In downtown Oakland, 30+ storefronts display art celebrating Black joy

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Last summer, downtown Oakland was largely deserted, with boarded-up businesses and desolate sidewalks. Local artists saw the smattering of plywood and empty streets as a blank canvas, though painting the area with vibrant murals and art that brought color and hope to a dark time.

Now, the streets are busier, many of the boards have come down, and businesses are back open. But Broadway Avenue is again covered in art thanks to a new, self-guided multimedia exhibit entitled Story Windows on display on 30 storefronts. The exhibit—which stretches from 14th to 17th Streets—features 20 local Black artists and Black-led arts and cultural organizations. 

The prompt for the creators involved: “What brings you joy?”

This ambitious project was curated by Ashara Ekundayo, founder of the Artist As First Responder (AAFR), in partnership with artistic director Mauton Akran, and co-presented with Oakland Central and the Black Joy Parade. AAFR is an arts organization that elevates Black, Indigenous, and other artists of color through art residencies, exhibitions, and grants. Ekundayo is also the former owner of an art gallery in Oakland’s Koreatown Northgate district, which she closed in December of 2019. 

When this year’s Black Joy Parade, which has taken place in February since 2018, was canceled, Ekundayo wanted to make sure the community could still celebrate Black culture. 

“We still wanted to have the conversation on Broadway to inspire and incite Black joy,” Ekundayo said. “The Black Joy Parade crew, their question this year was ‘what brings you joy?’ Black joy can’t be stopped. What does it look like this year? What does it look like on the streets?”

Ashara Ekundayo, curator of Story Windows exhibit in Downtown Oakland. Credit: Amir Aziz
Photographs from The Lower Bottom Playaz Performances of August Wilson’s American Century Cycle. Credit: Amir Aziz

The exhibit’s multimedia format allows for people strolling along Broadway to reflect on these questions. The work of over a dozen photographers, videographers, and filmmakers—some in vivid colors and others in striking black and white—invite you to stop and admire. Many of the pictures adorning hustling businesses and empty storefronts feature the smiling faces of Black Oaklanders. 

“It’s not been all death and destruction. There has been light, joy, pleasure, and celebration in the streets of Oakland,” Ekundayo said.

Passersby will also notice posters plastered on walls and windows, including a vintage image of Black Panther Emory Douglas from the 1971 issue of the Black Panther Intercommunal Newsservice. But this isn’t just a blown-up picture. Instead, it’s part of the augmented reality installation by the Black Terminus lab. People can use the QR code at the corner of the image and download the app Artivive to bring the image to life, bringing up archived video footage of one of  Bobby Seales’ speeches, co-founder of the Black Panthers. Wakanda Dream Lab also completed other augmented reality installations on the street. 

Artists and makers of Oakland come together for Story Windows Exhibit in Downtown Oakland. Credit: Amir Aziz]=
Ashara Ekundayo using the QR code to check out the augmented reality installation by Wakanda Dream Lab. Credit: Amir Aziz Credit: Azucena Rasilla

“This is a way for us to have access to the conversation around digital art — the intersection of technology with photos and paper,” Ekundayo said. “You gotta have those conversations around tech. We can’t get away from that.”

Video footage is another component, including a stop-motion animated film, Dark Star Universe, by locals Refa One and Korise Jubert. The film centers around a character, Admiral Nommo, an Imperial officer seeking justice in a galactic civil war.

Beyond this, local fashion designers are also featured in various “mannequin exhibits.” “The idea was to try to have something from as many Black-led, Black-founded arts organizations, across disciplines. So, of course, we wanted theater, dance, costume design, and fashion,” Ekundayo said. “Oakland has such a unique look and vibe to fashion.” 

Located at 1500 Broadway, mannequins display costume designs from Andrea Lamadora’s work for the People’s Conservatory’s play KOLA: An Afro Diasporic Remix of The Nutcracker, accompanied by videos of performances. Another at 1621 Broadway features designs from Senay Alkebu-lan, a multidisciplinary artist from West Oakland, and his streetwear brand, Madow Futur. One of his most recognizable pieces is the “Oakland 1966” bomber jacket with the Black Panther logo embroidered on the back is on display (but is currently sold out.) 

The exhibit ends with a smiling photo of Ekundayo with Elisha Greenwell, founder of the Black Joy Parade, across the glass window of one of the newest apartment towers at 17th Street and Broadway. 

“These are the conversations with Story Windows, insisting that our stories be memorialized,” Ekundayo said. “We have to have these conversations with business districts, small businesses, corporate businesses, nonprofits. It’s a cross-sector conversation.”

Story Windows will run through July 31. However, the artwork on empty storefronts and murals on plywood will stay up unless removed by any future owner.

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