When multimedia journalist Amir Aziz joined The Oaklandside in November 2020, the team knew what an asset he would be to the newsroom and how his visuals would elevate our storytelling.

Born and raised in Oakland, Aziz had already been using his lens to document happenings in his hometown and abroad, like his coverage of the 2019 Hong Kong protests. And, since joining The Oaklandside, his work has helped to put a human face on some of the most important stories in our city, from the impacts of COVID to school closures and the housing crisis.

It is no surprise then that his body of work, both for our newsroom and through his previous stints as a freelancer, has others taking notice—and has taken his stunning visual storytelling abroad.

Aziz’s photos are now part of a new exhibit in Saint-Denis, a municipality in the northern suburbs of Paris, France. The exhibition, In the Banlieues: Oakland/Saint-Denis, which roughly translates to “in the suburbs,” was curated by Laure Gayet of Légendes Urbaines and June A. Grant, founder of Oakland-based blink!LAB architecture, and co-produced (and partially funded) by Villa Albertine San Francisco and California Humanities, with SPUR and Pavillon as the partner venues.

The exhibit features work by Aziz and other artists, urban planners, entrepreneurs, and researchers and portrays the similarities between Oakland and Saint-Denis, two communities that, although far apart in distance, share similar social struggles, landscapes, and reputations for grassroots community organizing.

“When June [Grant] began to explain the exhibit more, that it wasn’t just about Paris but about this interesting community, Saint-Denis, and its similarity to Oakland, I was even more excited to be involved,” said Aziz. 

Aziz had traveled to Paris in the past but was unaware of Saint-Denis and how, like Oakland, it has a large immigrant population and a history of community members taking matters into their own hands to help people in need.

A screengrab from Amir Aziz’s Instagram page.

When Aziz discussed the exhibit with Grant, she referenced the work being done by grassroots organizations like Homies Empowerment, which evolved from providing free food weekly during the pandemic to acquiring land where it will soon build a community garden and the Black Cultural Zone, which took over a once dilapidated empty lot in East Oakland and transformed it into Liberation Park, a community hub that showcases local entrepreneurs. 

“The gallery owners were seeing this connection, and they wanted to bridge this gap around the way communities are examples of how a society can make their environment a better place to be, and not just wait for people to come and help them,” he said. “Oakland has been a great example of that for, I would say, a long time.”

Aziz had a lot of archives to select photos from, dating back to 2013. Some that made the cut include a photo from a 2014 First Fridays performance by local musician, educator, and activist Kev Choice. Choice was a guest at The Oaklandside’s first Culture Makers event in March, and we recently wrote about a mural that features him called Love Letter to Oakland 2.

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Oakland musician Kev Choice performs with a band on First Friday, April 4, 2014. Courtesy: Amir Aziz
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LA-based artist Robert Vargas paints a volunteer of the crowd during a First Friday, April 4, 2014. Courtesy: Amir Aziz

Other photos by Aziz in in the exhibit are from the recent multimedia installation, Story Windows (The Oaklandside wrote about it last summer), which was displayed on a stretch of Broadway from 14th to 17th streets and featured 20 local Black artists and Black-led arts and cultural organizations.

Aziz said being from Oakland allows him to better understand the people and places he photographs, and he sees himself and his work as being part of a larger ecosystem of local people and organizations coming together to help the community.

One example of that ecosystem, he said, is a recent mural project in West Oakland. Jilchristina Vest, who owns a home in West Oakland, contributed the back and side panel of her house for the mural, which honors the women of the Black Panther Party. The mural was produced by Rachel Wolfe of the Bay Area Mural Program

“You are forever involving your personal space in this larger story of how we tell our community stories,” he said. 

Amir used that particular West Oakland mural as a backdrop for another story, about a mother and son who together started a social enterprise, Euphorium Oakland, through the city’s Cannabis Equity Program.

“One of the people in the mural is holding the free breakfast program bags, and the mother-son duo who own a cannabis and CBD delivery service were also holding their own cannabis bags. And I thought, wow, that’s just such a nice point of reference,” he said. “How we continue to do these things in the light of folks that came before us.”

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Women of the Black Party Mural and mini-museum in West Oakland painted by Bay Area Mural Program. Courtesy: Amir Aziz
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“Black and brown solidarity” mural by an unidentifiable artist painted on the former Goodwill Store façade during the Summer 2020 protests in downtown Oakland. Courtesy: Amir Aziz

Bay Area folks won’t have to travel to Paris to check out the exhibit. Later this month, In the Banlieues: Oakland/Saint-Denis will open at SPUR Urban Center (654 Mission St., San Francisco) with plans to also showcase in Oakland. 

“When people check out the exhibit, I want them to see the community’s influence and our impact,” said Aziz.

Correction: the exhibit is co-produced (and partially funded) by Villa Albertine San Francisco and California Humanities, with SPUR and Pavillon as the partner venues.  

Azucena Rasilla is a bilingual journalist from East Oakland reporting in Spanish and in English, and a longtime reporter on Oakland arts, culture and community. As an independent local journalist, she has reported for KQED Arts, The Bold Italic, Zora and The San Francisco Chronicle. She was a writer and social media editor for the East Bay Express, helping readers navigate Oakland’s rich artistic and creative landscapes through a wide range of innovative digital approaches.