Interview by Eda Yu
Photography by Olivia Krause
Late afternoon sun filtered in through an upstairs window of Athen B. Gallery, shedding light on a row of vibrant, multi-colored abstract paintings that decorated a corner of the workspace. Digital and pen-inked illustrations line the walls; massive paintings frame a brown, wooden table in the middle of the room. On the table, a notebook about the science of color sits open, as if someone has just finished rifling through the section on blues.
Suddenly, a group of 11 exuberant Black artists enter the space, disrupting the momentary stillness and filling the studio with life. The Black Mail Show had arrived.
Although many people in the Bay Area arts scene are familiar with the venerable Oakland art gallery, Athen B. — which celebrated its 20th anniversary in late June — few know about the quiet, second-story studio and treasured space of The Black Mail Show: a collective of Black artists sublimely dedicated to upholding and redefining the work of Black creatives in the Bay Area and, ultimately, around the world.
Here, we sat down with the group — comprised of Chris Burch, Chris Martin, Arrington “Ace” West, Soleil Summer, Joonbug (Lenworth McIntosh), Adrian Walker, Wardell McNeal, Yoni Asega, Yetunde Olagbaju, Muzae Sesay, Jared Mitchell — to discuss the collective’s origins, message, and desired impact on the dynamically ever-shifting world we inhabit today. Read the conversation below.
When did the collective get started?
Ace: It all came from an idea concept from [the first Black Mail] show. After the show was finished, I asked the first 5 of us — Joonbug, Christopher Martin, Michael Covington, and Muzae, including myself — if they wanted to be a collective. And then after that, we invited more artists to show work with the message of collaborating with people, [with] like minds, and having better representation. I wanted to help [put on talented friends and artists], since we were all in the same space with our intention, creativity, activism, community.
So, was the purpose of the Black Mail show originally to hold space for artists and narratives that don’t receive the recognition they deserve?
Ace: At first it might seem like that, but the reception of the show has been immense, with almost little to no promotion, and without [the support of] any major outlets — except for SF Weekly and SF Hoodlum — other than our own social media outreach. [These were] actually people that care…that were like, we just need this. This feels right. I could feel good being here.
When you first hear the name “Black Mail,” you get the connotation of a Black male, a more gendered connotation. Was the choice intentional?
Ace: Growing up in North Carolina, my mother raised me in a way that was really strict. Everything she said about the representation of [Black males was that] the way I represented myself was really important to the world, because I’m not supposed to be successful. I’m not supposed to be alive at 25.
So, with the history [and stereotypes that accompany being a] Black male, for my initial concept, I wanted to help add good media to what a Black male was. The reason why it wasn’t spelled “m-a-l-e” was to play [on words] about the fact that it was 5 men. That was obviously a given. But I knew that, beyond that, I didn’t want it to be all males. It was always supposed to be a Black message. That’s why it’s “Black Mail.” Black message.
Yetunde: I think it’s [also] important to talk about how the group has changed. The initial impetus of saying, “This is Black Mail/Male” was really smart. It’s clearly a play on words. But now the group has grown. As we continue to open up to Black artists and creative thinkers in the Bay, we shift that. And I think [now] we can visually shift [our name] to say that we are using the negative connotation that Black people and creatives have in a predominantly white-oriented and dominated field. We’re black mailing the status quo and demanding that they re-orient, redistribute and redefine positions of power for artistic communities. Especially for Black creative people.
What kind of art does the group put on? What kind of impact do you want it to have on your audience?
Muzae: One thing that I really wanted to do is have the show and the collective carry [the] social meaning [of supporting Black artistry]. So that it allows me, myself, and my personal art to speak for itself. It gives me space to explore abstract thoughts that are based in the social realm, but don’t have the outward push of a social justice directive, instead letting the theme of the work develop naturally.
So that the collective space in and of itself is like a brief liberation from the constraints of stereotypes imposed on the individual work of Black or POC artists.
Muzae: Yeah, I feel like the freedom of abstraction and expression has been taken away from POC so many times because people often expect something. For example, after the first show, some people came up to me saying, “Wow. That was a really good show. I was not expecting that.” When you hear about a show with Black males, a lot of people have the connotation that it’ll be flipped over cop cars. Some real things that they thought were Black.
In my ideas, I think that putting Blackness in a box is a white idea. It’s something that’s hindered the growth of Black people in general. I think all art is Black art. The social meanings that come out of it come out of my entire Black process. Everything is there, but maybe not how people expect to see it.
And maybe not as explicitly stated some of the time.
Muzae: But I think there’s room for that as well. The idea is not that it should be one way or the other. It’s more that it should be all of it. And that’s what I felt that the first show really did. All of us had different styles, and that was really cool to showcase. Like, look. These Black guys can do these things that white artists are doing just as good. So I was really liberated in that sense, and that’s how I think about the collective.
It’s liberation from stereotypes as well. You’re redefining through your own work what you consider to be the Black narrative.
