Atlas San Francisco: Dig Beneath Beautiful

View of the exhibition “Vanguard Revisited: Poetic Politics & Black Futures,” 2019, showing photographs by Pirkle Jones and Ruth-Marion Baruch, at the San Francisco Art Institute.

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A FEW YEARS BACK, I realized I couldn’t pose as any kind of expert on the Bay Area’s writing and art scenes without investigating the curatorial collective called the Black Aesthetic. The group was, and is, everywhere. Even their acronym seemed appropriate: TBA, with its sense of imminent revelation—something you were to be shown and might never forget. The group takes its name from a 1971 anthology, The Black Aesthetic, edited by Addison Gayle, Jr. Long out of print, this collection of essays was once the ne plus ultra of the Black Arts Movement founded by Amiri Baraka in 1965. Gayle celebrated the cultural production of black artists working in five arenas: theory, art, music, poetry, and fiction. He found the popular slogan “Black is beautiful” to be lacking something integral. “Black critics,” he wrote, “must dig beneath the phrase and unearth the treasure of beauty lying deep in the untoured regions of the Black experience—regions where others, due to historical conditioning and cultural deprivation, cannot go.”

Gayle, who died in 1991, might be proud of the young artists and scholars of the Black Aesthetic today, even though they, perhaps cheekily, insist on the primacy of a sixth category, one only sketchily alluded to in the 1971 compendium: cinema, the moving image. The group initially commanded attention when its founders, cousins Ryanaustin Dennis and Christian Johnson, began to program a series of black films after hours in the tiny Wolfman Books in downtown Oakland, close to the 12th Street BART station and in the shadow of City Hall. From the very first event in 2016, a screening of Cauleen Smith’s Drylongso (1998), news spread by word of mouth. A nice handful, then a roomful and more, of black cineasts came together. When the lights came on, the audience would “circle up,” as Dennis recalled; people broke down the rows of chairs and rearranged themselves in the round. A respondent jumped in to deliver prepared remarks, and then a torrent of speech burst forth, some voices in awe, some in sheer pleasure. “It was the feeling of community,” said Malika “Ra” Imhotep, a graduate student in the University of California, Berkeley’s department of African American studies and now one of the film series’ organizers. “I’d seen Drylongso before, but watching it alone, on Vimeo, what a different experience from seeing it on the screen, with a live audience, with others.”

It’s safe to say that most everybody in the Bay Area now knows of Wolfman Books, but a few years back, when this series began, not so much. The bookstore was opened in 2014 by the young white painter Justin Carder, who told anybody who would listen that he wanted his store to be more than a store—he wanted it to be an integrated meeting place for like and unlike minds. With luck, it might become a center for social activism.

Before long, TBA bucked the trend of shrinking audiences for art films in the Bay Area, where a climate of technological change and easy online access to many titles turned what were once film buffs into programmers of their own home cinemas. Several revered film societies shut their doors due to poor attendance—just as many gay bars that were jumping five years ago are now ghostly, haunted by a few seniors who haven’t gotten the word about Grindr. But TBA grew from strength to strength; they had a longer-range plan. Members of the audience and other respondents were asked to write up their remarks, turning them into critical essays, and at the end of the first season these essays went into a book. And the same process took place after the second season as well. Carder’s new imprint Wolfman Books published these collections, and he sold them at the bookstore and online.

Dennis and Johnson are no longer affiliated with TBA. Ever optimistic, Dennis has a new project, a community-based printing press and literary publishing house called Project Kalahati. In the fall, the press will issue a full-length book, the first collection of stories by the much-talked-about Oakland writer Ismail Muhammad.

Today, TBA is run by Leila Weefur, Malika Imhotep, and Jamal Batts. Weefur, an artist and filmmaker, is the collective’s most visible member. Literally, you can’t miss her in a crowd. She is tall, radiant, and animated, like the dancer Judith Jamison, the kind of person everybody wants a word with. Born here in California and raised in Ohio, she came West again for an MFA at Mills College in Oakland. I met her years ago, by chance, when she was hanging out with Melinda McDowell, herself an icon of Bay Area queer experimental film. (Melinda was the leading lady in films made by her brother, maverick gay director Curt McDowell, and since his death from AIDS in 1987 she has been the keeper of his legacy.) I next encountered Weefur collaborating with a Mills classmate, Shiloh Jines, who was, as I recall, trying to involve everybody in her quest to record the ampersand’s use, especially by queer poets, as a symbol of potentially infinite concatenation.

