by Wanda Sabir
Ted Pontiflet is an Oakland icon. He is East Coast swing meets West Coast bop. Classy. The man is too smooth to be close to 80. In his trademark cowry shell crown and custom made slacks, sweaters, a scarf, shades … he’s the artist whose work walks and talks; the more you look, the more you see, the more you hear.
Pontiflet’s historic palate reaches back to Africa – his masks and FESTAC (Festival of Arts and Culture) series of photos and montages create an interplay between the old and the new, ancient and modern. Is it a mask or a vase or an altar, dried blood indicative of widespread use, serious juju or power?
The artist said he likes the ambiguity; the topical nature of his work is supposed to illicit questions and uncertainly.
All is right with the world, and then, maybe not?
In a photo from James Baldwin’s funeral – stunning work featuring Amiri Baraka, Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou, David Dinkins and others outside the church where Baldwin was laid to rest – one thinks on these things as “We Insist: Freedom Now Suite” makes 50, Abbey Lincoln joining co-creator Max Roach in the celestial jam session earlier this year.
The art flew off staccato walls, as Pontiflet gave impromptu tours of his work which while lovely silent, sang even more beautifully once its creator shared its creation story with rapt audiences. Ted told me about the protagonist cased in my frame – “Brother Jojo” – dressed in kente robes, his capes flying in the multiple renditions of the man. Each drawing like a cartoon … flip the drawings fast and they move; however, without carousel, without shifting the eye, Ted’s “Kojo” dances on canvas.
Pontiflet remarked how his subject dictates the medium, a concept which perplexed his graduate school adviser at Yale, but he left Ted alone and the artist produced the best show to date at that time – photography, painting, pen and ink, graphite, graphic design, mixed media – all tools Ted is intimately familiar with reflecting his fine arts education at California College of Arts and Crafts, where he received a BFA in sculpting.
Saturday, Nov. 20, all Ted’s work looked pleased at the outcome as they hung out on the walls, scattered across table tops, in portfolios or flip bins … all decked out in respective spectacular glory waiting for god to come along and write their song, and he did. It’s not often creation and creator interact in plain sight – such an intimate interaction externalized – yet we bore witness.
As the afternoon shifted into evening, Ted’s granddaughter, Annalise, popping through to see grandfather’s work – we had a lightning show as Ronnie Prosser’s mellow jazz smoothed the rough edges of nightfall, softening raindrops’ chill. All we needed was a fireplace – the O’Town Passions breaking into harmonies kind of spontaneously throughout the evening carried warm whispers and glad tidings; then all of a sudden the rain stopped. (O’Town hosts “The New Year Eve 2010, America’s United Black Press Senior Ball Edutainment Awards TV Workshop,” Friday, Dec. 31, 2010, 6-10 p.m., at the West Oakland Senior Center, 1724 Adeline St., Oakland.)
Sparkling cider flowed and conversation deepened as a few of us stood in a circle debating the connection between art and ethics, juxtaposed with music’s ability to frame a period and dictate a community’s response – or was it the reverse? Art articulated the reality, not shaped it?
Were we a cipher or a ring shout?
Take the notion of “cool jazz.” James Reid, one of the Black Artist Quartet featuring Jimi Evins, Ronnie Prosser and of course Ted Pontiflet, spoke of how one never wanted to lose one’s cool, let another person see you lose your form. Jimi threw in Jonathan Butler, “the Ice Man,” as a reference. How cool can you get? Right! Cool as ice. I remember my father saying, “Freeze on it,” when he was through with a conversation.
And that was that.
I wondered aloud what music framed today’s ethics: hip hop. Hip hop isn’t “cool” though. It’s hot – fiery hot, passionate, emotional. So when one’s soundtrack is such, how does one keep the kettle on the stove from blowing its top?
There are lessons to be learned from being “cool,” just as there are lessons to be learned from hip hop; however, if the only music one knows, if the only ethical or moral soundtrack one is aware of, is freestyle or undisciplined response to circumstances, then the legacy or the lessons learned when one looks at the history of Black music the way one looks at the history of resistance and liberation struggles is lost in a succession of temporal moments of clarity quickly covered by fog or smog depending on location.
Is hard bop today’s hip hop? Speed it up, then cool it down. Is “cool” a way to handle getting beaten at the counters, when resistance was silent and internal pre-COINTELPRO?
What is great about the Oscar Grant Movement is its intergenerational aspect. There is a historic breath to the movement that ties in the past with the present. Most Black kids, unless they are in a jazz band or a music program, know little to nothing about their musical history. How often did the “cool,” as in Miles Davis’s “Birth of the Cool,” keep young Black men alive?
Who were the famous Black painters of the time? Who was writing what? What films were in theatres? Who was deejaying?
Ronnie Prosser, who teaches at one of the independent Black schools in Oakland, said he puts on different kinds of music and asks his students to paint or draw what the music makes them feel.
