SAN FRANCISCO — When I heard that The Black Woman Is God was back on in person, I strapped on my mask and headed across the Bay Bridge to San Francisco. Now in its seventh year and its fifth iteration at SOMArts Cultural Center, this annual showcase of Black womxn visual artists is a staple of Black Bay Area culture, with its opening night receptions that often incorporate music and ritual processions functioning as a big family reunion of sorts.
The project, the brainchild of Oakland-based artist and educator Karen Seneferu with San Francisco-based artist and curator Melorra Green, debuted in 2013 at the African American Art & Culture Complex (AAACC), where Green is a co-executive director. Two years later it held its biggest exhibition to date — over 80 visual artists, 20 performers, and 35 dancers and drummers — at its new home, SOMArts. In 2018, it crossed the bridge into Oakland, exhibiting in three gallery spaces owned by Black women, as well as at AAACC and SOMArts. Not surprisingly, the duo took the next year off to build infrastructure to support this rapid growth, intending to return in 2020, but then COVID-19 struck. Both the gallery and the exhibit were forced to pivot, but the move to a digital exhibit last year actually increased global reach in terms of artists and audience. This year’s exhibit, which opened just as Omicron arrived, has more works by fewer artists, and The Black Woman Is God continues to evolve, with plans underway to develop a podcast and YouTube channel and to introduce literature into the mix. Seneferu told Hyperallergic, “We are pioneers in creating spaces, specifically for Black women artists to show the history, culture, and value they bring to society even though they have not been central to the narratives of it.”
This year’s iteration, The Blueprint: If The Universe Can Be Imagined, It Exists, comes on the heels of two years of intense activity centering Black womxn artists in the Bay Area. As always, joy and celebration are strong themes, with images of Black mermaids, stylized comics of local leaders, and women in bold colors and glitter. Ritual, healing, and spiritual identity are another major focus, with Seneferu stating in the press release that, “The Blueprint moves beyond realization that outside forces have shaped the Black community to the actualization that they are their own source of healing.”
Two mixed-media paintings by artist and teacher Nicole Dixon were inspired by Octavia Butler’s visionary novel, The Parable of the Sower, as well as by mother earth herself. Her archetypal women with plaited hair and burnished, ebony skin that looks lit from within are adorned with gold leaf Adinkra symbols and slabs of real wood. A series of digital prints by Asantewaa Boykin, an ER nurse and co-founder of the Anti Police-Terror Project, explore physical transcendence. In “The Observers,” a dark female figure with a white, mask-like face stands at the edge of two worlds, negative space flowing around her. The observed or perhaps the observer, she waits, arms crossed, eyes shut, wearing a cloth mask, its end plugged with a cowrie shell, symbol of abundance and fertility.
As I wandered the exhibit, which features multiple pieces from 25 artists, most of whom also count writing, education, and activism among their complex creative practices, the artistic range, ethnic diversity, and intersectionality of Black womxn was on full display. Seneferu and Green have thrown open doors historically closed to Black womxn, curating a mixture of emerging, self-taught, veteran, and formally trained artists. This non-hierarchical approach fosters relationships and intergenerational exchange, creating opportunities, as Seneferu told Hyperallergic, for “the emerging to learn from those who have had more time in these spaces, and for the young artists to inspire and teach those artists who have been participating in the art arena longer.”
Though I was sad to have missed opening night, with its crowds and energy, The Black Woman is God maintains its commitment to public engagement, with free community programming through the end of the month and a huge, single-channel video installation at the front of the gallery. As videos like “I Still Can’t Breathe,” which features young Turf dancers performing in front of Oakland street art commemorating victims of police brutality, and “Pretty Girls,” a positive beauty campaign from influential musical artist and cultural organizer Coco Peila featuring blues legend Taj Mahal, played, it was impossible not to be moved, literally. Clearly, in any universe Black womxn create, there will be music. And dancing.
The Blueprint: If the Universe Can Be Imagined It Exists, the latest edition of The Black Woman Is God, continues at SOMArts Cultural Center (934 Brannan Street, San Francisco) through February 6. The exhibition was curated by Karen Seneferu and Melorra Green. Participating visual artist Tarika Lewis will be hosting a free workshop exploring divine protection and generational healing on Thursday, February 3, 4–6pm (PDT).