The Black Mail Show: Helping “San Francisco Bring Black Back”

“The aim of art is to represent not the outward appearance of things, but their inward significance.”

Aristotle uttered these words, realizing art isn't just pretty colors, and rich paints and some designs put together in an aesthetically pleasing way. It's about emotion, experiences, perception, about life. Curated by CRWNRS (CROWNOURS), the Black Mail show, which opened Oct. 16 at the Luggage Store Gallery, is five black male artists — Arrington West, Michael Covington, Chris Martin, Joonbug, and Muzae Sesay — sharing their art, their lives, and their desire to keep art in San Francisco alive. Meet the artists behind Black Mail representing their “outer appearance of things:”


Arrington “Ace” West (A Guy Called West):

My style is: kinda derived or inspired from the Fleishcher brothers, the people who made Popeye. That and hip-hop—if you mix 1920s, '30s cartoon animation and hip-hop together.

The message behind Black Mail for me: five artists from different places that have come together in a city that’s really difficult to thrive financially, but we're doing it anyway. Having the courage to actually pursue a creative career in a city where it's not easy to do. Black Mail is finally seeing a young representation of Blacks in the art world. We’re here. I want to be a part of the answer.

I want to have: a nice cartoony style, but have really in-depth content that people can actually learn and grow from. I love creating. I love cartoons. I'm going to do animation, but I'm going to do it on my own terms.

San Francisco is: really beautiful. I would say this is where I've grown into my adulthood, becoming a man. 

Michael Covington (Database):

After leaving a culinary career: I started pretty much painting and doing murals around the city. I already knew how to paint because my mom was a painter. From there, I did my first solo show through a spot called World Apparel. That was kind of the start of something.

My style is: pretty much just visual art, mostly abstract contemporary. It's all based off dreams I have had and I tried to mesh that into the artwork that I do.

As a frequent gallery visitor to a lot of galleries around The City: I always noticed a lot of artists, most of the artists that I look up to are not of my color. I wanted to be an example, not only just the color but also the style. To present a style that hasn't been seen in galleries around San Francisco. To show San Francisco that we as people of color can actually show work that's equally matched to the people that are actually showing in galleries today in San Francisco.

Chris Martin:

My style: would consist of a lot of black and white images and designs. I feel like It gives the composition a stronger look.

I work with: photography, graphic design, video shooting and editing along with textile work with my sewing machine. With photography I enjoy portraits, sometimes silhouettes. I tend to use black and white a lot so people can appreciate the composition without being distracted.

For the show I created: the textile banners along with my photography and match book illustration. The banners are something new that I'm trying for the first time. Ben Venom is actually the spark of inspiration to try these new pieces. I loved the size of his work and wanted to see if I could pull it off in my style of being more simplified and less colors. It's something I look forward to expanding on. I also like how it combines the designer in me with the entrepreneur side of running my clothing line Cypher.

To me Black Mail is: a symbol that represents people of color getting their message out through self-expression.

Personally I wanted to show: the background of what I'm about as an artist while still showing where I come from.

Being an artist in San Francisco/Being Black in San Francisco/Both: For me I feel blessed to have the opportunity to live in The City as an artist. Personally I haven't been here long enough to judge how artist have been threatened so I couldn't say. Although I will say the ones I've met are amazing and inspiring.

It's a strange feeling being in a city with so few people of color. Especially coming straight from an HBCU [Historically Black Colleges and Universities]. There's a weird acceptance for all people, but not necessarily an understanding. It almost gives me the feeling that I have to work just a little harder to speak for the other black people that can't or haven't yet. A feeling of saying “we're here too”.

Favorite piece in the show: If I had to choose one I’d say Joonbug’s Pablo piece. I just love the color scheme. Ace's samurai warrior illustration was also a long time favorite of mine. I'm stoked that it got sold during the opening.


My art style is: a balance of happiness, a balance of like just left field, weird, you know, stuff. Just a mix, a melting pot, I would say, is the style.

Theme for show: I pay attention to what's going on in the media in a way where it's not looking to the face of it, but looking behind the face of it, and just like seeing the inner workings of the media, so a lot of my stuff is more centered on social justice, just human rights in general. I like to tell stories.

I think it's about: voices. Voices that aren't necessarily heard as much as the mainstream voices. The Black voices are usually shunned or questioned to a point where their validity…is not necessarily taken seriously. So I think with this show [it] was a way for us to just kind of put our messages out there, our voices out there. We’re here. We can say whatever we want. You can come and talk about it. It’s like open dialogue. My thing was to create something that'll make you think, and in the same sense leaving it open, so you can interpret it the way you want.

On character Lord Vladimir: I have an affinity for vampires, and I wanted to create this kind of character that invokes fear, because a lot of the time, you see this whenever you see a lot of Black people. And not necessarily like individual Black people, but a lot of times, people think of Blacks in the sense of these monsters that can just drain you of everything that you own. But it's necessarily not true. So is Dracula real or is Lord Vladimir real? But it still invokes fear.

I'm very interested in: Picasso, because he was one that was unapologetic about his artwork, his style. He also experienced and experimented with different phases in life, where he drew in different styles, and I'm always down for trying different styles, because I don't want to get pigeonholed. I don't want to pigeonhole myself and become complacent in doing a certain thing or a certain subject all the time. He was one that tried something new, mastered it and moved on to something else. He was always putting himself in uncomfortable positions, and I really admire that with artists. I feel like in a lot of the community aspect, we can all benefit from putting ourselves in uncomfortable position and growing.

Muzae Sesay

The way I see art equates to: the way I see life. Art is a snapshot of the mind and of life either captured, created or reappropriated in order to evoke feelings and ideas; something new. Everyday becomes my background. What I see, the ideas I have, my relationships all go into the development of my style. For me, art is my response to life and the urge to create something new. With that, I will always allow my style to change and develop in relationship to my life.

The pieces in the Black Mail show reflect: my current interest in the social nature of public and private spaces. The skewed perspectives of space represented by flat, two-dimensional planes is my response to skewed ideas of control and ownership of our shared world. This interest results in surrealistic, geometric landscapes and futuristic spatial structures that are tied together by soft pastels.

For me, the message behind Black Mail is: simple. We are five artists who are Black males. I see this show and our collective as a progressive step in breaking down the social stigma and stereotype of being a Black male in America. As a group, we are telling the viewer our story, how we want to be seen, not how society chooses to portray us. Moreover, we're sending an example to our fellow Black males that we don't have to be stay trapped in a system of hegemonic domination where ideas of self worth are fed to us by a racially exclusive culture. Individually, I want my art to stand alone. I don't want to feel the need to make “racially charged” art in order to tell my story. I am an artist who is also a Black man. As the show celebrates our definition of Black masculinity, I hope my work places me in category of artists free of racial expectations.

Being an artist in San Francisco has been: quite interesting. On one hand, the community is small and close-knit which allows for a lot of support. However on the other hand, the community is shrinking, studio space is inaccessible, and one has to work all day everyday just to scrape by. I came to San Francisco to be immersed in its art culture which in this current state, seems to be dying. It's tragic but is somewhat excites me when I think of the Bay Area arts community as the resistance on the final frontier of culture. There's a mutual sense of “we're all in this together” that I think is shared amongst the art community and makes us stronger. What's interesting about being Black in this climate is that divisions based on racial hierarchies are surpassed by divisions based on social class. So wealth and class disparities allow the idea of “we're all in this together” to establish communities which are not based on race. I believe that polarizing classist mentality is actually helping racial equality.

Black Mail through Nov. 7, at the Luggage Store Gallery Project Space, 457 Haight.

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