“Public Schools never educated our children,” one of the brothers stated. When did the Black parent begin to raise his or her child and how many see this as the gift that it is? How many Black parents freely relinquish this gift to the former slave master in his new guise – public education?
“A New Way Forward: Healing What’s Hurting Black America,” a 60-member braintrust led by Susan L. Taylor, launches in Oakland Dec. 3-5, 2010, with an inaugural evening reception at Preservation Park’s Nile Hall, 6-9 p.m. Presenters include Dr. Wade Nobles and Dr. Na’im Akbar, Dr. Shawn Ginwright, Dr. Joel P. Martin, Rev. Andriette Earl and Dereca Blackmon. The special evening will honor African America’s history of resilience, share the mission of ANWF (A New Way Forward), include a ceremony honoring community elders and feature a participatory activity designed to bridge the gap between youth and adults.
A two-day Inaugural Healing Retreat limited to 100 pre-registered participants follows, Saturday-Sunday, Dec. 4-5, 7 a.m. to 5 p.m., at Chaminade Resort and Spa in Santa Cruz. Retreat participants will commit to volunteering an hour a week with the children in local youth support organizations served by Oakland Bay Area CARES. Participants will also receive an historic limited edition of the ANWF manual. Register at www.anwflaunch.eventbrite.com.
Just the timing of the ANWF launch and initiative and this conversation Nov. 20 at Ted’s art sale and party shows how great minds are in tune.
We began to talk about post-traumatic slave syndrome and how we’re going to heal as a community. James said he didn’t see wellness coming from the church. We agreed that Black people need competent therapists. Any time we have people asking, “What did so and so do to get shot,” we have a problem. Many Black people asked this question when reflecting on the recent murder in front of Allen Temple and the shooting a week before on Trask, as if the answer justified the loss of life.
James mentioned the sister, Shirley Sherrod, whose statement taken out of context regarding a white farmer who was about to lose his farm – which, by the way, she helped save – forced her resignation from the Obama administration. What happened to “be cool”? What happened to giving a person the benefit of the doubt before stringing her up or nailing her to a cross? Yes, women are lynched too. This fallacious reasoning regarding media sources as evidence is so overused as to make it a questionable recourse for crucifixion, yet recently Juan Williams was strung up on similar evidence.
What happened to critical thinking? What happened to checking sources for bias?
Of course such tactics are intentional and are used to keep decent people out of public service. I am speaking specifically of Shirley Sherrod, USDA agricultural official. No one seems to have anyone’s back these days. A tricky aspect of cyber-communication is how it can disappear as if it never existed if one doesn’t save a paper or hard copy.
James said Sherrod’s father was lynched, yet despite a brutal family and cultural historic legacy where many Black farmers lost their land, Ms. Sherrod acted equitably and helped a white man save his farm. Jimi mentioned how the majority of people lynched – who crusader Ida B. Wells chronicled to use as evidence to get this government to see lynching as a hate crime – were Black middle class men with property and businesses. Lynching was used to intimidate and, without legal support for those people targeted, it did.
I recalled the film, “Banished,” which looks at African American families run off their land, often late at night by mobs and vigilantes. The Black families would be told that if they didn’t leave before morning, they’d be killed. The film looks at a few families, one which is trying to get a family member’s remains to be buried in a newer cemetery plot. The town refuses to let the Black family have their ancestor’s remains. The white families living on stolen land are not interested in giving it back either.
Early next year, we’re going to have a series of conversations on ethics and art and its combined effect on society on Wanda’s Picks Radio Show. Jimi, Ronnie and James agreed that Oscar Grant was the most highly popularized public lynching of this century, just as the cholera genocide in Haiti is similar to the indigenous people’s infection with smallpox-contaminated blankets in the early days of European theft of these lands, now called the United States of America.
It is completely intentional.
Are there more Black people killing other Black people than police officers killing us? If Black people respected one another’s lives, valued their own lives and those of their loved ones more, then perhaps it might be easier for us to see ourselves as friends and allies or even victims rather than foes. Black folks need therapy to address the underlying reasons, many inaccessible directly, for the unresolved rage we live with daily that is killing us slowly.
After being on his feet from about 7 a.m., at 8 p.m. Ted was still dancing to the music as he held a raffle, of which surprisingly I was one of three winners. One of the party’s hostesses, Lindah Martin, said 87 was a lucky number. I guess it was (smile).
James spoke about seeing Ted on Sunday morning at the Farmer’s Market on Embarcadero and how hip and cosmopolitan he was – shopping for fresh fruit and vegetables, breads and cheese, for breakfast or brunch. He spoke of Ted’s daily walks and Olympian swims at the local pool. In other words, King Ted looks good because he takes care of himself.
