The Oakland Museum of California courted a little bit of controversy this spring when it mounted an exhibit about cannabis, dated public service announcements and all. But the subject matter of "Altered State: Marijuana in California" — which is as much about the social-justice thicket surrounding racist practices of incarceration in California as it is about the biology of the bud — might pale beyond another issue afflicting Oakland: gentrification.
"Oakland, I want you to know...," which opens Saturday, July 23, grapples with community anger over the emergency of displacement and seeks to channel it in constructive ways, without giving in to despair. It's framed as a collection of neighborhoods, each designated as the entry point for a particular facet of a changing city, a scheme that developed out of a series of reports and focus groups the museum commissioned a couple years ago in neighborhoods like West Oakland, Chinatown, San Antonio, and downtown.
"We asked people, 'How can we as OMCA be a better neighbor?' " says Evelyn Orantes, the curator of public practice. "And, 'What are the top concerns affecting your community?' "
The result — still an active construction site when Orantes walked me through it — is a sort of Oakland-in-microcosm that contains nods to Victorian architecture, the community gardens that sprang up out of a food desert, and interviews with giants in the city's long R&B scene. Although color-coded maps reveal the long legacy of redlining and its relationship with the ongoing foreclosure crisis, "Oakland, I want you to know..." takes care not to present the city's vulnerable population as victims of the invisible hand, but as an artist- and activist-led force empowered with the resources to chart its own future — and one with a lot of fight left in it.
"This is such a volatile conversation," Orantes says. "You feel powerless, but we can equip people with some basics, and let you know about organizations that are doing the work. So if you're motivated, you can connect with them."
In that context, the Victorians are not meant to be architectural relics admired for their egg-and-dart trim. Rather, they're a point of pride for West Oakland's African-American middle class, which found stability in homeownership after the Great Migration began in the early 20th century. This community, the exhibit says, is unique — and there's archival material to back that up.
"We have a series of photographs by Julie Plasencia, who lived on Chester Street in West Oakland," Orantes says. "Over the course of a couple of years, she started photographing all her neighbors, exploring their stories. How did they make it to that neighborhood? When you look at the series together, you see the beauty and diversity of Oakland. That's what we want to protect."
And while most museum exhibits catalogue existing art, "Oakland I want you to know..." generates it, too. Book kits distributed to city schools got children involved with telling their stories, and the project will expand to senior centers to get some elders' perspective, as well. Moreover, Orantes' collaborator Chris Treggiari is an artist who, through his Mobile Art Platform, stages a form of street theater while dressed like a construction worker.
"We have a '63 van tricked out like a surveillance vehicle, and a Vespa with a printmaking cart, a teardrop-shaped trailer," Treggiari says. "We go out and pop in front of construction sites with silkscreened posters that ask people to think about the future of this area. It's always an exchange: We give them a piece of art, and collect their responses, and archive them."
Although its non-confrontational, the tension — between what people want for their neighborhoods and what they assume will happen no matter what — informs Treggiari's approach, and he plans to deliver the collected responses to the city. ("It's all about being public and visible," he says.)
There are confrontational sections, such as a wall scrawled with messages inveighing against outsiders and crowned with the statement, "We good over here. Stay over there." Orantes says that this, too, is meant to understand divides, and not widen them. Citing an artist she'd worked with, she believes that newcomers can play a role in community improvement, but it might help smooth frictions if newbies thought of themselves — initially, at least — as guests.
"It says, 'To those of you that are here to help us build, we welcome you. To those that are here to take, stay over there,' " Orantes says. "When you're a guest, you get to now the people who are hosting you. Being a good neighbor."
In the end, "Oakland, I want you to know..." strikes a relatively happy chord, with inspiring videos about the youth urban farm project Acta Non Verba and a section on 1960s-era club Esther's Orbit Room. It also doesn't hurt that OMCA staff were able to raid Fantastic Negrito's proverbial closet: The exhibit contains the musician's guitar and early versions of some of his album art, plus his latest record, The Last Days of Oakland, will function as its soundtrack. (But if you haven't gotten your fill of hot-button topics, "Altered State" is up through Sept. 25.)
Ultimately, with its exhortations to Keep Oakland Creative and its determination to inform, Orantes is confident that "Oakland, I want you to know..." will be a clap on the shoulder to long-term residents experiencing a bit of battle fatigue. But she's forthright about the challenges the city faces. Artists amplify the community, she says — but if there's a theme to Fantastic Negrito's album, it's that it can be hard to separate the good from the bad when change comes to town.
"No one's going to turn away resources, but not at the expense of everyone getting pushed out," Orantes says. "That's the tug-of-war we're all trying to wrap our heads around."