This is one of dozens of arresting images created during volunteer cleanup efforts following Black Lives Matter protest marches, rallies and looting in downtown Oakland in early June: Treasure Island-based artist Blane Asrat’s striking portrait of a Black man painted on plywood.
Expressed in the highlights of her subject’s elevated cheekbones, steady gaze and the steep curvature of his neck are power, courage, strength and hope.
Asrat, 23, freshly minted with a degree in product design from the Academy of Art University in San Francisco, said in a phone interview she and two friends actually headed to the city intending to scrub graffiti-covered storefronts and collect trash.
“We went to help the Bay Area cleanup crew,” she said. “We found most of the cleanup was already done, and the crew had leftover paint from painting boards on stores.”
Other artists, in the area to participate in a mural project facilitated by Endeavors Oakland and the Bay Area Mural Program, had brought paint, rollers and brushes. Asrat, Tina Banda and Serena Y. Lee picked up supplies and set to work on a boarded-up window on Franklin Street. “I just drew it up and started painting,” Asrat said. “The board had ‘Black Lives Matter’ on it, spray-painted. I wanted to keep that message, but do it in a different way.”
Asrat’s parents are Ethiopian. Raised in Texas, she moved to San Francisco to attend college, where she says the sense of community creates an enclave in the city she experiences viscerally.
“I felt it in my body,” Asrat said. “The first art show I was a part of was ‘Flip the Script,’ hosted by ASPIRE for Justice, a San Francisco-based social justice group. We met once a week for a year, and it changed my idea of creating art in isolation. I realized I wanted to make art with and for other people.”
If kinship was the first impression Bay Area culture made on Asrat, her experience at the Academy of Art was less uplifting. During her first year at the university she was the only Black female student.
“Industrial design as a profession is male and white male dominated,” she said. “During my five years total in the program, one other Black woman joined, so there were two of us. I’d try to start a dialogue about it, and it wasn’t that [the other students] were against me, they just didn’t have the language to discuss those issues.”
Fortunately, Asrat has seen the “language” of images transcend spoken words, empowering action and making people feel less isolated. “People can look at my artwork and think, ‘Someone else has had the same experience. It’s not just me,’” she says.
The mural she and her friends created is her first experience working at such a large scale with limited references and in public. Typically, extensive photo references, sketching, and work on smaller surfaces in the privacy of a studio or classroom result in the tightly designed posters, pins and patches that are her specialties.
For the mural, Asrat simply searched “African profile” on her phone, clicked on a handful of images, and then “added my own twist to it.” Asked what that “twist” means, she says, “I always looked at white features and white bodies as I was growing up. I’m trying now to provide a different perspective.”
Moving beyond participation in civic art activism, Asrat has started a new project, #pictureblackness. “It’s on Instagram now, but we’re hoping we can get an online gallery,” she said. “We’re inviting Black artists to make and display a single work; poetry, comics, illustrations, anything.”
While the new project celebrates and makes more visible the work of Black artists, Asrat said she’s hopeful that the Black Lives Matter movement and protest related to the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police in late May will bring about lasting change. “The most hope is that people are uncomfortable,” she said. “That’s usually what gets people to change. I’ve had white friends call me and say they feel horrible. I don’t want anyone to feel bad, but there’s a reckoning in that.”
As a way to remember and herald the art that beautified downtown Oakland in early June, artists working under the banner The People’s Artist Alliance are seeking to preserve the murals. During ongoing discussions about storage and display, some murals have been sold with funds raised for social justice organizations, others stay in place where businesses remain closed.
Asrat says group conversations on Zoom are “all over the place,” but the intentions are clear: Art matters, and this art more obviously than most.
“I’d never drawn live, in an outdoor space,” she said. “People would come by and talk to me. They’d say they really appreciated what I was doing. Their support allowed me to be in my process differently: to paint not with the inner critic, but in community.”