Mildred Howard, Black Oakland, and the Power of Memory

You know Mildred Howard’s art even if you don’t know it’s by her, and the septuagenarian artist's work has only grown more urgent in the wake of her own displacement.

Mildred Howard, TAP: Investigation of Memory. Photo courtesy of Oakland Museum of California

In early January, Bay Area artist Mildred Howard spoke at Harvard University about her career and her artwork on display at the school’s Ethelbert Cooper Gallery of African and African American Art. A few weeks later, Howard was in Norman, Okla., for her retrospective at the University of Oklahoma’s Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art. And on March 31, Howard will talk at the Oakland Museum of California about her major multimedia piece called TAP: Investigation of Memory, which the museum recently installed in its own gallery there.

A septuagenarian, Howard is in more demand than ever, celebrated for work that — thoughtfully, provocatively, and sometimes playfully — delves into issues of race, gender, identity, history, and other subjects that the organizer of her Oklahoma exhibit has called “topical.” And what’s more topical than gentrification? And the dramatic exodus of the Bay Area’s Black community? That’s what TAP: Investigation of Memory hints at with its old, worn shoe-shine stand, which was once perched inside the California Hotel.

In the 1940s, the West Oakland establishment was one of the few fancy hotels that welcomed African-American jazz and blues musicians and their fans. And in the 1950s, the California Hotel welcomed African-American guests at a time when other grand hotels had a de facto “no Blacks” policy. In its day, the shoe shine stand in TAP: Investigation of Memory was a symbol that Black Americans had arrived at a place of respect and reverence.

Music and movement are central to TAP, which incorporates scores of metal taps. As a younger woman, Howard was a dancer, and TAP assembles the past to ask if it still matters and still resonates. Howard made TAP in 1989, and its new exhibition comes at a time when the percentage of African-American residents in Oakland and other Bay Area cities is shrinking in the wake of ever-rising real estate prices. In 2017, a drastic rent increase forced Howard from her studio and residence in Berkeley, a city in which she was raised. Howard lives now in West Oakland — not far from the California Hotel, which was refurbished into affordable housing five years ago. Despite a career that includes an Honorary Doctorate of Fine Arts from the San Francisco Art Institute and a Lee Krasner Award for lifetime achievement, Howard tells SF Weekly that, two years after leaving Berkeley, she’s still using temporary spaces, without a working art studio to call her own. This, at a time when she’s witnessed the dramatic drop-off in Black residents in the East Bay.

“It’s gone — it’s gone,” Howard says of the idea of Black Oakland, speaking in an interview at West Oakland BART station, the epicenter for the East Bay’s real-estate price hikes. “If you look at the demographics, it’s gone throughout the Bay Area. It’s the same thing that’s been happening forever [in Black areas]. In Oakland. The Fillmore. The Bayview and Hunters Point area. Parts of Los Angeles. Harlem. St. Louis. We could talk about anywhere in this country. It’s been coming for the last 15 years.”

Howard isn’t alone in her concern. A group of Black San Francisco artists, curators, and writers formed what they call the 3.9 Art Collective — its number a reference to a prediction that, in the near future, African-American residents of San Francisco may only comprise 3.9 percent of the city’s total population. A prominent member of the collective, Kristine Mays, is exhibiting her work at San Francisco’s African American Arts & Culture Complex. “Brutally Soft: Sculptures by Kristine Mays” showcases Mays’ ability to transform metal wire into contours of dresses and women’s figures that make an artistic statement. One artwork, Uprooted, imagines those who’ve experienced gentrification and been evicted from their homes. Uprooted also imagines the lives of female slaves who, centuries ago, were brought to the American south from Africa and lost their entire identities, including their names. Mays made the connection between slavery and gentrification after visiting Baltimore recently.

Minoosh Zomorodinia, Sensation video still. Courtesy of San Francisco Arts Commission.

