Nia Imara emerged from a storage closet in the East Oakland Youth Development center with a large canvas covered in bright shades of red, purple and yellow. The painting was one of her own and had been inspired by an old photo of a black woman brushing her hair and looking into a compact mirror. The woman sat in a large flower with smaller flowers blooming from the center—the floral, an artistic addition not present in the original photo. Small white spots that were evocative of snow, pollen, or maybe even stars surrounded the woman.
Born in East Oakland and raised in the Bay Area, Imara is an astronomer and a researcher at Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, holding the prestigious title of a Harvard-MIT Future Faculty Leader Postdoctoral Fellow. Not only was she was the first African American woman to get a Ph.D. in astrophysics from UC Berkeley, but she is also a self-taught painter.
Imara currently resides in Cambridge, Massachusetts where she conducts much of her research, which focuses on giant molecular clouds. She had just flown into Oakland the previous evening to host her “Generation of Oakland: The People’s Portrait” photo project and present her one-day art exhibit, “Lumiphilia.” The events took place at the East Oakland Youth Development Center on consecutive nights; Akonadi Foundation and The California Endowment sponsored both events.
“Lumiphilia” was a showcase of some of Imara’s paintings that she says reflect her passion for people, color, and light. The title, she said, speaking by phone a few weeks before she had arrived in California for the opening, “is a word I made up. ‘Lum’ is the Latin word for light and ‘philos’ is from the Greek word for love or love of. So ‘lover of light’—that describes me.” She was calling from a landline in a forest cabin in Green Bank, West Virginia, where she was staying as she worked at the nearby National Radio Astronomy Observatory.
There, she was using the famous Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope, the world’s largest fully steerable radio telescope that can only be accessed for periods of time by scientists who are chosen through a rigorous application process.
Imara studies giant molecular clouds, also known as stellar nurseries. Stellar nurseries are clouds in space where stars form; galaxies are often formed in that space as well. In other words, Imara studies the origins of everything. “Light is essential to life. It’s beautiful, it’s mysterious and I think people need beauty and mystery in life to sustain just like they need food and water,” Imara said, her voice fuzzy from the poor connection of the landline. She paused for a moment, which she often does when she’s deep in thought, as the line crackled. “It’s second nature for astronomers to sort of know the universe is pervaded by light, some of which we can’t see. We also know that color is simply a manifestation of light.”
All of Imara’s paintings are lush with saturated color and, at least for “Lumiphilia”, are usually portraits of people. She often chooses her subjects from photographs, but tends to let her imagination take over when painting backgrounds, the subjects’ hands and clothing, and other details in the picture that may not have been present or different in the original photo. Imara likes to add bright pops of color to her paintings that allow for a visible tonal contrast. She’ll also sometimes paint in flowers or colorful patterns influenced by the intricate palettes and textiles of African and Native American art. She says that she wants to convey to the viewer that someone who feels deeply created the image. “As an artist, I really connect with whomever or whatever I’m painting at the time,” Imara said. “My work can be unsettling. We see so many superficial images of people on TV, in movies, in magazines. When you come across something that’s totally human, it can be moving and unsettling.”
To get the full effect of what she is doing with color, though, she suggests you view her paintings in sunlight. This allows the colors to appear brighter and each element of the image to stand out. The work of artists she’s studied and admired, including Japanese artist Hokusai and African American folk artist Clementine Hunter, help inspire many of Imara’s pieces. For example, Hokusai was known for painting grand scenes of nature, and Imara often incorporates natural elements like flowers into her work. Sometimes she immerses her subjects in settings like a meadow, a waterfall or a piece of fruit.
She also pulls inspiration from ideas in literature, noting James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison and Chinua Achebe as some of her favorite authors. She even titled one of her paintings “End of All Things” from a quote in one of Achebe’s novels, Arrow of God. Imara also credits many Russian writers as artistic muses. “Authors like Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky—they spent most of their lives trying to figure out the same questions I’m interested in and they do it masterfully. I come back to them constantly,” Imara said. All of these authors are known for their existentialism—their questions about the meaning of life, questions Imara often asks herself. When she was a child, she said, “If I had known the term or had known what a philosopher does, I would have said I wanted to be a philosopher.”
On the opening day of the exhibit, the East Oakland Youth Development Center (EOYDC) was packed with volunteers from Communities for a Better Environment, Merritt College African America Studies, and EOYDC as they set up for the event. Volunteers set out prints of some of the paintings for sale and signed visitors in as they arrived.
The gallery was set up in a room full of mirrors and windows. The exhibit opened at 4 p.m., nearly golden hour—the hour best for taking natural-light photos—and family, friends and community members flooded the center, “oohing” and “aahing” at the portraits that rest upon the carefully placed easels. Light reflected from the paintings to the mirrors to the glossy floor and back out the window. The room was warm and bright.
