Friday, October 17, 2008

Breath of Our Ancestors: Joy Holland and Casper Banjo, presenting Keith Hopkins

At the Breath of the Ancestors Exhibit Reception, Wednesday, October 15, at the Prescott Joseph Center we honored the legacy of the San Francisco Bay Area’s premiere artists: Berkeley resident, Joy Holland and Oaklander by way of St. Louis, Casper Banjo, with featured artist: Keith Hopkins, another Oaklander.

The exhibit, titled: “Breath of Our Ancestors” is an opportunity to meet a woman whom one guest tonight said sounded like Fanny Lou Hamer, Harriett Tubman and Ida B. Wells rolled into one. It is also an opportunity to celebrate the work of internationally acclaimed artist, Casper Banjo who was taken from us too soon, last year, when he was shot not far from his home in October as he took his evening walk.

Stories of Joy’s banner on the side of her home with the words: “No Son-of-a-Bush,” walks through the neighborhood where talk of her fearlessness spread. No one bothered Joy. Ava said she hadn’t shed a tear since her mom passed months ago…perhaps she said, because her mother’s spirit lives. Her brother Tajmal echoed these sentiments later on.

TheArthur Wright spoke of his good friend Casper Banjo, an internationally well-known artist, whose passing was such a surprise. Shot by a police man, the exact circumstances are still unknown as the police refuse to release their report to family. Casper’s material was brick—an unusual medium…but one the St. Louis native knew well. Mary Rudge, poet laureate for the City of Alameda, spoke of Casper fondly, his love of all art—literary, visual and performance and how he didn’t let his gender or race keep him from participating on art shows or gatherings.
Avotcja spoke of her relationship with Casper who was “a trickster,” portrayed as Anansi in African tales, Brer Rabbit in African folk tales here in America—Elegba in the Yoruba tradition.

“He was such a personality…outrageous and fun.” Avotcja said about her friend, who went to college and high school with her. (Casper’s family relocated to Oakland where he graduated from Oakland Tech.) She and Casper taught at Laney college, and were participants in an artist center not far from Prescott Joseph Center—7th and Peralta. Avotcja said Oakland needed places more places like this now: free, assessable art spaces where artists could get together and hang their work.

Mary Rudge said she thought often of how she’d like to have an exhibit where bricks were the medium…a brick wall. She said bricks were a material used by cultures throughout the world…. Casper told me of a suit he made from fabric stenciled with brick patterns he created. The medium was certainly durable—bricks, reminiscent of the earth and its inhabitants…human beings the new comers, clay a lot older.

TheArthur spoke of his friend. He said Casper was everywhere there was art. Even once he had heart surgery, and suffered from depression, the humor and playfulness associated with Casper was well-known. TheArthur recalled. TheArthur explained how Casper was a friend and a mentor because he comes late to painting, his first love or medium writing. (TheArthur is well-known for his painting with bleach of images of Queen Califia.)

It was great hearing the stories about the artists –Ava shared her mother’s poetry and Avoctja played a DVD she’d made from a performance in 1991 at La Peña Cultural Center where Joy and the ensemble Black Poets with Attitudes: Joy Holland, Avotcja, Abimbola Adama, Beverly Jarrett and Wanda Sabir, performed. “We were better than good!” Avotcja said later on—she’d previewed entire show and pulled our the two segments of Joy’s.

Seeing Joy reciting her poems: “The Key” and “Port Chicago” and her love poem, brought back so many wonderful memories. I recalled Joy’s periodic phone calls and cards and articles in the mail. She’d clip articles I wrote and send them to me for my records. She’s also called me to encourage me to continue writing or to ask how she could help with many of the poetry events I put on. Casper did the same thing. I’m so sorry I never took him up on his many invitations to write a story about his many exhibitions. I didn’t realize until later how great an artist he was. I just knew he was everywhere and his spirit was gentle and kind and encouraging. I think one of my best visits was once when I was on the 57 bus and he and I shared a ride from MacArthur BART to Eastmont and we had a chance to talk. Riding public transportation is a great way to slow down. For once I wasn’t in control and had to give that aspect of the journey over to someone else and thus I was able to enjoy visiting with a wonderful man, a man I respected.
Casper’s body of work spans historic and more recent events and topics, such as a recent piece, Katrina, painted September 2005. Using graphite, printmaking and embossing, he also drew or painted work celebrating his family, like his nephews and mother, Lucy.

