In 2022 we added 42 artworks by working Bay Area artists to our collection through a gift of the SVANE Family Foundation. In this interview, we speak with two of those artists, Demetri Broxton and Ramekon O’Arwisters, about how Black culture and liberation are expressed through their mixed-media practices.
Hannah Waiters: To start, can you both describe your artworks and techniques?
Ramekon O’Arwisters: The sculptures include fabric and ceramics. So the idea that broken ceramics are a stand-in for the emotional and physiological way I feel: broken, thrown away, sharp, and dangerous. The fabric is either recycled or remnants that I use to crochet around the ceramics as a way of bringing the shards metaphorically and physically together, not throwing them away, acknowledging how we want to feel and how we feel: broken, thrown away, or marginalized. We are stronger when we symbolically accept our brokenness and are able to rise above it and stay together and bond.
Flowered Thorns #3 (2020 / 2021) is done with rope, fabric, and ceramic bound together. Whether we are painters or sculptors, our bodies represent the whole gamut of our history. We have to use our whole body to extend onto any material — clay, metal, or plastic — and it is, therefore, an extension of who we are and how we express our worldview.
Demetri Broxton: The work acquired is titled Save Me Joe Louis (2020). It is a pair of Everlast boxing gloves bound together by a stainless steel chain. The boxing gloves are embellished with cowrie shells, specifically money cowrie shells, with patches made of tiny glass beads that spell out the words “Save Me, Joe Louis.”
Like Ramekon, I am referencing the Black body. The boxing gloves, even though they are suspended from the ceiling, or the wall, or however they may be displayed, they are still this object that implies that these are something to be worn on the body. These gloves are not usable because they are stuffed with pieces of redwood, bundles of cotton, and other substances that I have added into the gloves, including various herbs and oils.
I started with this form being really inspired by these objects FAMSF has in their collection, called Ile Ori, or the House of the Head, a shrine of the Yoruba people. The vessel is covered in cowrie shells, but inside of this vessel is a smaller vessel in which, when a person is born, a shaman or Babalawo (high priest) creates a small container that represents the essence of someone’s spirit.
I was interested in these objects’ role in the transatlantic slave trade: the fact that cowrie shells are also blood money used to purchase human bodies to send them across the sea. By possessing an Ile Ori, a person had enough wealth to where, in theory, they could avoid being sold into slavery. Yet these vessels made their way into museums’ collections. So therein lies the contradiction. Human bodies were also sold for guns, bullets, and glass beads, so I like juxtaposing these beautiful materials with this dark and terrifying past. . . . That history is violent and speaks to how so much wealth is amassed and the enormous resources that had to be taken from places in order to create that wealth.
This piece is very much inspired by an often misquoted story in African American history. Even Dr. King told the story of this young boy in the 1930s who was sent to death in a gas chamber, and his dying words were, “Save Me, Joe Louis!” Because Joe Louis was such an icon. He was this African American icon who transcended barriers of race and had this respectability that gave him access. Usually, my pieces are inscribed with lines from hip-hop. Save Me, Joe Louis is the only piece I have ever done based on a phrase from popular African American culture, with Joe Louis being a “superhero.”
HW: Can you speak to your artistic process and how liberation shows up in your work?
RO: So, liberation. It is necessary for all to find their voice. Everyone constantly bombards us: parents, religious leaders, movies, and the church. We are always confined to conforming to the dominant culture. . . . When it comes to liberation, I don’t have to make work to please an audience, specifically straight white people. That’s huge because we have been, for 400 years, forced to please a dominant culture. . . . After a while, we are all broken ceramics and get thrown away. If you are enslaved and cannot work, you are thrown away. So I wonder, In what ways can I be subversive?
I feel liberated using broken ceramics and fabric because such fabric itself is not considered high art. It’s regarded as low art. So why not take something out of one context (broken ceramics / vessels) . . . and create something you haven’t seen before?
DB: It’s important to name that I went to art school, so I am formally trained as an artist, particularly in oil painting. I didn’t see a lot of Black artists that are elevated in these fine art spaces. So I was looking toward something that is outside the European ideal of “high art.” . . . I was compelled to explore something outside this Western context, and that is where I get into my materials and my process.
I am looking toward Yoruba sculptures and the ancient kingdom of Kongo sculptures, but also to my family’s connection in Louisiana. The techniques I use for bead weaving or embroidery, I learned through a video chat with Demond Melancon, Big Chief of the Young Seminole Hunters, based in the Ninth Ward in New Orleans. Before that, I had been playing with off-loom bead weaving, and the technique that New Orleans Black maskers use to make their suits for Mardi Gras is a very similar fashion to beads woven into regalia in West Africa. Not just Nigeria but Cameroon and Kongo. Just going into that technique, the materials still connect to something with a deep ancestral connection outside of the Western world.
In terms of liberation, for me, it’s really breaking away. There is also liberation in that I am looking at lyrics from hip-hop artists, which is a billion-dollar industry but is not considered fine art. A lot of the phrases that come through hip-hop music are things that we receive as daily wisdom. I’m excited to see a piece in FAMSF with this vernacular understanding of conversations between African Americans or people of color communities who have historically not found their way into this kind of space.
HW: Your process videos reveal how you are working and handcrafting the materials. Can you speak to this?
DB: Beads are consistent, round pieces of glass, so it’s pretty easy to work with that, but as I’m introducing these materials, I’m challenging myself to learn something new. Like in Save Me, Joe Louis, the beads are in rows, but if you were to actually sit down and watch me, I’m not working in rows. I jump all over the place. I’m very inspired by jewelers and beadwork. For the purpose of the jewelry, or for the purpose of the textile, the rows have to be very perfect. I don’t seek perfection. I really like to experiment, and how I’m feeling in the moment finds its way into each stitch. For me, there is magic in that as well.
HW: How is your work connected to the Bay Area?
RO: I wouldn’t be who I am now if I hadn’t been in San Francisco . . . Through 1991, the city has supported me with my housing situation and the studio that I have, which are at low market rates.
DB: It’s impossible to separate myself from the Bay Area, as I was born and raised in Oakland and have spent the majority of my 43 years in the Bay Area, particularly Oakland. I was raised in the birthplace of the Black Panther Party, where the Black Power movement and the hippy movement were going on, where there has been this diverse viewpoint and the idea of the freedom of speech. I say “the idea” because we all know it is just an idea. . . . The Bay Area afforded me the possibility to work in a place like the Museum of African Diaspora — the only museum dedicated to the art and artists of the African diaspora as a whole. I think only the Bay Area could foster something like that, much like 3.9 Art Collective was birthed out of keeping a permanent place for Black culture in the city. That has spread into my being a part of Black Space Residency.
HW: What do you hope Bay Area viewers take away from your artworks?
DB: The work will expand the possibilities of what people see as Black art from the Bay Area. You were asking about our artwork being in dialogue with incredible pieces in the FAMSF permanent collections. It would be a dream of mine to see my work alongside the House of the head (Ile Ori) drum. I was really inspired by Mildred Howard’s Laila Ali (2010), where she has got these gloves hanging, that really stuck with me. Just having the possibility of having these works in dialogue, and the conversations that could come from that, is really exciting to me.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.