By Elliot Owen
Bay Area Reporter
Amidst the changing cityscape of downtown Oakland, Betti Ono Gallery has become a steadfast reference point for unharnessed creativity since its establishment in 2010. To celebrate four years of art, culture, and community, the gallery is hosting an anniversary art party on Friday, September 5, which doubles as the anticipated exhibition opening of AMEN: A Collaborative Meditation for Survival.
Co-created by visual artist Amaryllis DeJesus Moleski and writer Carrie Y. T. Kholi, AMEN will prove nothing short of its description – “a supraliminal experimentation” that integrates history, myth, and magic to re-imagine a future grounded in the “affirmation and history of all people, and intentionally inclusive of marginalized queer people of color.”
DeJesus Moleski, 28, a Puerto Rican, Afro-Latina, queer, femme, unabashed art geek, and Kholi, 29, a self-identified goal-digger, dream-catcher, and black lesbian, have taken their combined prayers, visions, and spiritual emissions, and translated them into meditations for survival. The body of work is dream-like: some pictorial, some textual, all emanate a visual rhythm meant to invoke feelings of self-affirmation, curiosity, and resolve.
Gallery owner Anyka Barber, an Oakland native, is known for curating provocative and inspirational art shows – the kind grounded in experimentation, independent thinking, social justice commentary, and spirit. DeJesus Moleski and Kholi, friends for three years, had worked individually with Barber before who thought the two would be perfect for a collaboration show.
“Betti Ono is about presenting shows that unlock the gates to art and culture,” Barber said. “It’s about shifting the perception around who can participate. It’s about validating marginalized voices, othered identities, and showcasing work in an accessible way. Amaryllis’s work is about imagining the brown femme body as an ancient powerful figure, and Kholi is interested in how writers shape and push culture forward. Betti Ono is named for women who were futurists: Yoko Ono and Betty Davis. They’re also female archetypes. Both Amaryllis and Kholi understand what it means to be an archetype and are interested in understanding how archetypes shape and give them power.”
DeJesus Moleski and Kholi started conversations about the show’s concept in June. It quickly grew into something grounded in a shared experience they felt thematically symbolizes how marginalized people are forced to engage with the world — by means of survival.
“It started with surviving academia,” DeJesus Moleski said. “I’d just graduated from California College of the Arts and Kholi is in the process of getting her Ph.D. in English literature. We were having conversations about being working class queer women of color in academia, and what it means to survive an institution that was built to keep us out. Then it evolved into this larger idea of cultural, mythological, and spiritual survival.”
“Particularly in this moment,” Kholi said, “in being aware of what’s happening nationally and internationally, it feels necessary to present work that not only says the rest of the world gets to exist, we get to exist, too. The world we live in will, literally, kill us. There’ve been acts of survival that have gotten us here, and we want to make sure we’re contributing to tomorrow. I want to make sure we have a future.”
AMEN explores how marginalized people, particularly queer femme women of color, have been expunged from mainstream historical myths and imaginations of humankind’s future. In identifying the omissions, both artists reassert visibility in powerful, integral forms through time and space.
“I’m a huge sci-fi fantasy nerd,” DeJesus Moleski said. “One of the reasons I love the genre is because people are working out difficult things: themes of survival, apocalypse, cultural anxieties. Right now, I see a lot of apocalypse stories, but they’re filled with white, straight, middle-to-upper class people. In these futuristic stories we have the opportunity to create something new, but the same systems of oppression are being reinforced. I don’t think that’s by mistake. We’ve been written out of the past already. People of color have experienced cultural genocide. And now future stories are being created and we’re not there either. For me it feels urgent to contribute, to play around with future myths. We existed yesterday and we exist tomorrow. We’re integral to the integrity of our planet.”
Kholi said that she’s studied the works of several writers.
“I’ve studied writers like Amiri Baraka, Toni Cade Bambara, and Alice Walker,” Kholi explained. “Even in the academic world we don’t talk about these writers because they’re ‘crazy’ or ‘different.’ It’s actually because they’re people of color taking very seriously their future, magic, and talents. We get to have a future. We have a voice of authority. Not superiority, but authority, which is different. And our exhibition is also celebrating Betti Ono’s anniversary. That’s really important because for four years Betti Ono has been in the middle of downtown, a place not controlled by black women. That right there is survival. The work really locates where we are, where we’ve been, and how we get to tomorrow.”
And, Kholi and DeJesus Moleski emphasize, AMEN is for everyone. Both agree that the exhibit is a public conversation to be witnessed and experienced by viewers from wherever they exist.
Betti Ono Gallery is located at 1427 Broadway. The opening of AMEN, from 6 to 9 p.m. Friday, September 5, coincides with Oakland Art Murmur’s First Friday event, a free monthly art walk in downtown Oakland.