The next time I saw Weefur was at the Lab, San Francisco’s home for experimental music and film, at the premiere of Brontez Purnell’s sweet, sleek 2017 documentary about the late San Francisco–based dancer Ed Mock. Weefur and Dennis sat together next to me, so it must have been the early days of the Black Aesthetic. Purnell himself is a Bay Area legend—a dancer, actor, zinester, novelist, Whiting Award winner. Michelle Tea opened her effusive Granta profile by declaring, “Brontez Purnell is the queer scene in California.” These younger black artists are passionate about Mock, seeing in him a forebear, a postmodern genius lost in the holocaust of AIDS. Purnell’s documentary is surprisingly sober and straightforward. It feels like he’s paying homage to an ancestor by dragging him out of the scrap heap of history. Cunningly placed footage shows Mock at his peak, and where none is available, we see dancers of today attempting to re-create his choreography.

Weefur does all sorts of things outside her work with the Black Aesthetic. Her own filmmaking practice has expanded in new directions; earlier this year, the Oakland artist-run gallery Aggregate Space featured her intense video installation. I also want to salute her as the guest curator for one of the best shows of the year—“Vanguard Revisited: Poetic Politics & Black Futures,” organized with Jeff Gunderson. When I braved the heaviest rainstorm of the season in late January to see the show at the San Francisco Art Institute, I was rewarded with a great treasure: dozens of vintage photographs by Ruth-Marion Baruch and Pirkle Jones, some never seen before, showing ordinary life within the Black Panther Party in the spring of 1968. On a crowded staircase, Weefur introduced me to her mother, herself a Black Panther.

 

A NEW DIRECTION animates the present makeup of TBA. Invited to become resident curators at the Berkeley Art Museum/Pacific Film Archive (BAMPFA), Weefur, Batts, and Imhotep have been eager to meet the challenge. Working with the museum could generate a budget for such possible future events as a return visit from Arthur Jafa, whose The White Album (2018), a found-video montage about the white American experience, was screened in BAMPFA’s black-box gallery this past winter.

The trio was faced with a Hobson’s choice; BAMPFA asked them to show only films that were already in the archive. Without really knowing how many films by black directors there would be to choose from—and there were some grim rumors that there weren’t many—they found themselves in a dilemma. Should they persevere or go back to Wolfman? Eventually, they found that the archive held a lot of surprises, and they were glad that they stayed and explored what Batts called “the limits and possibilities of the archive.” But first they had to find all the black films. The Pacific Film Archive, established in 1967, provided an eye-opening lesson in changing styles of nomenclature. “Search ‘African American,’ search ‘black,’ search ‘Negro’—you had to be creative,” Imhotep said.

Their spring series at BAMPFA was dubbed “Black Interiors,” after poet Elizabeth Alexander’s similarly titled book of essays, The Black Interior (2004). In tightly drawn chapters that focus on topics such as Jean-Michel Basquiat, Romare Bearden, and the contents of her mother’s living room, Alexander brings us the “parts of blackness,” Imhotep told me, “that are overlooked or taken for granted when you get hyper visible types of representation.” Alexander herself writes: “Tapping into this black imaginary helps us envision what we are not meant to envision: complex black selves, real and enactable black power, rampant and unfetishized black beauty.”

“Black Interiors” had three programs running this spring: Sweat, Spirit, and Intimacy. I was stunned to see a screening of Relatives (1989), a short directed by Julie Dash, shot by Jafa, and featuring an old friend of mine, choreographer Ishmael Houston-Jones. In a New York studio that looks like a garage, Houston-Jones carries his own mother into a kitchen set where she reminisces about her life, her migration to the big city. And her son begins dancing out her memories. This aspect of Relatives captivated Batts and Imhotep, both migrants themselves—he from Virginia Beach, she from Atlanta. “The way Ishmael Houston-Jones interacts with his mother!” Imhotep exclaimed. “It’s black experimental cinema—undeniably black, an undeniably intimate situation.” “It’s black intergenerational memory through dance and movement. A family reenacting a photo through dance,” Batts added. “I think about the industrial space, about migrating from their familial home to the city. And the voice of mother travels with him wherever he goes.”