CCA Artists Focus on Black Culture & History

Collage of faces related to Question Bridge Project

February is Black History Month; to mark the occasion CCA is highlighting a few of the compelling projects created by members of our vibrant community.

From our Diversity Studies program (formerly Black Studies), founded in 1970, to our various coalitions and organizations celebrating our diverse community to our Oakland mural championing cultural change and social justice, we are immensely proud of CCA’s unique and welcoming population of students, faculty, staff, and alumni.

Here are just a few CCA-related artists whose work explores black history, culture, and identity.

Toyin Ojih Odutola

Nigerian-born artist Toyin Ojih Odutola’s (MFA 2012) stunning pen and ink portraits have caught the eye of ARTnews, Interview, the Village Voice, and the New York Times, among countless others. In 2012, she was named one of Forbes’ Art & Style 30 Under 30; in 2015, Solange Knowles took notice, as did the massively popular show Empire, which prominently featured Odutola’s work.

Although not all of her portraits are of black people, her use of dark signature ink and richly embossed paper allows viewers to consider the identity of the depicted figure.

“It was the idea of black being treated as contentious,” she told Forbes in 2015. “The moment you’re depicting blackness you are de-valued. And yet, you see this young man surrounded by blackness to say that black can also be a warm, enveloping place to be. It’s not as polemic as everyone thinks it is.

She went on to discuss how the tragedies that sparked the Black Lives Matter movement have influenced art, “I love the idea of race being suspended in the work because then people can tap into something universal, as naïve as that might sound.”

Sites of Sanctuary: The Negro Motorist Green Book

Writer, photographer, and cultural critic Candacy Taylor (MA Visual Criticism 2002) heads up a project called Sites of Sanctuary: The Negro Motorist Green Book. The Green Book, published by Harlem postal worker Victor Hugo Green from 1936 to 1966, was a travel guide featuring hotels, restaurants, and shops across the country willing to serve African Americans during the Jim Crow era.

Taylor’s plans for the project include a book, traveling exhibition, digital interactive map, board game, and virtual reality platform. In 2015 she produced a film, The Negro Motorist Green Book and Route 66, in partnership with the National Park Service Route 66 Corridor Preservation Program.

Taylor has received grants from the NEA, Harvard University, the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, the Graham Foundation, the American Council of Learned Societies, and the California Humanities. 

Question Bridge

Question Bridge is a transmedia project created by Chris Johnson (Photography faculty), Hank Willis Thomas (MFA and MA Visual Criticism 2004), Bayeté Ross Smith (MFA 2004), and Kamal Sinclair, who have filmed more than 160 black men in nine American cities.

In the videos the men ask and answer questions and discuss their lives; the goal of the project is to represent and redefine black male identity in this country.

The five-screen video installation has been exhibited in dozens of museums, festivals, colleges, and other institutions. The team has also created a free online curriculum for high school students that focuses on identity, conflict resolution, and inclusion.

In addition, Aperture published the book Question Bridge: Black Males in America in late 2015.

The success of the project led to the artists’ current focus on a website and mobile app, with the goal of enlisting the participation of 200,000 black males.

Marcus Books

Since 1960 Marcus Books has been serving the Bay Area as the oldest independent black bookstore in the country. Like many small businesses in the Bay, however, the company’s lone San Francisco location of 33 years found itself wrapped up in a rent battle in 2012.

Ultimately, the little store closed its doors, leaving just its Oakland shop to carry on the legacy.

Located in the Fillmore district, a former hub of African American music, art, and culture, Marcus Books’ closing marked the end of an era for many longtime residents.

Luckily, the store that has persevered through seven moves since its founding has found yet another new home -- this time with a little help from a few CCA Interaction Design graduate students.

The team came together for the Center for Art + Public Life’s annual IMPACT Awards and helped facilitate a relationship between the bookshop and the African American Arts & Culture Complex on Fulton Street.

Marcus Books’ newest location is expected to open at the complex in April 2017.


See Diversity & Inclusion for additional information related to CCA's commitment to provide access and opportunities for all people, with special attention to supporting groups historically underrepresented in higher education.