In the aftermath of George Floyd’s death, communities across the nation reacted with racial justice protests. During this time, artists began immediately transforming the streets of downtown Oakland. Windows and walls were blanketed with murals by Black artists, for Black community members to memorialize the continued importance of the Black Lives Matter movement.
Elisha Greenwell, founder of the nonprofit Black Joy Parade, saw the images of vulnerability, pain and hope sprawled across downtown Oakland but realized they were beginning to vanish.
With Red Bull, Greenwell and Black Joy Parade then created the Artist Lift Off project. Working with Black-owned businesses in Oakland, six artists were commissioned to repaint their work on top of a Red Bull cooler.
Black Joy Parade is an annual, free event in downtown Oakland held during the month of February. Greenwell had seen Black people gather as a group for protests and movements to fight against racism. While important, Greenwell realized there was little space where the beauty of Blackness was at the forefront of the event.
“Could we gather mass, just because we can?” Greenwell said in an interview with The Daily Californian. “Just because we’re amazing and beautiful, and creative, and we’re celebrating and our value is innate?”
Her idea snowballed into a massive movement involving and focusing on the local community. Thousands of Black people carved out moments of belonging and celebrated in the streets, local businesses and artists were featured and the city’s cultural contributions were honored.
“In Oakland, it didn’t matter. You’re Black, and you’re beautiful. You’re wonderful,” Greenwell said. “There’s just so much joy that’s always lived here.”
When Greenwell saw art coming to life, she feared it would be pushed aside the moment interest in the Black Lives Matter movement stopped “trending.” It was paramount to her to not only aid the longevity of these art pieces, but, most importantly, help Black Bay Area artists sustain their careers as well.
“The power of this art is exponential, right? It’s infinite of its influence on the world, but the sort of monetary support of that does not add up,” Greenwell said. “It’s hard to survive as anybody in the Bay Area, let alone an artist.”
During this summer’s protests, Blane Asrat, known professionally as Art Blane, had gained media attention after spontaneously painting a portrait of a Black woman. Coming to clean up downtown Oakland after a protest, she saw the message “Black Lives Matter” scrawled out on a wall. In two hours, she created a portrait, purposefully painting a woman with “distinctive African features” to challenge the lack of representation in the art world.
“Most of my artwork is about human emotions, and I spend a lot of my time painting things that are, like, really raw,” Asrat said. “I want to make things that make people feel less alone.”
Asrat herself was one of two Black female students in her industrial design program. Being a creator in an underrepresented space, she wanted to incorporate design specifically for Black people. Asrat soon realized she needed to be more “intentional” in representing her experiences, especially when she saw the pattern of people pigeonholing Black artists.
“People no longer see you as a designer or an artist. They start to see you as, like, ‘the activist one.’ Or, ‘the one that’s always into so-called social issues,’ ” Asrat said. “When, really, it’s not that, you know. It’s just you trying to find a story that represents you.”
While her Black identity is a central theme in her work, she found that the intense focus on the label of a “Black artist” created an experience of othering — one that did not directly translate to financial equity, not when Black voices were used to the benefit of others’ public image.
Through the protests, Asrat found a community of artists working together to extend the lifeline of the murals and protect them from violent vandalization. After getting involved with Artist Lift Off, she learned to protect the rights to her work and collaborated with Oakland restaurant Hopscotch in creating a cooler dedicated to Black jazz musicians.
“This is the first time a company actually was like, ‘We want to pay you for your work,’ ” Asrat said. “This is the first time it kind of went beyond that sort of, you know, performative soundbites, and more into like, ‘We actually want to get something equitable out of this.’ ”
Greenwell created the project as a means of not only emotionally and financially supporting Black artists, but also underscoring their value to the Oakland community. Her hope is that artists won’t have to decide between pursuing art as a passion or finding a job with a stable income; instead, the value of both will be intertwined.
“I think we’d all be really happy in a world where we don’t have to make that choice,” Greenwell said. “That the thing that we make money doing, the thing that we have a good quality of life doing is also our passion, is also good for our community, is not extractive from anybody, but it’s additive.”
Contact Kelly Nguyen at [email protected].