‘Musical Chairs’ at Pro Arts delves deep into Bay Area housing crisis

Willow Yang/Senior Staff

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As the music stops, another person is left without a chair. More rounds go by as the music starts and stops, each time excluding one more person. What may seem like an innocent game of musical chairs has become a bleak reality in the Bay Area’s housing market.

Oakland-based artist Warith Taha’s project titled “Musical Chairs,” which is now on exhibit at Pro Arts, investigates the ramifications of the housing crisis on the Bay Area and its long-time citizenry. “Musical Chairs” is an assemblage art piece that encompasses repurposed cardboard boxes and packing materials, “For Sale” signs, keys and, of course, a chair. The chair, Taha explained in an artist talk that was held Sept. 6, was acquired from a family who was being displaced and did not have room to take it in their move.

With “Musical Chairs,” Taha explores his place as an artist and person of color — his self-described “multiple marginalized identities” — in Oakland and how his roles shift in the process of displacement. Taha explained that “Musical Chairs” focuses on himself in a larger community narrative and social context. “I wanted to make sense of my own personal experience,” said Taha.

Although Taha is an Oakland native, he can no longer afford to live in his hometown. Taha was inspired to start “Musical Chairs” when he was living with his aunt, sleeping on her living room floor. He was troubled to find himself in this situation despite having degrees in sociology and studio art from Boston College, travelling the world and even speaking Chinese. “The only thing I could think about at the time was housing, where I was going to live. I couldn’t pursue any other art other than this,” Taha said.

Keys, he explained, are a symbol of who has access and ownership to land and space. Keys can lock in a sometimes false sense of permanence, which is perhaps why Taha employs keys to focus on movement in this moment in time. In “Musical Chairs,” Taha has configured the keys in the shape of a door, alluding to a metaphorical revolving door of people moving in and out of homes based on socioeconomic status. Taha wryly joked that he obtained the keys for his project by purchasing a big bucket of them from eBay for about $35.

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Nicole White/Senior Staff

Displayed in the Pro Arts gallery window — located in front of Oakland City Hall — “Musical Chairs” confronts the social and political underpinnings of gentrification. The choice of displaying his work in a window for public consumption allows passersby to interact with the piece.

“I want to engage populations that don’t traditionally go to galleries,” Taha said.

Taha expressed the importance of galleries — such as Pro Arts — engaging native residents into community conversation through collaborations with local artists. He believes that if you are going to command people’s attention with space, they should be absorbed in a narrative and encouraged to think in a new way. “Artists and art institutions need to start thinking responsibly,” he said.

Taha is using his artistic voice to pave the way for responsible art. The work on display at Pro Arts is only one part of Taha’s project. As an art teacher, Taha first documented the ongoing process of gentrification in San Francisco with his students, the youth, through an interactive pinhole camera project. This helped start the conversation. Community members stopped to talk to the students about their own stories of displacement. Given an entry point, the community members opened up with their experiences — a possibility that he hopes to explore further with his exhibit at Pro Arts.

Although Taha feels like it is too late for Oakland, he wants more people to recognize the first signs of gentrification and stop it before it encroaches on other cities. Looking forward, Taha hopes that there can be a chair at the table for everyone.

Musical Chairs will be on display at Pro Arts until Sept. 30.

Contact Nicole White at [email protected].