Big Love: Much Love for the African Diaspora

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Karen and Malik Seneferu smile as they take a shared selfie.
Karen and Malik Seneferu (Via Karen and Malik Seneferu)

Over 4 weeks, the Rightnowish podcast is exploring love’s many forms. Learn more about the series here.

Karen and Malik Seneferu have a love grounded in art, community and the African Diaspora.

Oakland’s Karen Seneferu is a revered visual artist and the co-founder of The Black Woman is God exhibition series. San Francisco’s Malik Seneferu  is a celebrated visual artist, whose recent project, “Clear The Air”  takes over a fence of the Southeast Treatment Plant in the Bay View — the same community where he was raised. As a team, their works are numerous and their influence is immeasurable. Often seen in the community dressed to a T, even when splotched with paint from working on their latest creations, they exemplify powerful Black love.

This week we hear how they collaborate creatively, move with community and actualize Afrocentric romance.

Below are some lightly edited excerpts of my conversation about tough love with Karen and Malik Seneferu.

Pen: Can you define love for me?

Malik: Love is maturity. Love is something that’s forever advancing itself within itself… Me and my wife don’t look at love from a romantic or European standard where there’s somebody whistling from the top of a castle… it’s really about intergenerational love… You love the fact that they were a child, and you love the fact that they made it up to this point. You cherish every part of that.

Malik: So love is really an inhale and exhale with consciousness.

Karen: The first thing that comes to my mind about love, is that love is the willingness to see people as who they exactly are. So love is about recognition. About the capacity one has for the self and thus the willingness to show that to others who may not fully see who they are. And to some extent: forgiving of who they may not be, at the time in which you want to fully love them.

Pen: Sister Karen, I want to talk about your creative work since this is a big part of the love y’all share. You recently curated the latest rendition of your staple exhibition: The Black Woman is God at SOMArts. Can you tell us the message of the show?

Karen: Well, it’s a multi-disciplined exhibition that recognizes when Black women create, they existing as a godlike figure. So it’s really about love, because it’s about recognizing the full capacity of black women historically, culturally, socially, politically in the African diasporic.

Pen: I’ve been to a couple of openings in the past and I got a sense of love there, like, you walk around and you see people just in flow… How does your work intersect with art, love, and community?

Karen: Well, first and foremost, I love the black community. I just love us. I love all that we are: good, bad, and indifferent. I understand the contributions that we have made to the world. And I also know how difficult it is to claim yourself in a world that doesn’t want you to recognize those contributions. And then I love the idea of creating space and sharing that space with the community.

Karen: I ran into a young woman who was in the show and she had never been to the Black Woman is God. And this one was kind of mild in comparison to the 2,500 people we have had coming into this space [in past exhibitions]. This one had about 100 because of COVID and the new restrictions and all that. But she said that a number of them went to a dinner and then they cried at the dinner table because the exhibit was so beautiful to them. And I said to her, ‘Well that’s the intention.’ And then she just kind of looked at me, I’m like, ‘yeah, that’s the intention. It is to make you cry because in those tears is healing.’

Pen: Brother Malik, you have all types of work to reference, but for the purpose of this conversation on love, community, and art, I wanna talk about a new project down in the Bayview called “Clear the Air.”

Pen (narration): Malik was selected to create artwork that reflects the community at the site of the South East water treatment plant. It’s a mural on a long vinyl banner – about 600 ft long – with illustrations of large colorful masks and trees on a background of birds. As part of that, Malik partnered with Rise Academy, doing workshops with young people, teaching drawing and discussing environmental justice. He’s also done lots of mentoring of young people outside this.

Pen: Malik, my question to you is how do you see your work on Clear the Air symbolizing love and community?

Malik: I was born and raised in San Francisco and born in Hunters Point. My mom was homeless. We moved all over the city. So this idea of Clear the Air is also mending the black family back together… really building what it means to be a father, what it means to be a mother, what it means to raise a child.

Malik: When you look at this particular piece, you’ll see the trees, there’s that connection where an ancestor dies and a tree grows. Many would say ya know an ancestor is someone who earns that position in many parts of African culture. But here in the western hemisphere, we kind of take a different vibration on that because we have so many that are dying young. So Clear the Air. is just rebuilding the community.

Pen (narration): When they met, Karen was the mother of a teenager, Trent, and Malik had a newborn son, Osaze. As Karen and Malik’s relationship blossomed, Osaze had Karen in his life as another mother. And Malik eventually became a grandfather to Trent’s daughter…

Karen: How could we not be blood because it feels like blood? That’s that deep, deep African diasporic love.

Malik: Yeah, it’s the village.

Karen: That transcends blood and creates these invisible connections that become very apparent in the behavior. Because you say love is the behavior. And so he can have that intrinsic relationship to Malik and I can have that intrinsic relationship to Osaze.

Malik: And you know, love is in fact the culture. It’s the culture, the very impetus or act is in fact love, building the homes, creating the art. All of that is the exercise of love.

Pen: I’m wondering, did either of you have role models, specifically couples who were working artists that you had in mind when you said, this is what I want?

Malik: I hate to say it, but we don’t have that. The love that we have, we know that is revolutionary… Of course, there has been a systematic design to ensure that that would not be the case.

Karen: The love we have for each other is a similar way in which we are creating out of our imagination. We know that our ancestors brought us together and keep us together and the community does that and our love for one another does that, our love for our children and our grandchildren…

Pen: You two being both powerful visionaries, artists, mirroring one another, I sometimes have conflicts with the person in the mirror. I’m wondering: you two being artists sharing the same space, how do you navigate the issues of conflict or even even competition as artists?

Karen: Yeah, conflict comes up with us. And when we’re not being our best selves we have said things to each other that really don’t reflect our true meaning at that moment. … We’re not working within the same spaces of creativity. We’re working in partnership with one another in our creativity. And there’s a balance in recognition and support of the advancement of each other’s art career. We don’t have a lot of time to reflect on envy and jealousy because we’re working all the time and that work produces the activities that we want to achieve for ourselves, for our community, for one another.

Malik: Being a teacher when you provide somebody with information to go out and do well, and they go out and do well, that’s a reflection on what you’ve been able to do. That’s a reflection on you, too. And so I never feel that because my wife is receiving accolades, that I need to receive what she receives. I know what I’m capable of. And so I’m not starved of that. So it’s not really this ‘what happened if she do good?’ That’s what’s supposed to happen!

Karen: Yeah. That’s why I always acknowledge him in public spaces. In the Black Woman is God, and I can see people get uncomfortable with that. But it’s for me, it’s really important because he’s been doing this for 40 years. I’ve been doing this for 15 maybe, but he’s my greatest adviser. To me that is a very African practice: recognizing those that have gone before you. And so Malik is standing next to me, but he’s also gone before me, and he set the pathway for this project.

Karen: You know, I always say the Black Woman is God, the Black man is God thus the black family is God… All of those elements exist because of our coming together.

Rightnowish is an arts and culture podcast produced at KQED. Listen to it wherever you get your podcasts or click the play button at the top of this page and subscribe to the show on NPR One, Spotify, Apple Podcasts, TuneIn, Stitcher or wherever you get your podcasts.