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Nyame Brown’s Black World-Building Depicts a Necessary Future

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Nyame Brown, 'Drippin in the Bay: John Henry with His Head in the Clouds,' 2020. (Courtesy of the artist)

If Black Panther is your favorite hero of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the movies left you wanting so much more, there’s a San Francisco exhibition that will interest you. On view through June 9 at the California Institute of Integral Studies (CIIS), Bay-Sick: New Mythologies from Black Speculative Worldbuilding invites us to witness Oakland artist Nyame Brown’s dimension-expanding practice. Working with diverse media, including cut paper and oil paint applied to blackboards, Brown riffs off of African American folklore tradition to build worlds in which fantasy and reality coexist.

Brown identifies his work as part of Afrofuturism, a cultural aesthetic that combines literature (particularly science fiction and speculative fiction), history and fantasy to explore African American experience, and connects African diasporan communities to ancestral traditions that were violently interrupted by the Atlantic slave trade. N.K. Jemisin and the late Octavia Butler are luminary Afrofuturst novelists; Sun Ra and George Clinton came at the movement musically.

In contemporary art, Wangechi Mutu is a standard-bearer. Her installation I’m Speaking, Are You Listening? transformed the Legion of Honor in 2021, and made the journey to San Francisco’s windy edge worthwhile. Within this lineage, Brown proposes different ways to think of Black history as a shared experience, and puts forth possible futures equally shaped by both similarities and dynamic differences.

Brightly costumed figures leap onto platforms in fantastical landscape of cubes shapes
Nyame Brown, ‘Galo Canto,’ 2022.

At CIIS, curator Kija Lucas has selected pieces that reflect Brown’s varied practice. In addition to watercolor works on paper, the show includes oil paintings on chalkboards. It’s a nod to Brown’s tenure as an Oakland School for the Arts educator. His use of oil paint, as opposed to chalk, suggests a hope for a time in which Black lives and Black history are not so easily erased.

An example of this style, Galo Canto (2022), registers the influence of contemporary fashion and video game design. At the center of the blackboard, one of three vividly costumed figures moves as though gravity and average human mobility are of no concern. Gamers may appreciate what look like interlocking platforms, a familiar visual trope in virtual world-building, that in Brown’s work suggest a precariousness the figures gracefully navigate.


The folk hero John Henry makes repeated appearances in Brown’s work. Henry, who is celebrated for defeating a steam drill in a 19th-century coal-digging competition, often symbolizes heroic stamina; he vanquishes mindless mechanized strength as his last mortal act.

But Drippin in the Bay: John Henry with His Head in the Clouds (2022), doesn’t emphasize back-breaking labor. Another oil-on-blackboard composition, the painting features a purple-skinned giant seated on the Bay Bridge. He appears contemplative, perhaps pondering the economic and cultural forces that have shrunk the Bay Area’s Black population. He also appears restful, defying capitalism’s mandate that we hustle from one task to the next. In Brown’s treatment, this version of the John Henry myth may teach us that rest — and by extension, self-care — is a potent relief from living in survival mode.

Wide drawing on white paper with various perspectives and swirling action
Nyame Brown, ‘New Black Myth Scroll,’ 2021. (Courtesy of CIIS / Kija Lucas)

In a 2010 conversation with fellow author Margaret Atwood, Ursula K. Le Guin urged that the difference between science fiction and fantasy is one of possibility: fantasy cannot happen, but science fiction can. Brown reckons with this in New Black Myth Scroll (2021). By its size, the 15-foot canvas paper scroll reminds me of medieval tapestries that narratively recount key battles. Brown’s composition is not so polished. It looks more like a sketchpad, a place for potential to take root. If the chairs and tables in CIIS’s Desai | Matta Gallery, which is a shared public space, are not in use when you visit, move them. Seeing this monumental piece both at a distance and up close is a must.

Of the exhibition’s seven pieces, this scroll best reflects how Le Guin frames science fiction. At the far left edge, a figure admiringly holds aloft a vanquished foe’s head. Further into the composition, razor-sharp teeth appear ready to bite. It’s a dizzying viewing experience. Brown’s accomplished and troubling vision, perhaps a reference to the bodily violence that many Black Americans face daily, reminds us of what can happen, and that the strides we make as a society will profoundly shape a shared future.

‘Bay-Sick: New Mythologies from Black Speculative Worldbuilding’ is on view in the Desai | Matta Gallery at the California Institute of Integral Studies (1453 Mission St., San Francisco) through June 9. Details here.

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