Spotlight: Oakland’s Ashara Ekundayo Gallery and Betti Ono Gallery
Photo courtesy of Kierra Johnson.
The Oakland arts community needs no introduction. Thanks to the unique collection of artists who are also residents of the city, the Town has so much diverse art to offer — whether it’s shared through galleries, street murals, film festivals, artist talks or art walks.
Many get to see a glimpse of the city’s arts community through Oakland Art Murmur’s First Friday Art Walk: a monthly tradition where Oakland locals and people from all over the Bay Area can come together to celebrate homegrown art.
In Oakland, an important focus within the arts community is one that celebrates black art — and more specifically, black women art. There are only a handful of black-owned galleries, and they are all owned by women.
Two of those galleries are right here in Oakland: Ashara Ekundayo Gallery and Betti Ono Gallery. They both do work to celebrate and amplify the voices of black women in the community.
Ashara Ekundayo Gallery
Photo courtesy of Ashara Ekundayo Gallery.
Ashara Ekundayo is a community organizer, social entrepreneur and “artivist.” She has been an independent curator for 29 years and also co-founded Impact Hub, a coworking space and event venue in Oakland for entrepreneurs creating positive impact. Her gallery, Ashara Ekundayo Gallery, was established earlier this year as she sought to provide a “place and space for black women’s stories and creative force.”
“What we know about society in the U.S is that indigenous women, black women continue to live at the bottom of the economic strata,” Ekundayo said. “I’m hoping we will continue to have a special space — where black women’s voices are amplified and celebrated.”
Her current exhibition, “Particular Relativity: As the Universe, So the Soul” is a conversation involving four black women artists who utilize various materials to express their identities and experiences. The exhibition doesn’t hold a central theme — each of these artists uses their own tools to carry distinct conversations with their art.
Photo courtesy of Ashara Ekundayo Gallery.
For instance, Bre Gipson is an installation artist and uses stone and crystals; she has taught crystal workshops for the community, thus inviting the public to create with her. Another artist Ekundayo found was actually an Instagram friend of her son’s — OFMELIA — a Cal student who does graffiti art and has two murals on display in the gallery. Anita Bates is a painter from Detroit, using seeds and other earthbound materials in her illustrations. The fourth artist, Kristine Mays, is a San Francisco native who expresses the human form with wire.
Ekundayo hopes that the gallery is inclusive to everyone, and that “everyone will see themselves welcome — each body.” She’s also looking for formal partnerships with arts institutions and other curators — ways for other artists and organizations to work with her and embrace collaboration.
Betti Ono Gallery
Betti Ono Gallery is another Oakland space where black women’s voices are honored and elevated. Chief curator and programmer Anyka Barber is an artist born and raised in Oakland, and she started Betti Ono back in 2010. What began as a creative social enterprise to incubate local, multicultural art grew into the gallery that’s now in downtown Oakland.
“I wanted to take the opportunity to design for culture, commerce and gathering to happen with this idea of multiculturalism,” Barber said. “So really lifting up the stories of black and brown, indigenous, native people — having a space for them to see themselves, gather, present their work professionally.”
She received the seed funding to start Betti Ono from her grandmother and mother — so the space is rooted in family business and women’s power and creativity. The name is inspired from two historical female figures who Barber believes moved culture forward and have not fully received the recognition they deserve: Betty Miles Davis and Yoko Ono.
“I wanted to name the space to be a personification of that unapologetic spirit of boldness, curiosity, creativity — but also of activism and being socially astute and aware of what’s happening in the world and using your creativity to address those things,” Barber said.
Holding the space hasn’t been easy, though. She started a conversation with the city seven years ago to secure a long term lease that’s still occuring today. However, there’s finally a draft of a lease signed and Barber is hoping to sign it before August, which “hopefully will mean that we have a sustainable future to design for."
“If you don’t have the protection of a long term lease — even if you’re thinking about it as a homeowner or renter — what do you have?” Barber said.
“I’m thankful that we have arrived at this point,’ Barber added. “I want to continue to partner with the city of Oakland around what it looks like to dig in and support culture and not just artists — but people, and their culture.”
Betti Ono’s current exhibition is “Signify,” a solo show by local photographer Kierra Johnson. The inspiration for her work comes from her lived experience as a Southern black woman growing up in Decatur, Georgia. She is also hugely influenced by black cinema, particularly from the 90s and early 2000s. “Eve’s Bayou” and “Soul Food” are two of her favorites.
“Signify” is focused on the idea of gestures that signify blackness. She was on a trip to Ghana and noticed women there laughing and slapping each other — gestures done in such a way that looked exactly like what she saw growing up in her family.
“This work came about focusing on hands, as one part inspired by my lived experience but also wanting to explore black culture and our mannerisms and the way these gestures have traveled from West Africa to now,” Johnson said.
Kierra Johnson and the lead photo "Couch Sittin'" (2018) from her solo exhibition SIGNIFY. Photo courtesy of Betti Ono Gallery's Facebook page.
Her photos were taken in California, Alabama and Georgia — which she felt told a story in itself and how it also symbolized the Great Migration. Many subjects in her photos are her family members, like his grandparents at their church, and her mother and brother in separate photos.
“As with anything I do, I try to center my work in healing,” Johnson said. “My initial hope is that people get some type of healing in my work, whether that reminds them of their home, their church, their partner, their friends.”
She described how after looking at one photo, “one woman came up to me crying because it reminded her of her grandmother.”
Johnson is just emerging in the arts scene in Oakland, and since she moved here in 2011 the community has welcomed her with open arms.
“It’s been so open in the arts spaces,” Johnson said. “Oakland is all about the community — that has been my only impression.”
Both exhibitions at Ashara Ekundayo Gallery and Betti Ono Gallery will be open through First Friday on Aug. 3, and will have closing receptions that night from 6 to 9pm. For more information, visit ashara.io and bettiono.com.
Oakland Art MurmurSM is a 501(c)3 non-profit that aims to aggregate information, and be a resource for the public and the broader arts community concerning Oakland’s visual arts. For more information, visit OaklandArtMurmur.org.