‘Whose Streets?’ director Damon Davis curates ‘Black August’ resistance art at L.A. upstart
August is a month whose days have been marked by milestones of Black struggle.
In August 1791, a group of enslaved laborers in Haiti launched a rebellion against French colonial authorities that led to independence. Exactly 40 years later, Nat Turner led a rebellion of enslaved workers in Virginia — a rebellion that today bears his name. August 1965 was when the LAPD pulled over Marquette Frye in Watts, a traffic stop that led to an uprising that lasted six days. It was another day in August 1971, when George Jackson, an inmate at San Quentin State Prison and author of the influential autobiography and manifesto “Soledad Brother,” was killed in a melee he was said to have started after overtaking guards with a smuggled gun, an action for which some say was he was framed.
Black August, as this growing commemoration of events is called (also the title of a 2007 film about Jackson), is something that Crenshaw Dairy Mart, a new art space in an old dairy mart in Inglewood, did not want to go unacknowledged.
For its new virtual show, which bears “Black August” as its title, the neighborhood arts space has collaborated with artist and filmmaker Damon Davis, codirector with Sabaah Folayan of the 2017 documentary “Whose Streets?,” about the Ferguson, Mo., uprisings of 2014 — which also took place in August.
Davis selected three artists to stage takeovers of Crenshaw Dairy Mart’s Instagram account (@crenshawdairymart) over the weekend, and throughout that period it hosted a series of related dialogues about art and resistance tied to a 72-hour free stream of “Whose Streets?” on PBS’ website. (The film can now be viewed on Amazon Prime for a small fee.)
Works by the selected artists — Jen Everett, Adrian Octavius Walker and Lola Ogbara — will also be viewable on the Crenshaw Dairy Mart’s website.
On Aug. 9, 2014, Brittany Ferrell was shaken to her core.
“Black August” is the latest offering from the arts nonprofit, which in its short life span has opened, closed and pivoted to digital.
The arts space was founded by artists and former USC classmates Noé Olivas, Alexandre Dorriz and Patrisse Cullors (who is also a cofounder of Black Lives Matter), and its aim is to bring together people and work at the intersection of art and activism.
“A gallery,” said Cullors, “for the people, by the people.”
The gallery’s first opening was held Feb. 29 with a group exhibition titled “Yes on R” that explores the grassroots activism behind Measure R, a ballot initiative that called for increased oversight of the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department — one that was overwhelmingly approved by voters. (Cullors has long been active in justice reform causes.)
That opening, which coincided with the For Freedoms Congress in Los Angeles, an arts and activism initiative led in part by New York artist Hank Willis Thomas, featured artists and DJs and drew hundreds of people, says Cullors.
“That was the last group setting I was in,” she recalls. “It was powerful, really powerful.”
Not three weeks later, the safer-at-home orders landed in California and Crenshaw Dairy Mart was forced to close its physical space. But Cullors and her collaborators lost no time in moving their efforts to the digital arena.
“The amazing thing about the organizers leading this institution,” said Cullors, “is that we just shifted.”
In April, as the COVID-19 pandemic’s economic effects began to ripple through the city, the art space launched a relief competition — asking artists to submit works in support of the concept “Care Not Cages.” Three artists were picked to receive relief funds of between $500 and $1,500.
In response to the open call, more than half a dozen incarcerated artists also submitted works. Crenshaw Dairy Mart supported them too: with small awards of $250 each, payable to their families or their prison accounts.
With Melina Abdullah and Patrisse Cullors playing key roles, Black Lives Matter has transformed from a small but passionate movement into a cultural and political phenomenon.
That effort was followed by a show of works by incarcerated artists at galleryplatform.la, an online space shared by 81 L.A. galleries. Of that effort (which is still active), “100% of the funds are going to the artists,” said Cullors.
“Black August” emerged as a result of Cullors’ personal connection to Davis.
She first met the St. Louis filmmaker in 2014 after she helped coordinate a Freedom Ride of more than 600 Los Angeles artists and activists to help support the uprisings in Ferguson. Since then, the two have found common ground in their art and their causes.
“Damon is not just a filmmaker. He is also an artist,” says Cullors. “So we said, ‘Let’s have him curate a show.’”
The artist Instagram takeovers began Friday, and were followed by a series of talks on Instagram Live between Davis and the artists. These are now archived on the organization’s Instagram page for viewing at any time.
“Yes on R,” meanwhile, remains fully installed at Crenshaw Dairy Mart’s space. It is available for viewing by appointment.
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