This story was first published by Oakland Voices, a journalism program led by the Maynard Institute for Journalism Education that trains Oakland residents to tell the stories of their neighborhoods.
Ashara Ekundayo stewards a myriad of artist residencies and fellowships that she designed through her organization, Artist As First Responder (AAFR). Ekundayo has been creating spaces in Oakland that allow artists to fuel and inspire their work for over a decade. Recently, the interdisciplinary and independent Black artist-curator established new residencies under AAFR for social justice and climate change.
Within the ecosystem of Artist As First Responder is a collaboration of art and social justice activism: “Artists whose work is actually healing communities and saving lives. We’re looking at the artists, the creatives across disciplines [of social justice] who are already inside of that movement work,” said Ekundayo. There are four Black artists currently in residence in different stages of their practice.
AAFR is based on the idea that artists show up first as healers through their creations, and in celebration of community solutions. In times of crisis or distress, artists create the salve that is used to soothe wounds. Musicians create songs of protests and poets create words that light a fire in the soul of people.
Ekundayo explained that AAFR has a six-point philanthropic and interactive arts platform that includes public talks, printing, exhibitions, grants, site-specific ceremony, and artist residencies. Within the residency arm of the organization, each of the actual residencies are unique to the artists themselves.
The Oakland-based AAFR prints and publishes content under the banner BLATANT, a triannual zine and forum of the same name, where Ekundayo has ongoing discussions with Black women and femme artists on art, joy, and rage.
The residencies and grants are not one-size-fits-all. “They’re created in mind with each individual artist,” Ekundayo said. “Looking through an equity lens, it’s been clear that not every artist requires the same level of guidance or support to reach their goal. We are in a constant state of collaboration.” While one artist may need a reprieve from their roommates for a month to complete a project, another may need funding for an installation. Residencies are not stagnant or based on one specific type of program, but based on the artists themselves.
Creating artist space is nothing new for Ekundayo. In 2012, she was one of the seven co-founders of the Impact Hub, a now-closed co-working space in downtown Oakland, which was pivotal at the beginning of her journey. Ekundayo created Omi Gallery within Impact Hub to showcase primarily people of color whose work had never been shown in galleries before.
One might find the storefront exhibits called Black Joy StoryWindows, a multimedia art walk through Downtown Oakland featuring displays providing a visual definition of what Black joy looks like. The displays were co-presented by Artist As First Responder in collaboration with Oakland Central and the Black Joy Parade.
In 2020, Ekundayo also co-founded Black [Space] Residency with Erica Deeman. These two organizations partnered to support one of the AAFR residencies, the Omi Black Writer’s Residency, which hosts the Poet-In-Residence at Black [Space] Residency.
As the visibility of and demand for Black art have increased, Ekundayo’s development of residency programs has given artists an opportunity to tip the scales and attempt to add some balance to an art world that has disproportionately excluded Black artists.
According to AAFR’s review of a study published in 2019, over 85% of the art in U.S museums was created by males, who are predominantly white, and only 1.2% was art from Black/African American artists. Residencies for Black artists are now appearing more frequently, according to Ekundayo.
Each of the current artists in residence has an element within the framework that emphasizes environmental justice, social entrepreneurship, and literary arts. “I believe that artists ought to be paid well for our labor,” Ekundayo said. “Also that we have to pay each other and support each other in other ways by sharing opportunities for mentorship, professional development, and rest. So I’m an artist who pays artists and who is also paid by artists—we are manifesting a reciprocal cycle.” Funds for artists are raised by Ekundayo through grants and individual supporters.
The current residency includes climate justice and social justice Artist-in-Residence Ietef “DJ Cavem” Vita (Vita is also Ekundayo’s son), whose full-time staff position includes health benefits and mentorship resources to expand the world’s first and only 100% vegan-powered record label, PlantBased Records.
Oakland-based fashion advisor, creative director, entrepreneur, and Enkundayo’s son Christian Walker is a social economy and engagement fellow. His research and production of community-powered events and social media campaigns are putting a spotlight on partnerships with local and national designers and a series of art focused on men’s mental wellness.
The organization’s Spring 2022 Poet-in-Residence Ra Malika Imhotep‘s recent book gossypiin was released in April 2022. This partnership with Black Space Residency allowed Black writers, primarily poets, to expand their writing into visual work such as photography, printmaking, and even ceramics at the Minnesota Street Project.
Most recently, Muralist-In-Residence Christopher Burch began investigating racial justice through a series of public social practice artworks highlighting the beauty of Black people at Liberation Park in East Oakland.
To receive one of these residencies, there is no application process or location to submit the work. AAFR’s artist residencies are by invitation only. “This is me paying attention to who’s working in the community and inviting them to be a resident to work on a particular project of their own,” Ekundayo said.
As a curator, Ekundayo knows the importance of paying attention to the artist’s landscape, to help navigate or remove the barriers for an artist to create. “I’m looking for spaces of inquiry and opportunity within their varied practice. Perhaps it’s something they talked about where they mentioned being stuck, or in need of a little support in solving something or getting to the next level.” The model for determining how to service its participants, Ekundayo explained, is simply to ask the artist what they need to create and provide it to them.
Much like most therapists have a therapist of their own, artists need the support of another artist who can make room for them. Ekundayo explained that her long-standing curatorial practice is part of her own healing and is modeling a way to show up as a first responder to other artists who are emerging, at a crossroads, or in need.
”All practitioners across disciplines are looking to heal themselves,” Ekundayo said. “In my commitment to the healing of myself, which requires that I study, dream, and act on my own behalf, I give permission to other people to activate a pattern of self-care and ease.” Ekundayo believes that through interaction with other people, “I too… am also healed.”