Joy was also multitalented. Ava mentioned how her mother began writing during the time she was caretaker of her parents, whom she refused to put in a convalescent home, until after quitting her job to take care of them, the task grew to much for her to handle. Her paintings were something her children Ava and Taj and their deceased sibling grew up watching their mother do. When I met Joy, I guess 20 or so years ago, she was a poet, painter, and clothes designer. Did I mention activist and teacher?

She and I taught poetry workshops at Longfellow Elementary school, just up the street from her home. The children wrote poetry, made books and then performed for the school. She loved children, evident in her relationship with her grandchildren and the youth in the neighborhood.
Joy’s advocacy and work to revitalize the more well-known of California’s black towns, Allensworth, which celebrated its 100 anniversary last weekend, October 11-12, 2008, was known. She was one of the reasons why I wanted to make the pilgrimage last week. It was my way of saying thank you. Even though the town was dusty, its large fields barren, except for the replicas of old buildings like the old library, Col. Allensworth’s house, the school, barbershop, town store and pharmacy, plus homes of prominent citizens, many of them friends of the Colonel and other prominent citizens—it’s history is undeniable. And I hadn’t known Allensworth was in the desert and the land was sold to Allensworth and the other founders because they were expected to fail.

The Buffalo Soldiers were present Saturday when we attended the celebration. Mary Rudge recalled her stop at the town another Founder’s Day years ago—it was a special stop on her trip from Southern California back north. The Amtrak conductor told his passengers the detour was for passengers headed to the felicitations. The fact that the train was rerouted was one of many factors that killed a town, as I said; no one ever expected to thrive. When Col. Allensworth bought the land with other founders, it wasn’t expected that the descendents of enslaved Africans would make an oasis in the desert, but they did, despite hostile responses from Tulare county leadership and some residents.

“It was Klan country,” Avoctja said, “yet these black people made a way out of no way and built their town. They weren’t trying to prove anything to white people, they did this for themselves. This same fearlessness is characteristic of Joy Holland and Eddie Abrams who almost singlehandedly stopped Tulare County from issuing permits to dairy farmers who were going to bring cows into the county just across the road from Allensworth.

It is Joy Holland and Eddie Abrams’ commitment to keeping this town and its revival paramount that forms the basis of its going from a barren field to as stated previous, a slowly growing installation which has the potential of complete revitalization. Presently, the town of Allensworth is still uninhabitable; there still isn’t any running water, electricity. One can camp at Allensworth State Park, but why anyone would want to is questionable—

As we drove through the town last Saturday, it looked like the Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans, the only thing, there was no hurricane, but the unnatural elements, racism and structural violence struck this black town, the same way –neglect and policies of exclusion keep the Lower Ninth and Allensworth from accessing government resources which would enable both to rebuild. Just as in Allensworth, for miles and miles all on sees in the Lower Ninth are empty fields…boarded up homes, weeds, peopled sparsely by people in trailers. If you didn’t know you were in California, you’d think you were in Mississippi or Louisiana.

Our other artist, Keith Hopkins attempted to call me, but I didn’t hear the phone ring, and so those at the reception were unable to hear from him. Keith Hopkins work can be viewed at I also had an interview with Keith some time ago on my radio show: visit (click the links and check October 3. It was a Friday.)
The show is up through the end of the month, October 31, at 920 Peralta Street in Oakland, 9-5 p.m. daily. The community organization is closed on weekends again now that the play, Ebony and Johnny has concluded. Admission is free. For information about Prescott Joseph call (510) 208-5651.


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