“I was there for five days, and I was talking to people who’d lived their whole lives in Baltimore, and conversations about people being brought in as slaves kept coming up again and again,” Mays, who was raised in Visitacion Valley and still lives there, tells SF Weekly. “At one point, we were down at the pier and someone pointed and said, ‘Right over there is where the slave ships came into the port.’ And there was a section with these weird, old podium stands that made us wonder if those were the actual auction blocks. It shook me, because it’s not something I think about on a daily basis in San Francisco.”

In the past five years, Mays has made a national name for herself, evident by filmmaker George Lucas and his wife’s 2015 purchase of her art, and by singer Lauryn Hill’s use of Mays’ work for her recent 20th anniversary The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill tour. Images of Mays’ metal-wire art were on video that appeared on screens as Hill sang to thousands of fans a night. Hill chose Mays’ work after seeing it in a 2018 coffee-table book that spotlighted the art collections of Peggy Cooper Cafritz, who had one of the world’s foremost troves of art by African-American artists — including Mays’ art.

“Lauryn Hill had the book and went through and selected artists,” says Mays, who adds that her art has become more socially conscious in the past few years. “It’s all been wild to have these various things happen.”

Howard, who works in multiple mediums, including sculpture, mixed media, and collage, has a long history of art that’s celebrated in public. People know Howard’s public art even if they don’t know Howard created it. Two examples: Three Shades of Blue, Howard’s blue-glass work that features the writing of Quincy Troupe and went up at Fillmore and Geary in San Francisco in 2003; and Salty Peanuts, her homage to jazz and Dizzy Gillespie’s infectious song “Salt Peanuts,” which features 130 saxophones and was installed a few years earlier at San Francisco International Airport.

Both Three Shades of Blue and Salty Peanuts were placed in high-traffic corridors connected by public transportation. Fifty-one years ago, Howard’s mother, the activist Mable Howard, led the fight against BART’s plan to build tracks above ground in Berkeley. But Mable Howard cautioned her daughter about gentrification, saying that wealthy people who wanted shorter commutes would eventually covet their South Berkeley neighborhood and its unassuming homes.

“My mother said, ‘You just watch. These white folks are going to come back here and buy this property and you won’t be able to live here.’ ” Mildred Howard says, “And West Oakland is gone. It’s gone. There were so many Black clubs and businesses frequented by all kinds of people.”

“I’m trying to make a living in this new Bay Area,” Howard adds in her SF Weekly interview, done on a rainy night as commuters hurried to and from the West Oakland BART station. “I just put one foot in front of the other. You can’t stop because of that. It might be a slight intermission, but you just keep on working.”

So Howard is making more art than ever — with 80 pieces done between October 2017 and April 2018, she says, and more exhibiting planned this year. In two months, Howard’s work will appear in BAMPFA’s exhibit, “About Things Loved: Blackness and Belonging.” Howard’s continued art-making and her past art is “home” for people around the United States who see in Howard’s work a kind of artistic permanence that will always be collected and exhibited. Pieces like TAP: Investigation of Memory are so much more than the sum of their parts. But one thing they’re not is “activist art.” Howard doesn’t use her art to proselytize. She can’t do it, she says. She won’t do it.

“I’m not a social worker,” Howard says. “Artists have to become social workers now. I don’t go out to make something to say, ‘I’m going to do this and do that.’ [Changing the world] is up to people who look at it. I’m hoping they will feel something as a result of looking at the work. You know what Oliver Lee Jackson said? He said, ‘That painting doesn’t care. It is an inanimate object.’ Those taps are taps. They’re inanimate. But it’s what the viewer and the spectator brings to the work.”

“TAP: Investigation of Memory” through Sept. 1, at the Oakland Museum of California, 1000 Oak St., Oakland. $6.95-$15.95, 510-318-8400 or museumca.org.

“Brutally Soft: Sculptures by Kristine Mays” through March 24, at the African American Arts & Culture Complex, 762 Fulton St. Free; 415-922-2049 or aaacc.org.

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