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BAMPFA’s “Way Bay” Highlights Local Artistic Pioneers

Photograph by Nina Smith

From January 17, 2018 to June 3, 2018 the exhibit Way Bay is on display at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (BAMPFA). The exhibit showcases the diversity of art and artists in the San Francisco Bay Area.

The exhibit features paintings, sculptures, textile art, and films, as well as free postcards with art on them meant to be sent into the world for other people to see. Some of the art displayed is political: the textile with the “illegal alien version” of the history of poststructuralism, depicting a history of people indigenous to the Americas, and the postcard with a call to a utopist revolution, for example. Other artworks are not political at all, just beautiful, such as the vivid photographs of three-dimensional surfaces and what looks like the aurora borealis. For marginalized communities, creating art reflecting themselves can be inherently political. The black and white cassette film of black people dancing to jazz does not seem politically charged in 2018, but creating and featuring art with black people, daring to be human, happy, and genuine, has been political throughout America’s history. BAMPFA’s screening of Cecilia Dougherty’s Gay Tape: Butch and Femme is not daring or politically charged in the Bay Area now, but when the film came out in 1985, the sociopolitical climate may have very well left the film out to dry outside of lesbian circles, without a chance of making it into a respected art museum.

Way Bay is not limited to the physical exhibit in the museum. One can watch 36 films from the Way Bay exhibit online for free on BAMPFA’s website, where one can also click the link to the Way Bay Beats Spotify playlist of 52 songs and pieces of music by artists from the Bay Area. As of lunchtime April 20, there will be eight events with live guides or artists contributing to the exhibit.

The Bay Area is known nationally for being extremely progressive. Transgressive art and artists from underrepresented communities stemming from the Bay Area can inspire and set examples for other politically-minded and/or marginalized artists across the country. In addition, the Bay Area is home to a diverse group of people, which allows art styles from different communities to mingle to create art that is a fusion of art styles from different groups, and it also fosters dialogue between different groups that can be represented through art.

Pop culture includes many talented artists of color, women artists, and LGBT+ artists, but their work is often reduced to art just for members of their own communities by the frames of pop culture. It is important that artists in Way Bay are remembered as members of the Bay Area, not just as members of oppressed communities. The art they create is not just a niche of Bay Area art, it is not art just for those with a “special interest” in a given oppressed community, it is art by people in the Bay Area, open to everyone else who cares to see it. They are not deviations from a norm in the Bay Area’s artists, they are the Bay Area’s artists and are shaping the direction that art will take in the future.

Seeing all of the art pieces of Way Bay next to each other reminds the viewer that all of these vastly different works of art came out of the same geographic region but are so different because each of the artists has a different style and history they bring. Commentary by Gloria Anzaldúa is the product of her experiences as a woman, as a lesbian, and Chicana. African American spirituals are inextricably tied to the African American experience. Abstract sculptures in the museum provide art left up to interpretation. However, be rest assured that it represents a niche audience of the Bay Area. The diversity of the mediums and the stories the pieces reflect encapsulate the bay throughout the ages. From pieces dating back to early twentieth century, to the rise of the black power movement, to the struggles of gentrification in recent years, capture the bay’s rich history and population, and makes the exhibit a must see.