On a darkened stage, a solo dancer dons a naval jacket and hat as she moves to the rhythm of a fast-paced drum. But the solo is hardly just a performance; it is a telling of a hidden story for dancer Valencia James.
Part of the UC Berkeley Art Practice Masters of Fine Arts, or MFA, class of 2024, James showcased her work in the opening reception, Cacophonies of Resistance, in January, which surrounded themes of reimagining what it means to resist.
Since the COVID-19 pandemic, James has been working at the intersections of dance, theater and emerging technology. In particular, she is curious about how these intersections can tell stories that are not often shown.
As a member of the Barbadian diaspora, she chose to investigate the origins of Barbados Landship, a “socio-cultural movement inspired by the Black working class for collective survival in the face of the harsh economic climate, before and after the abolition of slavery,” James said.
According to James, the movement has struggled to continue due to a lack of new members.
She thus decided to reimagine the tradition as more relevant to her personal story and to the needs of today.
“I am striving towards how I can shed light on past injustices that tend to be swept under the rug and how we can elevate these issues in such a way that invites critical self-reflection from the viewer or the audience,” James said.
Nivedita Madigubba, a fellow MFA cohort member, was also interested in exploring her personal story through her work in the reception.
After graduating from UC Berkeley, Madigubba started studying Vedanta philosophy and its relation to different forms of art, especially expression through language.
“I think of language as something we speak to our bodies,” Madigubba said.
Her work for the reception focused on the way bodies are used to communicate.
During her undergraduate experience, she said what stood out to her was the teaching of a dominant art language and such teaching being individual rather than collective in today’s society. She added that many stories are left out because of this idea of individuality.
“What we understand as art is all very Western,” Madigubba said. “It’s the kind of stories that haven’t been told, not one form of art but multiple forms of art. Trying to fill in those gaps would be a form of resistance within visual and performance art.”
Besides showcasing art through the MFA program, local and public art around the city of Berkeley has made an impact on revealing and embracing marginalized voices.
Local art is in the “public’s face,” Andre Jones said, executive director of the Bay Area Mural Program, or BAMP, a nonprofit organization that focuses on facilitating community engaged, large-scale public art projects.
Jones noted that public art’s potential for outreach is what makes it distinct from other art forms.
Founded in 2017, BAMP served to elevate artists of color and enable them to live off of their work. Following the COVID-19 pandemic and issues of police brutality, Jones said the organization began to gain more recognition, being called on to produce protest art like their Black Lives Matter street paintings in San Francisco and Oakland.
Both scale and content, Jones said, makes the artwork not only accessible, but an inspiration if resistance for members of the community.
“It was just a time for our work to really express what was going on from a genuine place where we had complaints of not being represented in public art before,” Jones said. “I feel like being able to see a representation of yourself in the places that you live is empowering.”
For Doran Dada, a local artist who recently painted two murals in the city of Berkeley, this was exactly his purpose, he said.
Dada noted the fuel behind his most recent work is to display the art and contributions of Black communities and fight against misconceptions and anger directed towards them.
“With my art, I’m definitely making a statement about Black identity and Black history, who we are and where we come from,” Dada said.
Growing up in an artistic family, Dada said it had felt natural to become an artist. But in recent years, he began exploring ways in which he could celebrate Black history and achievements through art.
Most of Dada’s work stems from his long-held interest in Egyptian hieroglyphics. He has now become more interested in bringing attention to the contributions of Black culture using hieroglyphics.
“My form of resistance is telling history like it is and letting it work itself out,” Dada said.
In her showcase, James concludes by inviting members of the audience to participate in a Barbadian tradition called the Maypole ritual, where they gather around a tall pole and weave colorful ribbons as the show comes to an end.
For James, her use of the audience was to show not only a sense of African unity and empowerment for the Black community, but also self-reflection. This, she believes, is an important part of art.
“The duty of the artist is to really put a mirror up to society,” James said. “I think that’s really our superpower. I think art can reach our heart and our psyches in a way that other mediums can’t.”