.

Of the 35 projects selected to receive the 2021 awards, six include Bay Area artists working in a variety of disciplines; their proposals include sci-fi inspired meals, documentary film, creative nonfiction and a floating opera. The local recipients are multidisciplinary collaborative People’s Kitchen Collective (Sita Kuratomi Bhaumik, Jocelyn Jackson, Saqib Keval); documentary filmmaker Reid Davenport; educator and writer Anne Finger; novelist Meng Jin; musician and composer Kurt Rohde; and documentary filmmaker Débora Souza Silva.

Creative Capital received nearly 4,000 applications way back in February 2020; the awards were announced on Dec. 8. “I almost forgot!” says Jin.

While the world today looks very different from the one in which the grantees wrote their applications, the Creative Capital Awards favor a development process that gives artists the time and support to adapt to challenges along the way (like, say, a global pandemic), though all six grantees said their plans remained pretty close to their proposals.

People's Kitchen Collective, 'STREETS!,' 2018 in Oakland. (Brooke Anderson)

For People’s Kitchen Collective, this timeline means they’ll be able to fully take advantage of Creative Capital’s expansive national network to connect with programming partners in various communities. “With Creative Capital, that ‘yes’ comes with so many more yeses,” says Jackson, who currently lives in Las Vegas.

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The collaborative’s project, Earthseed, will create resource kits and a series of meals inspired by Octavia Butler’s Parables books and the Black Panther Party’s programs. Even though the trio is spread across three different cities (Bhaumik lives in Oakland, Keval in Mexico City), the Bay Area’s history of artistic activism feeds their practice.

“It’s this question of ‘How do we find ways to survive that come from within, from our own communities?’” Bhaumik says. “The Bay Area is full of these examples of people taking survival into their own hands and working between groups.” Now, when so much of the world and the systems it operates upon need to be rebuilt, Bhaumik says ideas of food sovereignty and mutual aid are even more important.

With this award comes a sense of stability. “It’s been really hard during this year to envision the future,” says Jin, noting the award changed that. Her novel, which she also calls a “fake memoir,” addresses the contemporary conversation around autofiction, a big “new” literary genre mostly identified with European and white American writers. “I want to rescope and rethink the ways in which autobiography and autobiographical readings affect writers of color in particular,” she says.

She’s also looking forward to connecting with other artists, not necessarily writers, in the Creative Capital cohort. “I’m interested in conceiving of fiction-writing as an active performance similar to the work of a performance artist,” she says. “I’m excited to be able to have conversations with artists who are experts in these kinds of ideas.”

A still from Reid Davenport's 'I Didn't See You There.' (Courtesy the artist)

Davenport, who has already shot much of the footage for his documentary film I Didn’t See You There says, “Any time I can join a cohort I try to do so.” His work on the project started two years ago with the appearance of a circus tent outside his Oakland apartment, leading Davenport to examine the legacy of the “freak show” in his own life as a disabled filmmaker.

Similarly, Silva is already four years into her documentary, Black Mothers which follows two women in Mothers of the Movement, a nationwide network of mothers whose children were killed by police.

For Silva, Oakland and its people have been a huge influence. “Black Mothers really started with the case of Oscar Grant and the important work that his mother, Wanda, his uncle Cephus Johnson (‘Uncle Bobby’) and several local activists have been doing for over a decade,” she wrote in an email.

Her long-term commitment to the women at the center of her film is crucial to its aesthetic. “Ultimately,” she says, “I hope to create a film that reflects not only how I see the mothers but how they see themselves.”

A still from Débora Souza Silva's 'Black Mothers.' (Courtesy of the artist)

Other projects will take Bay Area awardees farther afield—for Finger and Rohde, to Berlin and New York, respectively. Finger’s book of personal essays, Wheeling in Berlin is inspired by the figure of the “meandering dandy.” She hopes to be able to return to Germany soon to further inform her writing on historical figures, disability in art and her own travels as a wheelchair-user.

Each group of awardees traditionally gathers for a retreat to share their projects with one other. Finger looks forward to this being an in-person event. “To me it’s so much better when we can be with other people and talk in hallways and go out to dinner,” she says.

And for San Francisco-based Rohde, part of a three-person team behind Newtown Odyssey (the aforementioned floating opera), travel to the site of his eventual performance piece is complicated by more than just the current pandemic: the project plans to be carbon neutral.

The opera itself will address issues of climate change, environmental justice and civic responsibility, but the specifics are still very much up in the air. “This is no question the most experimental space I’ve worked in,” Rohde says. Collaborating with New York artist Marie Lorenz and Syracuse writer Dana Spiotta, Rohde will compose the music for an opera to be performed and seen on a polluted industrial waterway between Brooklyn and Queens.

An aerial image of Marie Lorenz's 'Tide Taxi' on a polluted waterway. (Courtesy the artist)

Rohde has to consider not just creating something that will be outside (a particular acoustic challenge), but on multiple, possibly moving stages. Questions of power, amplification, live instruments, pre-recorded sound, seasonal elements and the effect of those elements on instruments are all in play. “I can’t ask you to take your cello out in a boat,” he says.

The Creative Capital Award is meant for just such projects: challenging, expansive ones that change the way we think about what the arts can accomplish. Newtown Odyssey’s commitment to carbon neutrality—an issue rarely broached in the fine art world—is a case in point.

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“Since our talk, I have been using a number of online carbon emission offset calculators,” Rohde later wrote in an email. “It looks like I will be planting a few trees for that round-trip flight next summer!”