Oakland Museum and artists bring civic engagement to billboards

OMCA Billboard

Dorothea Lange photograph, with text by Theodore Parker. Photo by Ashvini Malshe.

The Oakland Museum of California is closed on this September morning, but outside art handlers are carrying pieces of a new installation up the loading dock, while bracing themselves in the breezy weather. Passersby observe curiously, while a security guard stands watch.

Just inside, René de Guzman, the museum’s curator, sits in a white metal chair near the check-in desk. Lindsey Wright, Associate Director of Communications, sits at his side. They’re both looking up at a newly-updated installation. It looks like a billboard.

Specifically, the installation is a stretch of black chalkboard with white block lettering that asks: “Do you have faith?” The question is framed by a quote that reads: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”

This chalkboard is part of a project called “For Freedoms: 50 State Initiative.” It encompasses community-wide installations that officially went up on September 10, including photographs displayed on billboards and on about 25 bus shelters scattered throughout communities in San Francisco and Oakland. All of these installations contain images taken by Depression-era photojournalist Dorothea Lange, with text originally from a sermon by 19th Century abolitionist and Unitarian minister Theodore Parker. (The quote was later made famous by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the version that appears on the billboard is the way it was once paraphrased by former President Barack Obama.)

The goal of the project is to civically engage the arts community leading up to the midterm elections on November 6, challenging the community’s understanding of justice and faith, and how they relate to the state of modern politics.

“I’m interested in that conversation, to redefine public space as a place where things beyond commerce can be talked about,” de Guzman said.

Artist Chris Johnson is responsible for curating the photographs and quote used for the installations. He selected the images using the Library of Congress database. “I think that people look up at billboards and murals expecting commercial messages of persuasion. So, there are lots of ways to play against that trope,” said Johnson, a professor of photography at the California College of the Arts, or CCA. “If you know that people are going to expect crass advertising—and instead they get some kind of complex messaging around issues of justice and morality—that’s going to disrupt their expectations.”

Johnson has worked as an artist and photographer in Oakland for over 30 years, but as a Brooklyn native, he studied with Ansel Adams. Johnson also mentored Hank Willis Thomas, one of the two founders of “For Freedoms: 50 State Initiative,” while he was at CCA. This nationwide initiative is meant to use art as a vehicle to shift thinking about civic engagement and to involve art communities and institutions in political activism. Using billboards is meant to challenge the status quo by replacing advertising with art in public spaces.

Photographers Thomas and Eric Gottesman launched the initiative this year. In addition to placing art in public spaces, the initiative includes organizing town halls, where artists and experts in policymaking can address community issues. They take inspiration from President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 1941 “Four Freedoms” speech, an address to Congress about Europe’s fall to Hitler, urging them to take on a stronger intervention role and to affirm “the inalienable human rights of freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want and freedom from fear.”

Thomas approached de Guzman about the “50 State Initiative” a year ago, the curator said. He said he was excited by the project because it treats artists as a class of people—people who are just as likely to be politically active as any other citizen—and because it puts art, and thus beauty, in places that are often commercialized. “Capitalism is like, everything’s ownable. Some things are common. Some things we need to save for, you know, for folks who don’t have capital,” he said.

De Guzman and Thomas had previously worked with Johnson on a project called “Question Bridge: Black Males,” a series of video installations at the museum which archived conversations with more than 160 black men across the United States about themes important to them, like family and love. De Guzman said he was happy to work with Johnson again. “Chris is wonderful,” he said. “He’s so smart and he’s so knowing.”

For his part, Johnson said he was drawn to the project by Thomas’ skeptical take on advertising. “He has very deep and personal aesthetic and emotional reasons for being very dubious of the effect that advertising has on American culture, especially black culture, especially marginalized people,” he said. “And so, he and Eric chose billboards and bus shelters as a platform for communicating their message for that reason.”

Together, de Guzman and Johnson, with museum staff designer Jen Burke and ad agency H & L, produced the art for the billboards and bus shelters. This work was produced alongside Clear Channel Outdoor—one of the largest outdoor advertising companies—which partnered with H & L.

The billboards in Oakland rise above expanses of the city. There’s one on International Boulevard and 55th Street in East Oakland, which is incidentally near Johnson’s old neighborhood. Another is on Telegraph Avenue and MacArthur Boulevard. And there’s one just outside the museum, next to the Oakland Museum of California sign.

These billboards look similar to the chalkboard that’s inside, except juxtaposed with the Parker quote are the photographs of Depression-era rural scenes taken by Lange. Lange is most famous for her 1936 photograph titled “Migrant Mother” depicting a mother and her two children.

Johnson said he chose to use Lange’s images because of his admiration for her, and her progressive social activism as an artist and photojournalist. “I mean she was speaking back to power when she did that work in the 1930s as part of the Farm Security Administration,” he said. “And so, I think there’s a kinship between what Parker was trying to do and what Dorothea Lange was trying to do in trying to use a focus on marginalized disadvantaged people to awaken the consciousness of American culture.”

An extensive part of Lange’s work was featured in the museum last year. Johnson said he made the conscious choice not to select her most well-known images to be displayed. The photographs he chose are of people who seem like they could exist in the present day; the billboards primarily use the imagery of young black children. They’re in everyday settings, in simple clothing, looking directly into the camera’s lens. This positioning is meant to evoke an emotional pull meant to attract the attention of young Oaklanders who may walk by.

“I didn’t want to fall back on, again, clichés, things that people have easy conclusions about,” Johnson said. “So, I didn’t want to pull the iconic images from her archive.”

De Guzman said he likes the idea of giving artists a new way to reach audiences and get involved in the grassroots of the community. “They’re working people,” he said. “The vast majority of artists struggle like everyone else. They have families, they have parks that need repairing and they’re under housing pressures. So, what I liked about it is, like artists claiming their citizenship.”

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