URBAN x INDIGENOUS arts festival offers space for reconnecting diaspora, underrepresented communities

David Rodriguez/Staff

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“The only thing required for you is to be comfortable,” said sound artist Grace Osborne to a group of no more than 20 people that she led onto the unlit stage of SOMArts Cultural Center. She lifted a metal bowl — a standing bell — and struck its side with a cylindrical mallet. Only the sound of cars driving over Interstate 80 and barks from a dog in the lobby remained as the calm ring enveloped the stage.

A sound healing workshop was just one facet of URBAN x INDIGENOUS IV: Unite the Tribes, or UxI, a two-day community festival presented by the Asian Pacific Islander Cultural Center of San Francisco over the weekend. Though mainly centered around artworks and performances by artists of color working with various media, the event also featured panels with scholars, educators and community activists as well as intimate workshops such as the one led by Osborne.

Such is the scope of an arts festival focused on renewing and “healing” the indigenous community, a community often underrepresented and forgotten within the Bay Area.

“UxI is so important because it’s not us seeing ourselves in the past or written as extinct or written as other, as foreign, which museums are so good at,” said Sammay Dizon in an interview with The Daily Californian. Dizion, 26, is of Kapampangan, Ilokano and Bikol descent and is an artist, UC Berkeley alumna and founder of UxI. “I think that’s the vital piece of UxI — these tribes exist.”

Throughout Saturday and Sunday, UxI exhibited works from more than 25 visual artists — gathered through a call for submissions — with each piece focused on themes of cultural identity, diaspora, community and healing.

In the middle of the 3,330-square-foot space, an interactive installation piece by Lehua M. Taitano and Lisa Jarrett instructed viewers to sit down at four designated points of a vegetable seedling circle, titled “Snip,” “Chew,” “Draw” and “Unburden.” The stations encouraged participants to either snip a lock of their hair, chew a piece of fruit or write down a secret that “created a negative feeling” and to place them all into the container of soil, which will be composted at an organic garden in Santa Rosa, California.

Acting as the culminating experience, the center of the installation piece, labeled “Grow,” allowed viewers to plant a radish seed into the small pot provided and record their intentions for the seed in a notebook.

“(UxI) is an event where somebody can take something back with them, whether they really chose to come for that or not,” said Los Angeles-based artist champoy. The 38-year-old artist was one of the featured artists of UxI for his sculptural pieces. “It’s also that experience where they actually help create it,” he said.

The collaborative exhibit was not the only aspect of UxI that evoked the communal values of indigenous and Native cultures. Dance was the most prominent medium showcased within the festival, with “H.O.L.Y. City” (standing for Hate Often Loves You), an interpretative dance piece directed by and featuring Dizon, as one of the festival’s main acts.

At the outset of “H.O.L.Y. City,” the boundaries of the designated stage at SOMArts were crossed, expanding to the lobby of the cultural center. Attendees are told to wait for the show to begin. Without warning, Dizon, dressed in black and guarding a suitcase, would appear out of nowhere and with a frightened, childlike voice, ask, “Where are we now?” With the rest of the performance mostly expressed through motion, audience members were left to piece together their own meanings from the show.

Whether through its interactive installation pieces or interpretive dance routines, each element of UxI remained closely tied to what Dizon envisions as the painstaking process of “decolonization” and “reindigenization.”

“Part of the decolonization process is understanding that we are colonized people and that … psychologically, we have colonial mentalities,” Dizon said. “Once we have literally opened the veil around that for ourselves, then it is our responsibility to look at that and to identify what traumas need to be looked at and unearthed and essentially healed, and that’s a lifelong process.”

The festival’s central focus on reunification of diaspora communities and cultural revitalization is timely in light of recent events. With Ohlone protests occurring on housing developments upon what many consider to be the location of the West Berkeley Shellmound and, on a national level, U.S. Customs and Border Protection separating children from their families, UxI can be seen as just one of many responses from these underrepresented communities.

“UxI … is the one day where we get to live in the world that we imagine for our future generations,” Dizon said.

Only time will tell how long that world will remain tucked in a cultural center underneath an overpass.

Contact Lloyd Lee at [email protected]. Tweet him at @helloydlee.