Was the quarantine good for creativity or nah? Bay Area visual and performing artists speak

Karen Seneferu – masked and goggled!

by JR Valrey, Black New World Journalists Society

“I’m definitely not in panic mode, but I’m concerned for my community and the impact that (COVID 19) is having on them,” said Karen Seneferu, founder and lead organizer of the annual “The Black Woman Is God” exhibit. “(The quarantine) has given me more time to think of myself as an artist, think about what I want to create as an artist, and think about what I want to produce. And it gave me more time to organize ‘The Black Women Is God’ project.”

It is not an option for the much anticipated “Black Woman Is God” exhibit to be canceled; it is scheduled for Oct. 21, 2020. It is one of the premiere annual events of the Black Bay Area like the International African Arts Festival in Brooklyn and Odunde in Philly. In the past, there have been exhibitions and artist talks at galleries and other venues all over Oakland and San Francisco. This year it may look a lot different, but it will exist. 

As of May 25, 2020, “The California Department of Public Health announced the statewide reopening of places of worship for religious services and in-store retail shopping. Modifications are required to keep Californians safe and limit the spread of COVID-19. Subject to approval by county public health departments, all retail stores can reopen for in-store shopping under previously issued guidelines. Under new guidance, places of worship can hold religious services and funerals that limit attendance to 25 percent of a building’s capacity – or up to 100 attendees, whichever is lower – upon approval by the county department of public health,” according to a California Department of Public Health press release.

On Tuesday, March 26, the California Gov. Gavin Newsom declared that he is opening up the state. And big public gatherings are allowed under certain guidelines, which are spelled out by the California Department of Public Health. 

The opening ceremony for “The Black Woman Is God” welcomes around 2,000 people annually. 

“’The Black Woman Is God’ is going to require that we rapidly move towards online projects – projects where the public wouldn’t be there, but the artist will. It has to move to an online platform. I’m thinking of ways it can be done in a creative forum,” said multi-genre visual artist Karen Seneferu. 

“I’m not concerned about having to transfer to another platform. ‘The Black Woman Is God’ is fluid; a major part of what makes it relevant to the community is the interaction between the artists and the community – and now looking at tech and seeing how it can become a vehicle for engagement.”

Some local artists see this sudden swing into a new reality as refreshing and needed, while others are immersed in the challenges that the COVID-19 pandemic and the new quarantine rules bring. 

Epitome: Don’t miss his “Open Mic at the Black Rep” every second and fourth Tuesday.

“Overall, considering we can’t interact with (large audiences), it kind of limits putting people onto new things like my clothing line, Epitome Clothing Company, which has been affected by COVID-19,” said Harold “Epitome” Desmond, an Oakland-based fashion designer who regularly vends at Lake Merritt on weekends. “I use certain types of material, so seeing a picture of it is not feeling it first hand or seeing it first hand.” Epitome Clothing Company is viewed as a non-essential business by the government, so during the pandemic it was illegal for him to open up shop like normal. 

Epitome, as he is called in the streets, is known for lacing Beeda Weeda’s video for the song “Revolution” with conscious poetry, Stevie Joe’s “’80s Baby” intro and “Pledge Allegiance to the Wire” Livewire compilation. He also is the organizer of one of the most bustling open mics in the Eastbay. 

“Our ‘Open Mic at the Black Rep’ has been affected due to the fact that we can’t have a crowd. We can’t bring in new artists or an audience,” said Epitome. “A lot of people’s first time getting on an open mic is at our open mic. The whole aura and the whole vibe of the virtual open mics are too impersonal, bro.”

Now that the quarantine is over, “Open Mic at the Black Rep” is every second and fourth Tuesday at the Black Rep in Berkeley. 

For me it doesn’t really matter if we get out of quarantine. Being quarantined brings value to my life . . .

“It doesn’t feel right to a lot of entertainers that do it. We do it to keep ourselves relevant. Zoom and Instagram are both good platforms, and people throw their cash app out there so they can make their ‘twos and fews,’ but it’s nothing like having a live audience respond to you,” sourly explained Epitome. 

“On Zoom, people have to mute the mic for you to be heard, but on Instagram, it’s just the host of a show (on screen), you can’t see the facial expressions (of the audience) to know if they’re feeling you and I’m big on direct eye contact. I connect with the audience.”

The medium through which an artist expresses him or herself and whether it’s being restricted seems to affect how different artists are coping through this desolate pandemic season. Some see it as hell, while others see the peace that was a result of the lockdown as a godsend.

“My daily routine is drawing. That is something I do every day. I’m just working on my drafting skills, and then organizing for ‘The Black Woman Is God.’ It gives me time to create and time to organize,” said Karen Seneferu. 

Muralist Timothy B painted the enormous portrait of Nipsey Hussle on Grand Ave near Lake Merritt in Oakland.

“I don’t know if COVID-19 has been doing me much justice outside of creating less distractions. I live in isolation. I work in isolation. For me it doesn’t really matter if we get out of quarantine. Being quarantined brings value to my life because I’m able to focus on my work more so than when everything is open,” says visual artist and Oakland native Timothy B, who is responsible for painting the Nipsey Hussle mural on Grand Ave near Lake Merritt. 

“I’ve dealt with the quarantine pretty well, focused, and in a controlled state of mind. I’ve been more intentional and aware of my activities, my goals. I’ve been receiving clarity. I’ve been intentional, aware and clear on the path that lies ahead.”

The People’s Minister of Information JR Valrey, journalist, author and filmmaker, can be reached at blockreportradio@gmail.com or on Facebook. Visit www.youtube.com/blockreporttv. All stories written about COVID-19 were partially made possible by the Akonadi Fund #SoLoveCanWin.