Artist Phoebe Beasley Reflects on Life and ‘MIGRATIONS’

The artist's pathbreaking work is one of several stimulating exhibitions currently on view at Minnesota Street Project.

What Phoebe Beasley does with other people’s discards can be called “collage,” but that’s like describing the Taj Mahal as “a building” or Kafka’s The Metamorphosis as “a book.” Yes, it’s accurate, but those words are just the reductive start of a much bigger conversation about history and complexity and characters whose lives veer off in unpredictable and unintended directions. 

Beasley’s exhibit at Rena Bransten Gallery, “MIGRATIONS in Our Mind’s Eye,” is a visual narrative of the African-American exodus that, from 1916 to 1970, prompted six million Black people to leave the American South for the Northeast, Midwest and West. In Beasley’s art are snapshots of people who are dreaming of their escape or are on their way — as in Another Fireside Chat, where a gray-haired woman practically embraces an old-fashioned radio for the news of the day. 

The radio is an actual wooden device from the 1930s that found its way into Beasley’s possession, while the woman is composed of different materials — including colorful fabric for a dress that resembles a field of new flowers; lined, yellowing paper that is her wrinkled skin; and a brownish stocking that crawls halfway up her left knee but is bunched in a way that would be unbecoming in public. This is a view — both flattering and unflattering — of a woman alone in the early 20th century with a then-new media device, which brought the world directly into her home. For the woman depicted  in that scene, there was no need to migrate anywhere else but the green chair on which she’s seated. Beasley says her collages are “almost like stop-action stories.”

“Radio was the media our grandparents or our great-grandparents,” Beasley tells SF Weekly by phone from her Los Angeles home. “It must have been so fascinating and exciting to have radio in your home – especially for seniors, to have someone suddenly give you the news. You had fireside chats with [President Franklin D.] Roosevelt. Your radio was your new best friend.” 

“MIGRATIONS in Our Mind’s Eye” also navigates issues related to migrations in general, as in Beasley’s work called Climate’s Climax, which hints at the environmental damage that has uprooted people from previously fertile land. But it’s the Great Migration from the American South, which Beasley’s grandparents participated in, that’s at the root of her new exhibit.

Beasley, who is now celebrated for her decades-long career in art and arts education (she’s a former member of the Los Angeles Arts Commission and the California Arts Council), has gone through her own challenging migrations and obstacles, many of them rooted in racism. In high school, when she aspired to study art in college, her counselor laughed dismissively and told her that African-Americans couldn’t become artists. “You have to understand: There’s no such thing as a Black artist,” Beasley remembers her saying. And after Beasley moved from Ohio to Los Angeles in 1969, she frequently encountered gallerists who told her, “Oh, we have one Black person already” and “our clients don’t buy Black art.” 

In the late 1970s Beasley was at an artistic crossroads: She worked a day job doing sales for two Los Angeles radio stations while doing art at night and weekends,  when the poet Maya Angelou — by then a good friend — helped convince Beasley to be even more creative to get her art noticed. A car trip from Los Angeles to San Francisco became a tipping point for Beasley. “Maya said, ‘We’re going to take a car trip, and I want you to meet everyone who’s still alive who I’ve written about in my books,’” Beasley says. “By the time we went to San Francisco, she asked me what I was working on. And I started to hem and haw. I was doing shows in hospital lobbies or community centers. And she said, ‘You must do this! You must do this! I’ve bought your work. I care about your work. I’ve told other people about your work. You must do it. If you don’t, you’ll lose it.'”  

Fast forward to the present: Two American presidents, George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, acknowledged Beasley’s art with official presidential seals, and Oprah Winfrey, Samuel L. Jackson, and other celebrities regularly collect Beasley’s work. (As part of her new exhibit, Beasley is participating in an online talk with artist Nashormeh Lindo, moderated by UC Irvine associate professor Bridget Cooks, on April 9 at 5 pm. Free with registration on the Rena Bransten website.) 

Beasley will never want for material to work with, especially for collage, which Beasley was first inspired to do by the work of the great African-American collage artist Romare Bearden, and by her days as a high-school art teacher, when she had limited paint supplies and turned to material that was available. “My friends,” she jokes now, “all have a freebie box at their front door, because everyone I know is old enough to be deaccessioning. The only house accessioning is mine. So I have everyone’s discards or their junk.” 

“Phoebe Beasley: MIGRATIONS in Our Mind’s Eye.” Through April 24 at Rena Bransten Gallery, 1275 Minnesota, S.F. Free with appointment.

Other Exhibits Worth Visiting

“Future Faithful: Islamic Experiments in Space Exploration and Posthumanism.” Through April 10 at Bass & Reiner, 1275 Minnesota, S.F. Free.

The bulls that appear in the collaged, fabric sculptures of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s latest exhibit are, let’s put this matter of factly, weird looking. Two of them have milky eyes that are ghostly. And one of them is really a half-bull, half-human that’s dressed in shiny jewelry and a red, flowing skirt that falls halfway to the floor. It helps to know that Bhutto is referencing the bulls that are in Islam’s holy book. And that he’s also celebrating real and imagined queer Muslim fighters. Based in both San Francisco and Karachi, Pakistan, where he was raised, Bhutto has made a name for himself with visually provocative art that addresses queerness and Islam. Bhutto’s video animation, Tomorrow We Inherit the Earth, is a tour-de-force work that takes Islam’s oldest extant building of significance, Jerusalem’s Dome of the Rock, and flies it into a kind of outer space, where it meets a Hindu deity, and the earth circles around — as sacred Islamic chanting erupts in the background, along with voices and other sounds. When the YBCA exhibited Bhutto’s video earlier this year as a window display, you could watch it at night amid the stars and outside elements. That was a perfect spot. At Bass & Reiner, Tomorrow We Inherit the Earth is on a relatively small screen, but taking it in amid the fabric sculptures adds a dynamic that was missing at YBCA. 

“Solange Roberdeau: Beyond Latitude.” Through April 10 at Municipal Bonds, 1275 Minnesota, S.F. Free with appointment. 

In her work called Continuity: Movement To Moments (Diptych), Solange Roberdeau does something both quite simple and complex: She bleeds ink across the two white pages, creating patterns of black density that morph into waves of semi-opaqueness (the complex part); and she adds two stripes of black and gold (the simple part) that cut through the density and give Continuity: Movement To Moments (Diptych) a small visual anchor that balance the density and give it a visceral yin-and-yang feeling. And so it goes throughout “Beyond Latitude,” where almost every piece is a world of anchored abstraction, where darkness and lightness connect through permutations that are frozen for a moment in time.

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