Anyka Barber on art in times of resistance

Anyka Barber on art in times of resistance
Photo Credit:

| October 22 2016,

10:00 am

Anyka Barber is a graceful, thoughtful and inspirational person, leader and artist. She cofounded the Oakland-based art gallery Betti Ono six years ago. I had the pleasure of visiting her art gallery for a preview event of their latest exhibition, VIRAL, a meditation on police brutality and state sanctioned violence. Following this emotional and moving exhibition, Anyka and I had a conversation about race, art, gentrification and more. Read below:

I am an Oakland native, born and raised here. Growing up, the arts were always a huge part of my life. Through the AME Church, being in choir and in theatre programs, it was just a huge part of my childhood. I moved away to study at Clark Atlanta University, and there, I met some really pivotal folks, artists, makers, and curators and really got introduced to the history of arts and culture from the black perspective in a way that I hadn’t before.

We are named after Betty Davis and Yoko Ono. Coming from Oakland, being born and raised around social justice, and activism being embedded in the culture, it has been a huge thread in my life, and also in recognizing the disenfranchisement of our communities. I wanted to really lift up the voice of women of color artists who really helped to transform and shape popular culture in ways that people may not have recognized. Betty Davis, a model, entrepreneur, and singer-songwriter who contributed so much to an era that has now inspired all of us. Yoko Ono was extremely influential as an individual artist. Betty and Yoko really personify being unapologetic about ourselves and stories.

Betti Ono and Art Responders proudly present VIRAL: 25 Years From Rodney King, on view September 16 - October 22, 2016. VIRAL: 25 Years from Rodney King asks vital questions about the disparate implementation of law enforcement between white neighborhoods and communities of color over the past quarter century and offers the opportunity to memorialize the victims of this ongoing American tragedy. The exhibition features more than 80 pieces of visual art as well as music, video, and interactive games in response to incidents of police violence. Public programs and special events will take place during the exhibition run including Betti Ono's 6 Year Anniversary Celebration on October 6 and a community day of action on October 22, 2016 in conjunction with National Day of Protest Against Police Violence. Read more on our website, Artwork: "Do Not Cross" by Ravi Zupa

A photo posted by Betti Ono (@bettiono) on


If I’m being honest, I’ve always been able to see the impact of the arts in people lives because of how deeply involved I was in arts when I was coming of age. And also witnessing how important art was in telling our own stories to being responsive to critical issues. Especially at church, for some reason,
we were like the theatre and performing arts church.  As I grew up as a teenager in the '90s and attended college in the early 2000s, I just knew that was my role and my medium. I’ve always been interested in social issues and how art can address it.


 The intention from the beginning was to open up a space that welcomed in people like you and I, and folks whose art and voices and stories might not be amplified in a gallery and in arts and culture spaces. Part of my intention in opening up in downtown, is that as the center of the city, it is a place that attracts everyone, being in the commercial part of broadway, it has access to transit. And historically, growing up here, people would gather downtown for so many reasons.

We ensure this space is accessible through community partnerships. Through the way we curate the space, holistically. People know Betti Ono is accessible, there's no admission fee, there is no feeling that a high price won’t tell people they don’t belong here. As Oakland changes, it's important for us to continue to be visible and our interests to be made visible through the space, but it is definitely a huge part of what we’re challenged by. There is a lack of affordable space in the city, we’re struggling with getting a long-term lease here. So as downtown continues to change, and part of what we’re fighting for is our rightful place in equitable development, development without displacement, as all these plans are being made, we are ensuring that we are inserting our voice.


We have general fellowships with colleges like San Francisco State's Ethnic Studies Program, we’ve hosted fellows at the graduate level, interns have been a huge part, the high schools around the neighborhood are involved, the youth are working with arts and civic engagement. So we prioritize having them learn about how art plays a significant role in cities and how youth can also have voice and do that.

Additionally, we offer space to community organizations and nonprofits. One key program we kicked off a year and a half ago is called the Creative Neighborhoods Coalition, which is used to address issues of cultural equity and how to keep art and culture spaces of color in downtown and across the city. We definitely have a big voice in civic life and we feel like that’s an important space for us to hold as the city continues to shift. The same ways our bodies are being criminalized, so is our culture. And that shows up in how you might invest dollars in certain neighborhoods and what neighborhoods get policed for certain events. So the Coalition is the our vehicle to carry out the policy change issues we are working on.


Daryl E. Wells, was referred to Betti Ono as a partner for hosting this exhibition and adding Bay Area artists to the exhibition that she launched in April and it was a perfect opportunity for us. Myself as curator, I’ve been involved in organizing exhibitions and really participating in conversations around the impact of social justice in the art realm so it was a no brainer when the opportunity came up. It’s our six-year anniversary, and it's connected to the history of Betti Ono and also because it’s the 50th anniversary of the Black Panther Party. And a part of the narrative is the fact that the BPP was a youth justice movement. Young people were coming together in response to issues of police brutality in the community. And it made it total sense to present the show because of those connections. BPP was a pivotal and seminal group and put Oakland on the map, and at the same time, we wanted to, and I particularly, wanted to connect with young people aged 15 - 24. We are also celebrating BLM and the Movement for Black Lives, and I wanted Betti Ono to be a space to lift up that youth voice through the exhibition. The whole city is going to be coming alive throughout the month of October around this history, and I just wanted to try to focus on artists responding to police brutality and the youth voice.

When we think about the level of investment (or lack thereof), of art in communities of color, the investment is not there. Partially because our stories get marginalized secondly because mainstream has not valued our histories and stories in a way where there is an equitable level of investment. So we don’t have enough art spaces to tell the stories that we need to. And on top of that, if in fact you are also challenging the status quo like we are and flipping the gallery model on its head, that’s not something the status-quo would support.

Because the values are so different, it’s important that our communities understand that it’s about how we multiply our resources and what we can do to be accountable to make sure our artists who are committed to telling our stories have the resources they need to do that. I understand the ethical concern, however, in most instances, when we are talking about art for communities of color, we are not talking about profit at all. Betti Ono does not make a profit, sometimes people may confuse resources and profit as if they’re the same. Profit comes after all expenses are paid, more often than not we are under-resourced to the point where artists are working for free, they cannot live, they cannot pay their rent, they can barely eat. It's not healthy.

The same goes for people who are running these spaces, we are under-resourced, undercapitalized and overworked just by the nature of trying to do something the system is set up to tell us we can't do. We are making due with what we have, and if an artist is going to play that role for us, we have to resource the movement. Just like other critical movements need to be resourced. So that’s how I look at it.


All credit due to the ancestors, 'cause sometimes I don't even know. Everyone has a point where their resources have been depleted. Something I was able to experience in the past month or two was a trip to the continent. I was able to attend with members of the community and that was hugely transformative. Everyone doesn’t have the ability to leave the country and get away from what is happening, but I do think part of our resilience is being able to find that time and to remember our history and to really understand as black people in America we are a really a reflection of our ancestors dreams and prayers. I mean that with my whole heart.

As much of a struggle as it is on a daily basis to be bombarded by the racism and hate that shows up, if we can get time to turn off our phones, get off social media and just unplug and be with our family and celebrate what is good about ourselves, that is nourishment. I really do feel like when we are overwhelmed with action and activity that we can lose sight of the simple ways we can tap into our resilience. None of this would be possible if there wasn't a slew of people who deemed it viable to support. We need to be the source for each other and take turns holding space for each other.

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