Bay Area Artist ‘Retrieves’ Missing Young Black Women

The Retriever: Kentifrican Ashentee Healer Figure (Angelica Ekeke/courtesy)

“How can we go from pretending this isn’t an issue to actually doing something about it?”

That’s the central question Oakland and Los Angeles-based artist Kenyatta A.C. Hinkle poses in “The Retrieval,” a new solo exhibition at the San Francisco Arts Commission's main gallery, featuring a series of works inspired by young black women who have gone missing due to human trafficking.

“It’s a global issue, it’s a historical issue and it’s present issue,” Hinkle says, “And hopefully, it’s not a future issue.”

According to the Black and Missing Foundation, 64,000 black women were missing in the U.S. in 2014. “The Retrieval” marks an attempt to shed light on the issue, and to conjure up the presences of those missing women through ghostly impressions.

“Each time a woman or presence appears, I don’t judge whatever’s coming out,” Hinkle says. “I just do what I need to do to help them have whatever they need. Whether they want 70 legs or five breasts -- I just try to make it happen.”

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Hinkle calls her paper and ink pieces “unportraits,” meaning they’re not literal depictions of missing or trafficked women; they’re inspired by them.

The Retrieval: The Evanesced: Transformer (Courtesy of Kenyatta A.C. Hinkle)

“They’re not here for our gaze,” she says. “They’re joyful, they’re having their own moments, and the ink is like blood, just flowing onto the page.”

To channel the presences of her subjects, Hinkle says she danced to music from the African diaspora and used handmade brushes -- sometimes “as big as her body” -- built from found materials.

The Retrieval: The Evanesced: Smoulder (Courtesy of Kenyatta A.C. Hinkle)

61 unportraits line the walls of the SFAC gallery -- each unique, marked by varied strokes of cloudy ink. And, as Hinkle notes, the ink -- like blood -- extends beyond the confines of each page, breathing a sort of collective life into her body of work.

“These presences, they’re uncodified,” Hinkle says. “They oscillate between flesh and not flesh. And I really wanted them to be these vessels of energy … this bursting out of certain different forms, slipping in and out, so you can’t quite pin them down.”

While Hinkle’s unportraits are primarily composed of black, gray and white brushstrokes, the centerpiece of the exhibition is a three-dimensional figure, coated in a vibrant, multi-colored costume.

It’s a healer, inspired by Hinkle’s time spent in Nigeria as part of the Fullbright Program.

The Retriever: Kentifrican Ashentee Healer Figure (Angelica Ekeke/courtesy)

“I studied a lot of Nigerian sculpture and customs,” Hinkle says. “And this figure is inspired by the Engungun Masquerade of the Yoruba.”

The figure, Hinkle says, is a protector -- a living ghost of an ancestor that comes to impart wisdom and knowledge. It's part of her ongoing "Kentifrica" project, a cultural study of a contested African geography.

“They’re able to go into the psyche of young women and girls who are being trafficked in order to make them harder targets for manipulation,” she says. “And this figure can also get into the minds of policymakers to see what we can do about protecting these young women.”

The garment piece is also paired with a video (made in collaboration with Bay Area filmmaker Angelica Ekeke), projected onto a gallery wall, in which Hinkle brings the healer figure to life, wearing the colorful textiles herself.

In the film, a costumed Hinkle can be seen moving through some known Bay Area trafficking centers, like Oakland’s International Boulevard, “activating” the spaces through ritual.

“We were very aware that we definitely wanted to situate this body of work within issues that were happening within this very community in San Francisco and Oakland,” Hinkle says. “So the Bay Area is very much a part of this piece.”

The Retrieval: The Evanesced: Commander (Courtesy of Kenyatta A.C. Hinkle)

"The Retrieval" marks the first solo exhibition at the SFAC’s main gallery, which first opened its doors in January 2016.

“It became a solo show,” gallery director Meg Shiffler says. “I don’t know that we set out from the beginning to create a solo show with Kenyatta, but as our relationship grew, and as our understanding of the work grew, it grew into this project.”

Shiffler says she hopes viewers grasp the multifaceted nature of the exhibition. “We can really dig into the subject matter of the visibility and the perception of black women and the black female body,” she says. “But there is also process -- and the process that Kenyatta undertakes to create this work is complex and full of joy and full of connection.”

And for Hinkle, that process and the subject matter are inextricably linked. By conjuring the presences of missing women through dance, ink and ritual, she hopes to inspire viewers to become agents of social change.

“The exhibition is a call to action,” Hinkle says. “So I really want us think about how we can all be retrievers within our communities.”

"The Retrieval" is on display at the San Francisco Arts Commission Main Gallery through April 7 and is free to the public.