The Oakland Museum of California brings a day of neighborhood stories

The Oakland Museum of California brought elements of the city’s culture to the downtown area on September 29 through Around the Block: a Day of Neighborhood Stories. The daylong event featured five different pop-up art projects located within a three-block radius of the museum, with the goal of addressing important local issues and personal stories through fun, hands-on activities.

Cheery Afrobeat music coming out of a speaker filled the air as attendees walked up the museum’s main entrance steps, where the sight of screen printers and artists welcomed them. People used markers, crayons and paint to design their own screen-printed sheet of paper. Each piece was marked with the phrases “Dear Future Self” or “Dear Past Self,” and was meant to serve as letters to themselves.

There is No Time, a cultural production company focusing on black artistry, put together the screen-printing activities. Yetunde Olubaju, the group’s Executive Director, said she partnered with the museum because she wanted to create a space where residents could tell their life stories through art.

“We’ve been saying ‘Dear Future Self’ and ‘Dear Past Self,’ and thinking about the ways we can focus on giving advice to our future self and our past self, and thinking those are humans we can communicate with,” Olubaju said. “What makes Oakland what it is are the various people who come here with their different stories, different baggage, and different joy—and really being able to celebrate that.”

Right downstairs from the screen-printing pop-up, the sound of loud drumming could be heard. Young children and their families were making festive, offbeat rhythms with custom-made drums that they constructed solely out of pieces of plywood, nails and scotch tape.

Kids and adults alike were visibly delighted with their new instruments. Jahi, who uses a single name and is the Oakland Unified School District African American Male Achievement program manager, guided attendees through the process. He said he used grant money provided by the museum to each pop-up to buy the drum supplies, and handmade every wooden frame used that day. The square frame was used as the base for the drum, and scotch tape was wrapped tightly around it to form the drumhead, the part of the instrument that is banged on.

Jahi spent a year studying the art of drum making from master drummer Baba Taimu, and said it was his teacher who provided the inspiration for this workshop. “[He] gave me an assignment of taking simple materials to make a drum; I didn’t know what it was going to be,” Jahi said. “He showed me that if I made it all one foot each, one 6-by-4, and use simple materials such as wood, tape, nails and markers, you can create a legacy instrument that can be passed on from one generation to another.”

Jahi believes drums represent strong community bonds. “The idea that families can come and make instruments for free in this community matters to me,” he said. “This is not about me; this is about providing something to the community, an instrument and a conversation that can live past me. It’s a labor of love.”

At the museum’s back entrance on the corner of Fallon and Tenth Street, attendees of varying ages were waiting for the parade to start. An older woman dressed head to toe in pink—including a buttoned up coat and a wide brim ribbon hat- excitedly approached and began handing out festive-looking umbrellas in colorful patterns.

Grecian Goeke and her friend Kaethe Weingarten were about to lead the umbrella procession, in which attendees march while dancing and waving umbrellas in the air. The event utilized dance to bring people of all ages together and is meant to create a home-like environment.

“This particular project grew out of concern about homes and loss of homes for elders and others in Oakland,” Goeke said. “We wanted to be addressing this really painful topic through the means of art so that we could have some joy in the process and examine it from a different light.” The parade serves as a way to build a sense of home for people who may not have a physically stable place to stay.

Together, they led the procession of umbrella holders across the street towards Laney College. The sharply dressed woman began calling out directions, instructing their temporary entourage to lift their umbrellas proudly in the air and strut with grace and poise. Once they had marched to Laney College’s quad, they began dancing with one another to classic swing music.

The name of Goeke and Weingarten’s project is “Home is Where,” and they believe their project addresses Oakland’s lack of housing issue in a fun way that is meant to bring about joy and hope. “We’re trying to have prompts [moments] that allow people to get in touch with equality of home that no matter where they are, they can feel it, so it’s a fairly optimistic, positive slant on what can be a very discouraging, frustrating topic for people,” Weingarten said.

Goeke has been leading umbrella processions for years, and delights in the happiness that dancing and marching with a rain-blocking device can bring. “When I work with people that are not trained dancers, I often put something in their hands so they have a reason to move. They lose [self] consciousness, so the umbrella is a great partner,” Goeke said.

About one block down from the museum, other pop-ups were set up around the perimeter of the Lake Merritt BART stop. A large handmade musical construct of gongs, chimes and rain gutter pipes dominated people’s attention, and passersby smiled as they took turns wailing relentlessly on the gong with sticks.

Steven Garen, a visual artist, made this unique contraption, and he explained its purpose. “This is an interactive sound sculpture called Resounding, and it’s essentially a play structure that mimics the sounds of nature. It’s sort of set up like a swing set,” Garen said. The copper gong serves as a thunder sheet, a plate of metal used to produce loud sound effects. The rain gutter pipes simulate the sound of rain, and the wire harp on the side of the sculpture produces a wind-like ambiance. When plucked, the wire gives off a high pitched swooshing sound.

Garen said he had the idea for this piece while walking around Oakland neighborhoods. Little details such as bent gutters on houses caught his attention and made him start thinking about how everyday items can mimic sounds found in nature. His sculpture is also a satirical take on the business of recreating nature sounds to make a profit. “I find those nature stores in malls from like the 90’s pretty fascinating, how it kind of co-opted this idea of commoditizing nature into a sellable thing,” Garen said.

Garen said his sculpture is meant to start a dialogue about the relationship between structures and nature, and how the two forces influence one another. “I’m really excited to just be in this space that very few people actually utilize,” Garen said, referring to the Lake Merritt BART plaza. “I’ve had a lot of people come over already and get curious about it. They’re kind of happy to see something going on here.”

A few blocks away from the festivities at the museum and the BART stop, the Oakland Public Library hosted a poetry slam featuring performances by Oakland teenagers. The library put this pop-up together in collaboration with Youth Beat, a non-profit media organization that provides reporting experience for teenage journalists. The event also featured a zine-making table where attendees could cut up strips of papers to make collages and write a message to make their own custom booklets that reflect their interests.

Sharon Mckellar, Supervising Librarian for Teen Services, felt this project was a great way of hosting activities centered on the neighborhood and young people. “The poets are from our Youth Poet Laureate Program. We’ve been doing the program for about seven years. Basically, young people between 13 and 18 can apply to be a youth poet laureate,” McKellar said. Selected Laureates earn an educational scholarship, represent the program at public and private events, as well as perform at various events.

When the young poets stepped up to the mic, they spoke of personal experiences that reflected real and often harsh life circumstances. “No, my gender does not mean I am helpless or confused. We are all humans. We should not be hit by a man and treated less than,” a teenage girl said, her words like flowing skipping stones on a lake.

Another poet passionately recalled misguided advice given to him by older men. “I learned you can’t write poetry because men can’t write about their feelings,” he said, with frustration in his voice. “I learned to have sex with any girl I talk to, to prove I have some ‘game’; this game isn’t fun.”

Around the Block only covered three blocks of the sprawling city, but attendees left with a sense of the joys, thoughts, and tough situations that Oakland residents experience on a daily basis.

Around the Block pushed attendee Anne Schnake out of her comfort zone. She participated in the umbrella parade, which she greatly appreciated. “I was kind of talking to myself about like, ‘okay be open,’ and ‘this seems super corny,’ but also like really sweet,” Schnake said. “I could see how doing the actions was really joyful for a lot of the participants.”

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