Upon exiting the elevator on the third floor, visitors to San Francisco’s African American Art and Culture Complex are greeted by a colorful, large mural spanning an entire wall. It’s a vibrant, resonant piece, with red, yellow and orange hues contrasted by light blue, depicting 16 cowrie shells. Some of the cowries are outlined and overlapping; others are painted in, with shading. There’s a certain collective consciousness inherent to the shells. Each one is different, yet all are part of a larger whole. It’s an easy metaphor for individuality as seen through a spiritual filter. Written on the painting are some words and phrases: “friend or family?”, “we are living in the last daze,” the number “3,” and the word “reality.”
To the left of the mural lies a long hall. It too is decorated with similar paintings, canvasses depicting cowries and editorial comments, and a chalk outline of a female warrior, holding a spear, also with the caption “we are living in the last daze.” To the right of the mural is a large room. In it, there are more paintings, not just of cowries, but of deities called Orishas associated with the Ifa tradition, among them Osun and Chango; a candled altar surrounded by paintings of Africanized fetish dolls inscribed with names of real-life people; a portrait of an “Afronaught” holding a mango; and a slave rebellion of the Haitian or Jamaican variety, showing a shirtless sugarcane worker with a raised machete leading his family (or tribe) presumably into freedom.
The exhibit to which this art belongs, “16 Cowries: Voices of the Divine,” largely came about because of the work of Oakland artist Eesuu Orundide, who started a series of cowrie paintings on unstretched canvas back in 2005. “At first, it was just paintings of abstract shells,” Orundide explained at Thursday’s opening reception. “Then I started doing whatever came to me, allowing myself to be a channeler.” His inspiration came, he said, from the practice of a “diviner throwing shells, to create connection with the spiritual realm.”
Orundide decided to put the pieces in storage, waiting for the right opportunity to present them to the world, which came in the form of this exhibition. Other artists were asked to contribute pieces, including Oakland artists Joshua Whitaker, Rich “Fflood” Ejire, Safetyfirst, Reshawn “Bushmama” Goods, Karen and Malik Seneferu, Nyeusi Omiroo, and Aswad Arif, as well as 2AM (Aambr Newsome), Mark Legrande, and Keena Romano.
At the show’s reception, Goods, an initiate of Ifa, led an invocation, followed by each artist discussing his or her work. Many spoke of the connection between channeling through divination a la the cowrie ritual and channeling divine inspiration through art. Newsom described “creating through a larger consciousness,” Arif talked of “making manifest what you want to see or imagine,” and Legrand—who’s been painting cowrie-oriented works for 22 years—described how “spirit gives force to matter.” Goods traced the transformative process of taking a piece of trash she found on the street and “turning it into something beautiful.” Whitaker, meanwhile, described how he adapted from paintings to mixed-media collages to make the art more “instantaneous,” so that the “spirit can come quicker.”
Examining the exhibit as a whole, it all seemed very cohesive, though indicative of each artist’s individual style. It’s rare for that to happen with group exhibitions and, even more uncommon, not a single piece of art in the room felt out of place. “16 Cowries” succeeds in doing what art often aspires to, but usually falls short of: turning the exhibition hall into a de facto temple, upholding artistic process as ritual and creative expression as free-flowing spiritual practice. Go see it when you get a chance; the show runs until January 23rd.
Among all the elements of hip-hop, perhaps the least is known about the history of the movement arts. The most celebrated has been breakdancing or b-boying, largely due to the association with hip-hop godfather Kool Herc. Yet the East Coast b-boy tradition is contemporaneous to, and in fact preceded by, the West Coast boogaloo tradition, which itself is divided into regional styles: Southern Californian pop-locking, or popping, and Northern Californian strutting.
A new documentary in the works, “Strutters for Life: The Untold Story of Medea Sirkas,” tells the history of a group of dancers who started in SF’s Fillmore district during the Golden Age of Booglaoo, when groups like Granny & Robotroid Inc., Monty & the Mechanical Midgets, Live Incorporated, Close Encounters of the Funkiest Kind, The Diabolical Soldiers, and Demons of the Mind danced for crowds at Fisherman’s Wharf and competed with each other at talent shows.
Medea Sirkas began as Demons of the Mind in 1978, becoming an instant sensation with their precise, domino-like synchronous movements. Group leader Fayzo describes the strutting scene in the Fillmore at that time: “it was an abundance of talented individuals and groups within about a 10 to 20 block radius. We used to have talent shows throughout the San Francisco Bay Area. These talent shows were like our concerts and the performers were our celebrities. A lot of us were teenagers and some were kids during this time and some of us didn’t get a chance to go to concerts on a regular basis, so the talent shows were our concerts.”
Demons of the Mind broke up in 1985. In the mid-’80s, Fayzo notes, films like “Wild Style,” “Beat Street,” and “Breaking” (1 & 2) brought what had been an underground subculture to wider audiences. After those movies came out, he says, “the street dance scene was so saturated, and exploited by the media, that people were getting tired of seeing any movement that looked like what they saw in those movies.” In 1991, “We decided to change our name, music, costumes, and concept, at the same time remaining true to our art form,” Fayzo recalls. Medea Sirkas was formed, consisting of Fayzo, Boogaloo Dana, and Justice “Cleo” Supreme. (Current members are Fayzo, Booglaoo Dana, Zulu Gremlin, Charlie Rock and Eartha Carrol.) “When we performed with our new makeover, people were amazed all over again.” Over the years, Medea Sirkas continued to evolve, keeping their choreography, concepts, costumes and music fresh. Some of the highlights of their career include performing with Run-DMC, opening up for Aaliyah, R. Kelly, Common, and Queen Latifah, appearing on “Showtime at the Apollo,” and at an NBA playoff game, and appearing in music videos by Justin Bieber & Usher and Paul Wall.
Fayzo appreciates recent street dance movements like the Bay Area’s own turfin’, which, he notes, incorporates struttin’ as well as popping, waving, and boogaloo. “I am from the school of all of these elements, so to see turfers incorporate them with their own unique styles and movement, I think it is very creative and I love to see them dance and do their thing.”
The story of “Strutters for Life” is largely a history which has never been told in depth; were it more widely known, it might cause a rethink of the accepted hip-hop narrative (i.e. that it all started with Kool Herc’s parties) and establish a reasonable case for a West Coast/Bay Area cultural practice centered around boogaloo and struttin’ as seminal as the Bronx origin myth. “People are doing our style of dance all over the world but do not know its origins,” Fayzo says. “I feel that it is time that they know.”
The film’s budget is $100,000, of which Fayzo—the film’s producer—and director Mikel Fair have already invested $50,000. They hope to raise an additional $25,000 or more with their IndieGoGo campaign to help get the film finished, so they can start showing it in theaters and on the festival circuit. Feel free to pitch in, if you are so inclined.
This Week’s Picks:
Gary Clark Jr., Oct. 2, 8pm, $29.50, Fox Theater, 1807 Telegraph Ave.
Mara Hruby feat. Chris Turner, Oct. 2, 8pm, $18, Yoshis, 510 Embarcadero
Runway House Style Boutique Grand Opening, Oct. 4, 5-9pm, 455 17th St., second floor
Ensemble Mik Nawooj with Aisha Fukushima, Aima the Dreamer, Oct. 4, 8pm, 1429 Broadway
Soul Mechanix at People’s Grocery Garden, Oct. 5, 2pm-3pm, Peoples Grocery, 3501 San Pablo Ave.