Outside of the gallery stood a tall easel that supported Imara’s title painting: “Lumiphilia.” Painted on the canvas was the face of a person with bright purple skin accented with blue highlights. The person is set upon a black background and is surrounded by spots of white, grey, and green paint, almost like star clusters or far away galaxies.
Inside the gallery, paintings were placed in a large circle, all facing towards the center of the room. In the far corner was a painting of a black man with an abstract American flag behind him. His eyes seemed to look past anyone who stopped to watch. “The title of that piece is “Who is Happy in America?” and I’d be interested in hearing responses to that question,” Imara said as she gazed at the painting. “Titles are often important to me because they express the idea, sort of, that is embodied by the painting.”
Next to it stood a painting of a young girl who Imara has featured in multiple pieces. The work is based off a photo Imara’s parents took in Senegal, West Africa. The girl is wearing a colorful head wrap and her chin is tilted downward, her hands folded near her mouth. “I’ve always been struck by her expression, her eyes,” Imara said. The painting is called “All Little Black Girls are Alike” and is number three in a series of paintings featuring this child.
As the sun began to set, Imara made her way to the front of the room and welcomed the crowd. Accompanying her was the executive director of the East Oakland Youth Development Center, Regina Jackson. “How old are you?” Jackson asked Imara as she took a look around the room at Imara’s work. “I’m 85,” Imara said jokingly, the entire crowd laughing as she kept a straight face.
Jackson hugged Imara and left her in front of the crowd to explain the purpose for her exhibit. “I’m trying to cultivate love of self, of community. I’m trying to cultivate empathy. I’m so glad we can have this event here. It’s one thing to have art exhibits in museums, but I’m glad to have something that’s accessible to this community and in particular, East Oakland where I was born,” Imara said as everyone began to clap.
Imara was born at Highland Hospital in Oakland. She spent much of her youth exploring the Bay Area, attending middle school in Richmond and high school in San Jose. She was involved in several Bay Area organizations including the Haiti Action Committee, Communities for a Better Environment and Allen Temple Baptist Church. Her now-closed gallery, First Love Art Gallery, was even one of the first new art exhibits in 2011 in downtown Oakland during the locally-nicknamed “Oakland Renaissance” that began a few years ago.
Imara attended Kenyon College in Ohio for her undergraduate degree, where she majored in physics and mathematics and was a competitive swimmer on the college’s swim team. Though she enjoyed art, Imara had yet to decide what she wanted to pursue as a career. Kenyon College allowed her to dabble in art and science. “Even though I hadn’t decided I wanted to be the artist at that point, I totally took advantage of what they had to offer,” Imara said. She eventually went on to pursue an M.A. and Ph.D. in astrophysics from UC Berkeley, while simultaneously beginning to train herself in painting.
UC Berkeley astronomy professor Leo Blitz advised much of Imara’s graduate research and co-authored research papers with her. In an email, Blitz said that Imara was highly self-motivated and pursued her scientific research in a unique and creative manner. “With most graduate students, their advisors pick a topic of interest to the professor and the student investigates that topic. Nia did things the other way around. She insisted on picking her own topic and with some guidance from me, followed her own path to a degree,” Blitz wrote.
He described her as “extraordinary” and talked about her ability to pursue multiple areas of expertise. “She works at the intersection of art, science and athletics,” Blitz wrote, referring to Imara’s success in all three fields. “Nia has produced some hauntingly beautiful work,” Blitz continued. “Some of the paintings seem to capture her inner self and show a great deal of self-reflection.” He went on to say that Imara seems to keep her art separate from her scientific research.
Imara said she does not want to be defined by her occupations. Growing up, she was not concerned with pursuing a specific job, but rather with untangling the mysteries of the expanding universe. “I sort of knew what I wanted to figure out about the world—I knew what I wanted to contribute, but it was a matter of figuring out how that was going to be manifested,” Imara said as she looked at her painting title “Black Boy” and laced her long slender fingers together.
The painting was of a young boy Imara had met some time ago—she had taken a photo of him and his friends. The photo was full of people, but she had picked this boy out of the image as her painting’s subject. Something about his posture and expression, she said, caught her eye. In her painting, his countenance appears stoic. He sits upon a white chair covered in pastel brushstrokes, the colors reminiscent of Smarties candy. The boy, clad in off-white clothes, and the chair were set against a dark, rich purple background spotted with many tiny white flowers that could easily, from afar, be mistaken for stars. Sunlight spilled through the window and the painting began to glow, the colors more vibrant than they were before. “I am interested in, sort of, the big questions in life,” Imara said. “Where are we from? Where are we going? How did the universe begin?”
How about the science, though? “I would say my science does not directly influence my art,” Imara responded, pausing again before she spoke. She began to smile. “Some people see, sort of, a celestial quality to some of my paintings. But to be honest, the inspiration has not been drawn from me looking at the night sky or astronomical images, at least as far as subject matter goes. But, of course, a lot of things happen on the subconscious level.”
