A Countercultural Upbringing (and Pyramids) Power David Huffman’s ‘Afro Hippie’

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Installation view of David Huffman's 'Afro Hippie' at the Berkeley Art Center. (Felix Quintana)

Crossing the wooden bridge over Codornices Creek to the Berkeley Art Center always conjures a bit of the otherworldly. The fairy tale-like entrance, currently festooned with a hanging produce installation by Richmond ceramic artist Cathy Lu, is a physical and metaphorical passage to Somewhere Else. On each visit, the current exhibition remains out of view until you’re well inside the center’s doors, a willing captive of this charming 1967 building, insulated from the bustle of the surrounding park.

Now, in a new solo exhibition by Oakland artist David Huffman, images and ideas from Berkeley’s less-examined past rush to fill the space. Afro Hippie is BAC’s first solo show in over six years, marking a new direction in the art center’s mission to support Bay Area artists. Described as a “collaboration” with Huffman, the show freely mingles recent and previously unseen artworks alongside fragments of the artist’s own Berkeley childhood in the ’60s and ’70s.

A photo from David Huffman's family archives, 1960s–70s. (Courtesy the artist and Dolores Davis)

Afro Hippie is dedicated to Huffman’s mother, a social and political activist who was part of not just the Black Power movement (a replica of a “Free Huey” banner she created hangs in the show) but also the hippie counterculture, and open to what Huffman describes as “fringe ideas.” Huffman’s life—and his exhibition—are the product of that hybridity, a visually scintillating counterargument to reductive categorization and thinking.

In this vein, Afro Hippie is more of an installation than a group of discrete artworks; different display methods and materials live comfortably together within the space. Family snapshots, enlarged and mounted to board, lean against the gallery’s angled walls. Rainbow-hued and tie-dye-like silhouettes of pyramids form a grid of framed acrylic paintings on paper. A monitor nestled in one of BAC’s architectural nooks plays a sparkling nine-second loop called Star Child. It all coheres.

David Huffman, 'Basketball Pyramid,' 2007; Acrylic on paper. (Berkeley Art Center)

The unavoidable, shiny centerpiece of the show is a 10-foot-tall foil-covered pyramid, a recreation of a similar structure that existed in Huffman’s living room as a child. In an interview with Essence Harden in the exhibition takeaway, Huffman explains his mother’s interest in pyramids, which was rooted in Afrocentrism and New Age ideas about the shape’s power. To Huffman, this somewhat out-there living room decor was just part of everyday life.

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“To test the pyramid energy, you would put a raw egg in a container and leave it in the center, and it shouldn’t rot because the pyramid energy was that deep work,” Huffman tells Harden. “Eventually, it crystallized, but it never ‘rotted.’ So, of course we thought, ‘This is working!’”

At BAC, Huffman’s Cosmic Pyramid makes that hoped-for energy visible and physical, with a spacey projection of colored light beaming down on an organic egg in a ceramic dish, surrounded by lengths of textiles. The scene is completed by the song “Love Shop,” composed for the 1976 sci-fi Logan’s Run, a fitting (and still futuristic) soundtrack of synthesized bleeps and bloops.

David Huffman, 'This Season's People,' 2021; Acrylic, oil, African fabric, glitter, spray paint, color pencil and gouache on panel. (Berkeley Art Center)

If Cosmic Pyramid is funneling energy, it’s definitely aided by the aura of the artwork and objects that surround it. This Season’s People, a six-foot-tall mixed media painting on panel, is a frenetic confluence of repeated Egyptian sphinxes, stenciled basketball nets, African fabric, expansive mark-making and hard-edged geometric abstraction. Glimpses of color and pattern hint at activity happening well beyond the panel’s edges; the sphinx, bearing Huffman’s mother’s face, looks stoically up and to the left, possibly to the future.

Even when the imagery in This Season’s People reappears elsewhere in the show, isolated or in more simplified forms, those individual elements retain their power. In Cosmic Soul Buddha, more stenciled basketball nets hint at a swirl of inner activity (much as the pyramid paintings do), this time in a silhouette of a meditating figure with an Afro. The sphinx face similarly finds an analog in Psychic Portraits, possibly the most mesmerizing works on view. In this series of previously unexhibited oils, Huffman paints images of defaced Egyptian statues halfway between stone and flesh, like an archaeologist paused in facial reconstruction.

Installation view of David Huffman's 'Psychic Portraits,' 2008–9. (Felix Quintana)

Mining a past shaped by efforts to create a better future, Huffman demonstrates a nonlinear view of time. While some evidence of the ’60s and ’70s exists under a vitrine (the show’s parting or starting display, depending on how you circle the room), the rest of it lives on in the world, informing not just history but ideas for what comes next. In Afro Hippie those seeds from the past are reprinted, enlarged and reinterpreted in Huffman’s own art, suffusing the space with a sense that the work is ongoing, still possible, a cosmic pyramid of energy waiting to be unleashed.

‘Afro Hippie’ is on view at the Berkeley Art Center (1275 Walnut St.) through Oct. 16. Details here.