Not just art, but activism

Courtesy // Tyler Chartier

The Petaluma Art Center is showcasing the exhibit “Black Artists on Art,” through Nov 22.

Black Lives Matter—Even in Petaluma. Now until Nov. 22, the Sonoma County community has the opportunity to participate, educate, and be inspired by the vibrant creativity that black artists, musicians and performers have poured into the shaping of American and world culture through Petaluma Art Center’s latest exhibit, “Black Artists on Art.”

For the Petaluma Arts Center to host such an innovating exhibit shows a valiant effort in educating the community in the Black Lives Matter movement. According to the United States Census Bureau, African Americans in Petaluma comprise a mere 1.4 percent of the population, which stands 4.8 percent lower than the California percentage. Scott Hess, local Petaluma photographer and long-time Petaluma Arts Center supporter, is responsible for the exhibition being placed at the arts center. He had proposed that the arts center to do an exhibition featuring the struggles occurring in the Black Lives Matter movement. Hess had come into contact with Trevor Parham and the Unity Lewis of the Oakstop Gallery in Oakland to collaborate and help bring the exhibition to Petaluma to promote not just art, but activism.

The exhibit is based on the “Black Artists on Art” book series, by Samella Lewis in 1969. Lewis’ voice comes from her vision that the art from that time was activism-based.

“I wanted to make a chronology of African American artists, and artists of African decent, to document our history,” said Lewis in a past interview with Unity Lewis. “The historians weren’t doing it. I felt it better the artists do it anyway.”

Some may pose the question of why a Black Lives Matter movement exhibit would be showcased in an area that is hardly represented by people of color.

“We had an exhibit on impressionist Edgar Degas, which was hugely successful this past July. And somebody could say ‘what could nineteenth century French people have to do with me? They’re all dead, right?’ You could really ask that question about anything,” said Val Richman, executive director of the Petaluma Arts Center. “In a way, in any exhibition, anyone could say ‘well that’s got nothing to do with me.’ But I think the whole point of art is to open people’s eyes to the things they might not have seen or experienced before.”

In order to help educate the surrounding community, schools have been encouraged to plan field trips to the art center to provide insight on American history through visual interpretation.
“We’ve been reaching out to schools to get school groups down here [to the arts center],” said Richman. “I think that the Docent Tours that we are providing definitely put art within a context.”

The HUB, Sonoma State’s multicultural center, focuses on the integral center for diversity, vitality and creativity. According to the HUB website, students in the organizationlearn how to become the innovative people they need to be, and how to work together to create the kind of world we want to live in. The commonalities between the HUB and the Black Artists on Art exhibit at the Petaluma Arts Center have inspired the students to unify through art.

“I think it’s inspiring to see the Petaluma Arts Center provide an outlet for those who do not know what African Americans have been through,” said Shaitra Ken, student assistant at the HUB. “As an African-American woman, sometimes it’s hard to educate others on being oppressed without sounding too preachy, so I’m glad that I can tell people about this exhibit because then I can just let the art speak for itself.”

It may be true that the African American population of Sonoma County is not large, but the exhibit has picked up respected sponsors including Petaluma Blacks for Community Development, Sonoma County Commission of Human Rights and 100 Black Men of Sonoma County.

The exhibition runs through Nov. 22 at the Petaluma Arts Center.