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A Year-Long Celebration of James Baldwin’s Centennial Comes to Oakland

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A colorful mixed medium image of James Baldwin, in collage form.
James Baldwin in collage form, part of ‘Frontline Prophet: James Baldwin,’ on display now through April 27 at Joyce Gordon Gallery in Oakland. (Sabrina Nelson)

More than a half-century ago, the famed poet and author James Baldwin addressed major issues of the era: racism, sexism and classism. In 2024, as we still reckon with the same problems, a movement is underway to celebrate what would have been Baldwin’s 100th birthday this coming August. In doing so, artists are revisiting his astute observations, and showing how his work continues to resonate.

As a part of this celebration, a traveling exhibition of works by Detroit-based artist Sabrina Nelson, titled Frontline Prophet: James Baldwin, is on display now through April 27 at Joyce Gordon Gallery in Oakland.

An image of James Baldwin's radiant smile and some of his words of wisdom.
James Baldwin’s smile: poetry in human form. (Sabrina Nelson)

Co-curated by Ashara Ekundayo and Omo Misha, the exhibition centers a series of illustrations by Nelson, charting her personal journey in understanding brother Baldwin. The sketchbooks are displayed alongside paintings, poetic works on scrolls, projected videos, and more; the centerpiece is one golden sketchbook with Nelson’s first drawing of Baldwin.

The series began eight years ago, when Nelson was invited to Paris with poet jessica Care moore to paint live images of James Baldwin during a plenary session at the James Baldwin Conference at the American University of Paris in 2016.

To plan for the trip, Nelson immersed herself in Baldwin’s work, speeches and written pieces, starting with his 1963 book The Fire Next Time. With a comfortable amount of knowledge ahead of the conference, she realized once she arrived that she was surrounded by actual Baldwinites — devout followers of the late poet’s work.

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Unfazed, she sat in on the first presentation, and opened her sketchbook with Baldwin on her mind.

Four women sit and pose for a photo at the Joyce Gordon Gallery in Oakland.
(L–R) Jazz artist and educator Dr. Angela Wellman, art curator Ashara Ekundayo, gallery owner Joyce Gordon and interdisciplinary artist Sabrina Nelson at Joyce Gordon Gallery in Oakland. (Courtesy Ashara Ekundayo)

“I started drawing his image, and I felt something touch me spiritually,” Nelson tells me during a video call, motioning to her forearms as she revisits the hair-raising sensation. “It was the first time I’d drawn his image.”

She looked around the room, checking for open windows or a sign of a breeze that might have caused goosebumps. And then, Nelson says, she addressed Baldwin’s spirit directly. “If you’re in this room, Mr. Baldwin, I don’t know you like that,” she says with a slight laugh, admitting that she was no Baldwinite.

Nelson, who’d studied the Yoruba faith, was clear with her request to Baldwin’s spirit: “If you’re here, and you’re trying to touch me in a spiritual way,” Nelson said, “teach me how to know you.”

Filmmaker Celia Peters stands in admiration of an image of James Baldwin on the wall at the Joyce Gordon Gallery.
Filmmaker Celia Peters admires an image of James Baldwin at Joyce Gordon Gallery. (Ashara Ekundayo )

Nelson continued to draw Baldwin’s image throughout her trip, but stopped for a few months when she returned to the states. In October of that same year, however, she was tasked with drawing a superhero for the month-long artist exercise known as Inktober. Nelson chose Baldwin, and instead of drawing one image per day, or 31 total, as the challenge called for, she drew 91.

From this body of work, she started sharing the art with high schoolers who also participated in Inktober — and soon realized that schools weren’t teaching Baldwin to their students.

“When you have a prophet like James Baldwin, who said things that are relevant to this moment that we now live in,” says Nelson, pointing to issues of book bans, low literacy rates and living conditions in our cities, “we need to bring back some of these prophets so we can pay attention to what they said… that’s the story of the sketchbooks.”

For six years, the sketchbooks sat in a drawer in Nelson’s studio. Then, in 2022, she was visited by Ashara Ekundayo, a longtime friend. Just like Nelson, Ekundayo was born in Detroit amidst the rebellions of the 1960s. They call themselves “riot babies.”

“What are these doing here?” asked Ekundayo of the sketchbooks. From that one question, a multi-city tour was birthed.

A stoic yet colorful portrait of James Baldwin starring straight ahead.
James Baldwin in stoic form. (Sabrina Nelson)

The traveling exhibition premiered on Aug. 2, 2023 — Baldwin’s 99th birthday — in Harlem, New York, where he was born. It was shown at New Orleans’ African-American Museum before coming to Oakland’s Joyce Gordon Gallery. It’ll spend the early summer months at the Blanc Gallery in Chicago before closing at Detroit’s Charles H. Wright Museum on August 2, 2024 — what would have been Baldwin’s 100th birthday.

The exhibition is intentionally being shown in cities significant to Baldwin — where he lived or made speeches, says Ekundayo. “We began in Harlem where (Baldwin) was born, and are going to end in Detroit,” says Ekundayo, noting that it’s one of the last American cities in which Baldwin lived before he moved back to Paris, where he passed in 1987.

Baldwin has several connections to the Bay Area. He hosted the 1964 documentary film Take This Hammer, a study of Black San Francisco at the time, filmed by KQED. In the ’70s, Baldwin spoke at UC Berkeley and Berkeley High School. A decade prior, he spoke at Oakland’s Castlemont High School.

It’s those touch points, specifically Baldwin’s visit to Castlemont, that makes this exhibition in Oakland important, says Ekundayo. Supported by the African American Library and Museum of Oakland and the Alameda County Behavioral Health Department, the Oakland stop also has a political education aspect to it, she adds.

In September of this year, in a bit of a full-circle moment, Nelson will show a totally new body of work as part of the James Baldwin Centennial Festival at the American University of Paris. It’ll be another chance for Nelson to reconnect with Baldwin’s spirit — that is, if he hasn’t been traveling with her this whole time.

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Sabrina Nelson’s Frontline Prophet: James Baldwin runs now through April 27 at Joyce Gordon Gallery in Oakland; details here. A ‘Wine, Words & Baldwin’ event with Oakland Poet Laureate Ayodele Nzinga and the Lower Bottom Playaz takes place March 30 at the BAM House in Oakland; details here. ‘Winter in America: The SpeakEasy – Bold, Black & Brilliant: The Baldwin Edition’ takes place April 3 at Joyce Gordon Gallery; details here.

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