Oakland is going to miss Ted Pontiflet. The thugs who have taken over his building where other elders and disabled persons live in fear will miss him once they realize what they have lost. Oakland, home to a lot of great traditions and people and movements like the Sleeping Car Porters Union, C.L. Dellums, Elretha and Elmer Rashied, The Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, Soul Beat, Soul Beat, Chauncey Bailey and the California Voice, Sweet Jimmy’s, California College of Arts and Crafts, McClymonds High School Alumni, Lionel Wilson, Black Business Expo and C. Diane Howell, the Oakland Post, Thomas Berkley, Alice Arts Center now Malonga Casquelord Center for the Arts, and before that Everybody’s Dance Company and between the two Citidance, Koncepts Cultural Gallery and Edsel Matthews – and Ted Pontiflet, a living legend.
I remember when I first met Ted, his James Baldwin series was opening at the Laney College Art Gallery. I love James Baldwin and it was so wonderful to see the breath of Ted’s work on this literary and humanitarian master. At the reception were Ted’s friends from his McClymond’s high school days as well as the composer for one of Baldwin’s plays turned into a film. The pianist lived in Alameda and after the exhibit started performing around town in several exclusive concerts.
Ted, after John Handy, another McClymond’s High School alum, was a second opportunity to meet a famous artist who was willing to share his life with me and my kids, one, TaSin Yasmin Sabir, now a professional artist as well, who also attended Ted’s alma mater CCAC or the California College of Arts and Crafts. She is class of 2004, her degree, a BFA in fine arts photography. I recall one occasion visiting him when his beloved, P.J., was in town and she shared some of her writing with us – phenomenal!
Ted name drops like melting ice cream – Loretta Devine among others – and he isn’t bragging; these are his friends. Clearly in another league, I was content to just watch the beautiful people last night honor their friend. People asked me if I was OK and I was treading water but staying afloat as I tried to hear everything and of course I couldn’t. My granddaughter, Brianna Amaya, 7, was a great hanging buddy, as she and Ted hit it off. She drew him a going-away banner for the front door, which was great, especially when rain washed the board outside clean.
I thought, in retrospect, that it would have been great to have a camera recording the day and getting statements from those who dropped by, especially those friends Ted hadn’t seen in decades, like former altar boy companions, both sporting canes. Someone really does need to make a film about Pontiflet: writer, artist, philosopher with a lens. However, those within hearing distance of this reflection please respond with your thoughts and well wishes for Ted before his sojourn.
Ted is a Juneteenth baby, born June 19 in Oakland, California. Following Ted’s BFA from CCAC in sculpture, he received a scholarship to Yale University of Art and Architecture, where he received a MFA in painting. At Yale, Ted also studied African American history and literature and was awarded honors in creative writing and received a travel grant to produce a photographic study of Ghana, West Africa. Part of the study was aired on “Like It Is,” ABC-TV in New York City, hosted by Gil Noble. Among the collectors of his work are Bill and Camille Cosby, Roberta Flack, Tom Feelings and playwright P.J. Gibson.
Ted’s art is part of the permanent collection of the Smithsonian Institute, the Studio Museum in Harlem and the state of New York’s Private Collection at the Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Building in Harlem, New York.
Ted’s photography credits include the National Geographic, the Smithsonian and several textbooks. Two of his illustrations are included in the highly acclaimed 1992 publication of Erotique Noir, Black Erotica.
I remember when his photographic tribute, “The James Baldwin Series,” was produced in July 2004 by the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York City. Ted’s best buddy, the late Reginald Lockett, unofficial poet laureate of Oakland, told me about the gala event. I believe Opal Palmer Adisa was also there, a member of Daughters of Yam, with devorah major, former professor at CCAC, now CCA.
Highlighting the program was the celebration of the U.S. Post Office’s issue of a stamp in Baldwin’s honor. John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City also exhibited “The James Baldwin Series” in October 2005.
I want to thank the other party organizers, Tureeda Mikell, Ronnie Prosser and Jimi Evins, for their help and for all those who missed the marvelous sale and party. Ted is around until Dec. 1 and then away he goes. Thanks to Joyce Gordon for the use of the space at 408 14th St.
Check out February-March 2009 Wanda’s Picks radio shows for the three interviews with the Black Artists Quartet: Ted Pontiflet, Jimi Evins, James Reid and Ronnie Prosser. I rebroadcast the first episode Friday, Nov. 19, 2010. Visit www.wandaspicks.com or www.blogtalkradio.com/wandas-picks.
Bay View Arts Editor Wanda Sabir can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Visit her website at www.wandaspicks.com throughout the month for updates to Wanda’s Picks, her blog, photos and Wanda’s Picks Radio. Her shows are streamed live Wednesdays at 6-7:30 or 8 a.m. and Fridays at 8-10 a.m., can be heard by phone at (347) 237-4610 and are archived on the Afrikan Sistahs’ Media Network. For many more photos from Ted Pontiflet’s art sale and party, visit Wanda’s Blog.