She does, though, know how she wants to be defined: “I think as somebody who is a force for love, a force for good. Love is the ultimate thing, I want that to be the connection between everything I do: science, art, or otherwise.”
Even if her scientific research does not infiltrate her artwork in a conscious sense, her concern for the well being of people certainly does.
She, with the help of her mother Nehanda Imara, is the creator of a photo project called “Generation of Oakland: The People’s Portrait.” The project is a photo shoot and story-banking event meant to capture the effects of gentrification and displacement on Oakland residents through personal testimony and human portraits.
The day before “Lumiphilia” opened, Imara organized a shoot at EOYDC where members of the Oakland community could drop in to have their photos taken and tell their stories.
Imara will compile the photos and interviews from the event in a collection for a new website she is creating that is intended to let the voices of East Oakland residents who are dealing with economic changes be heard. Most of the participants were black Oaklanders who have been affected by the city’s housing crisis, many of who fear being unable to pay the rising rent and some of whom had personally experienced being displaced.
Full of energy, the young artist ran around the makeshift photo studio her mother, friends, and community volunteers had helped her set up in a large room at the center, her digital camera in hand. The studio was surrounded by some of her new paintings and the shades on the windows were raised in an attempt to wash the room in sunlight.
Imara was grinning from ear to ear, chatting up each person, asking them how they were, what they loved about Oakland, and having some of them show her archival photos from their past. Many of the participants had brought prints of images of moments they treasured. One little girl with a flouncy dress and a plastic tiara sat atop a tall stool and giggled as she posed for the camera, as Imara snapped stills from every angle. “This is her third time being photographed,” Imara said, her hands gripping the camera as she turned around to greet more people who had trickled in.
At a table near the shoot, Imara’s younger sister, Alexis Lewis, and her stepmother (or “other mother” as Imara endearingly calls her), Diedre Reed, watched her finish photographing the little girl.
“I think it’s wonderful that her and her mom had this outlet so that the community could speak about Oakland. She gets to use her creativity to express the changes that are going on here,” Reed said as she watched the astronomer lead a couple of teen girls to the photo stools. “I get a glimpse of her deep feelings when I look at her art. My heart just skips a little beat because I feel like I’m looking inside of her.”
Lewis had shown up to help with the project. “I just feel proud of her,” Lewis said. Lewis said her sister had always loved science, and that when she was very young, she would ask Imara to come to her classroom and talk about astronomy. One of her fondest memories of her sister was that she would take her out to eat Indian food, one of Lewis’ favorites. “I think she’s just a really down-to-earth person; if everybody’s going this way, she’ll go her own path. I mean, she doesn’t even have a cell phone. We’re all telling her to get a phone—she won’t get a phone!” Lewis said as she broke out into warm laughter.
Earlier in the week, before the photo project, Imara spent her time at her favorite places in Oakland, traveling around the city on her way to Lake Merritt, one of her favorite spots. While she drove, she reflected on why she had decided to create “Generation of Oakland: The People’s Portrait.” As she passed the Oakland Coliseum, she brought up the change the area was slowly going through. “The city has been trying to bring in developers to rebrand this whole area, and the unfortunate thing is that they haven’t really been including people who are from here in the process. That’s a sign that gentrification is on it’s way. What is it going to look like when they bring new businesses here, when costs of living starts to rise?” she asked, pointing towards the buildings next to the road.
“I wanted to capture what it’s like for residents of Oakland in this moment, not just the bad but the good. What is it about Oakland that has kept you here all of these years?” she said as she rolled down her window, letting a cool breeze fill the car. “People here are incredibly creative. That’s something that I’m interested in.”
As she merged onto the freeway, sunlight glistened off her rearview mirror. She surveyed the horizon, her eyes wide open. “I paint mostly black people because I am black,” Imara said. “Culturally, how black women are depicted in the media is a mess and one of my ways of resisting that is bringing out how I see black women or bringing out how they would see themselves through my paintings.” She drove in silence for a moment, the sounds of vehicles racing past filling up any audible space. “I think it’s a cultural crisis in America, how people see themselves, and I think that should be an ambition in any art form to uplift people in some way,” she said.
As she stopped at an intersection near Lake Merritt, she pointed to a man on the corner with a gray mustache and brown derby hat. “This is a guy I know. Walter!” she said as she poked her head out of the window to greet him. He grinned waved and asked “You back?”
“For a little while,” she said before the light turned green. She continued through the intersection, passing trees with leaves that were turning yellow and red, a sign of Oakland winter approaching.
“Oakland has been the birthplace of so many movements. San Francisco often gets the glory but maybe just because people don’t know the history,” she continued. “You think of musicians that came out of Oakland, the visual artists. Oakland was where the Black Panthers had their first headquarters and that continues today. Oakland is still a great place for jazz, for hip-hop, for social movements, and creativity. I’m just interested in history in general. It comes down to the history of a place that has special significance to me.”