Yetunde: I think what Muzae is touching on is this expectation as a Black artist to talk about certain issues that plague Black people in general — either historically or currently. That’s not the goal of the collective. While the goal of the collective is to create opportunity and to be, in a deeper capacity, advocates for social justice and change and a catalyst for opportunity, I don’t think that our main objective is to promote artwork that talks about plural Black issues. Again, as Muzae was saying, I think that pigeonholes us into another stereotype, which often only benefits a white audience.
So I think that’s the most important part; that’s the most radical part. We’re asking people to come as they are, and to create as they want — and it’s still Black art. It’s still a Black collective; it’s still Black-oriented space. And a space for our friends.
Wardell: And I think part of our intention is showing other young Black people that [art] is also a form of expression. You don’t have to be a basketball player. You can put that same time, that same passion into something else. It doesn’t have to be the tropes of society.
You’re offering a different kind of representation as well through the work.
Yetunde: And you’re creating something yourself. It’s not — it doesn’t have to be somebody else creating something for you that you plug yourself into.
Joonbug: The representation also stretches to different types of art or different types of successes you can have in art. All of us bring different styles to the table. We’re all evolving into different styles. You can see this fad art, of kids who were exposed to one type of art [all] doing the same thing — and they don’t even realize they’re doing the same thing. I feel like [instead, we’re bringing] different styles, different techniques, different processes, and also show that we are evolving [in those]. We’re not necessarily stagnant in our own styles. And that, in and of itself, creates a larger scope for what success can mean as an artist.
Right, because even within the collective itself, you all have different skillsets. And your skillsets continue to evolve through your work here. In that sense, your representation is constantly dynamically shifting.
Joonbug: Right. And we’re all looking at each other for inspiration. And each of us is looking at other fields. I’m not necessarily looking at the same thing Muzae is looking at or Ace. But they bring something back, and they kind of put it in this pool within the circle of us. And we all pick and pull from that.
Do you feel that being a part of Athen B. or that being situated in Oakland’s changing landscape plays a role in what the group does?
I think the majority of our artists are from outside of the Bay Area — from St. Louis, from Dallas, from North Carolina, from Nevada, from Long Beach, Minnesota and San Jose. I say all that to say this: If these people weren’t in the Bay Area right now, I don’t know where my life would be. And I’m from the Bay. When I met the collective, it was at the time of the elections. This was at the time when there was a whole bunch of race baiting going on in our national dialogue, at the time when we had the KKK marching. This was in a time when the national dialogue is very anti-Black. And I felt like I was in an anti-Black environment, and came to realize it was so.
So, having the members here is everything — but on the question of changing. Oakland’s fasho changing. There’s a lot of people who grew up in Oakland when we were reaching nearly 300 murders a year. That’s damn near a murder every day. There are a lot of people that have lost friends to that kind of senseless violence and are still trying to resolve that with themselves. Just this past year — I had a friend whose boyfriend was murdered just the night before Valentine’s night. And I have a colleague whose boyfriend was murdered the day after Valentine’s Day. West Oakland is drastically changing right now. Downtown is drastically changing. And East Oakland is just waiting for the wave to come and push them out. They’re literally just waiting, sitting.
So, for me, Black Mail is a way to elevate the dialogue. You know, Jay Z says [in the song “The Story of O.J.”], please don’t die over the neighborhood that your mama rentin’. We’re all Black; that’s a universal truth. I know for a fact that I’m a descendant of slaves. And if we can start looking at nationwide trends, the problems that we’re facing here in Oakland and in the Bay Area are the same problems that are taking place all over in Brooklyn, New York, Atlanta.
Who have been your biggest supporters through the process?
Ace: Basically everybody that’s connected or that sees the potential, and that wants to continue to help. Athen B., The Luggage Store, all the neighborhoods that support us, all the artists that we work with that get down with the collective too. Yeah, we’d just be here all day. Laughs.
Yetunde: I wanna shout out my mom.
Muzae: I also want to add to the idea that community’s changing. I think it’s important to realize that all communities are changing, constantly, always. It’s really a matter of how you’re changing it, and how you as an individual work in the collective. And how you are a part of the world around you. How you are shaping your neighborhood. It doesn’t really matter [where] you’re from. It matters how you’re contributing to what you want to see in it. Be a part of the change you want to see.
Jared: I didn’t want to sound cheesy, but… as we shout out people in particular, people who exemplify that [mentality], I think we should also shout out the nameless people that exemplify that. Before the collective was present, everybody was out here moving solo and had a vision of what they wanted to do, the type of people they wanted to be around, and the impact they wanted to have. When people have the same energy and the same objectives, they end up in the same place doing the same thing.
So, anybody that’s rockin’ with that, shouts out to you. Keep it lit.
Words & Interview By Eda Yu
Black Mail is a platform made to tackle issues of what it means to be Black in America. The collective was created to show our diversity, while breaking down the negative images portrayed in the media. Each artist in the collective has a purpose as well as a goal to reach – and through unification we are sending a bigger message that we will come together to enhance our culture, community, and creativity.