Play means imagination, survival, and finding joy even in painful and difficult circumstances,” says Rochelle Spencer, who, along with Dera R. Williams and Audrey T. Williams, curated the interdisciplinary exhibit Let’s Play: Intuition, Imagination, and Black Creativity, on view from June 2 to June 29 at Pro Arts Gallery in Oakland. A writer and scholar, Spencer is also the founder of the AfroSurreal Writers Workshop, an organization that amplifies the voices of writers and artists of color who create surreal, futurist, dystopian, or absurdist literature and art. The new exhibit celebrates the idea of “fun as a revolutionary event” and explores AfroSurreal notions of intuition and imagination.
“Black people and people of color encounter discrimination but we all approach it differently and develop our own strategies for living full lives,” says Spencer, who conceived of the exhibit during a Studio Lab Curatorial Residency at Pro Arts in the spring. “So there’s a diversity within the black arts community that we don’t always acknowledge. The writers and artists have created work that is unusual, or funny, and even tragic. There’s no one way to be black or to celebrate our lives.”
Many of the artists and writers exhibiting work in Let’s Play harbor deep connections to the Oakland community. The local Kiss My Black Arts Collective created a site-specific mural, “We Are Not a Single Voice Community,” and cocurator Dera R. Williams recorded Oakland residents’ stories about migration for inclusion in the event. Painter and installation artist James David Lee built a public installation on an Oakland street corner, pieces of which are also on display at Pro Arts.
Other visual artists involved in the project include photographer, writer, and painter Jacqueline Bishop and scholar and multimedia documentarian Renee Alexander Craft. Poet and photographer Rachel Eliza Griffiths explores the exhibit’s theme through surrealistic portraits of black women wearing animal masks in domestic spaces, images that capture both the fanciful and sinister elements of play. “What’s exciting is that while all of these writers have a connection to written texts—Bishop and Griffiths are writers and visual artists, Craft writes nonfiction—they’re all exploring black creativity and people creating art out of their own lives,” says Spencer.
The exhibit also features recorded poems, stories, and novel excerpts from poets and writers Junot Díaz, Jewelle Gomez, Victor LaValle, and Dawnie Walton, among others. Gomez’s piece, from the perspective of an outlaw in a dystopian future America known as Society City, repurposes familiar science fiction tropes to demonstrate the horrible inevitability of being made to “disappear,” yet also incorporates a dark, performative humor. Kyla Marshell’s poem, “A Loser Love,” combines iambic meter with a hypermodern, erotic vocabulary, and poet Sharan Strange recites “Slippage/A Provocation” over the bright-yet-ominous sound of chiming bells.
Several local artists will join Spencer for a curator and artist talk at Pro Arts Gallery on Thursday, June 22, and all visitors to the exhibit will have the opportunity to collaborate on a wall of poetry about the relationship between play and the Oakland community. “We really wanted to make it a community-centered event,” says Spencer. “We called it Let’s Play because ‘let’s’ implies ‘we’ or ‘us,’ and we wanted to include the community. We also wanted to decrease some of the divisions between the art that appears in the galleries and the art we see around us.”
For more information, visit the Pro Arts Gallery website at proartsgallery.org/event/play.
Maggie Millner is Poets & Writers Magazine’s Diana and Simon Raab Editorial Fellow.