If you regularly drive, bike, or walk through West Oakland, you may have noticed a recent change in the visual landscape. Several streets underneath the 580 freeway overpass have been transformed from a symbol of urban blight to a beacon of hope. Bleak concrete walls littered with unsightly graffiti tags, magnets for both illegal dumping and open-air urination, have become home to vibrant art murals which radiate themes of upliftment and positivity. Eyesores have become eye-opening sources of neighborhood and community pride.

A new mural in West Oakland brings vibrancy and color to a bleak concrete environment

A new mural in West Oakland brings vibrancy and color to a bleak concrete environment

The murals, collectively known as the Oakland SuperHeroes Mural Project,  use public art as a tool for community engagement. Created by the Attitudinal Healing Connection (a non-profit whose mission is to reduce violence through furthering the creative arts), designed by students at local schools, and painted by a talented bunch of local artists, the OSHMP has relied on crowd-funding and public/private partnerships to raise the necessary funds to paint murals at four thruways under the MacArthur freeway–a key transportation corridor–while creating jobs and training local youth.

Thus far, two of the planned six murals have been completed; the first, on San Pablo Avenue  between 35th  and 36th Streets., was unveiled in July of 2012. On March 5th, the second mural, on Market St. between 35th and 36th Sts., was unveiled to great fanfare, with a ribbon-cutting ceremony featuring AHC staff, students from Westlake Middle School, community members, and several of the artists involved in the mural painting. Also in attendance were Steve Huss of the City of Oakland’s Cultural Arts Dept., D1 City Councilmember Dan Kalb, and staffers from D3 Councilmember Lynette Gibson McElhaney’s office.

Refa Senay and Westlake students cut the ribbon on the new mural

Refa Senay and Westlake students cut the ribbon on the new mural

The lead artist for mural #2, “Refa” Senay Dennis, beamed like a proud papa as the ribbon was cut. For the occasion, he sported a black V-neck sweater, a wooden medallion in the shape of the continent of Africa and a small button adorned with the iconic Black Panther logo.

In a phone interview, Refa filled Oakulture in on the backstory behind the process of creating the mural, which he said began with the Westlake students, who came up with the conceptual design for the “Super Hero” images. “When I heard their stories, I was inspired,” he said.

The mural’s images include a black woman playing a musical instrument that is a combination saxophone and guitar, whose notes form a rainbow from which various animals emerge and connect to a black man with a tam and dreadlocks whose ends become a bed of brightly-colored flowers; a white man with short hair and an outstretched arm from which butterflies rise; and a black-haired priestess/goddess-like figure who stands in a meditative pose under two sun beams and projects the moon from her third eye.  There are blue skies, verdant greenery, outlines of buildings, and undertones of indigenous spirituality, magical realism, cosmology and sacred geometry: from pyramidal shapes to Aztec calendars to patterns and imagery associated with various West African tribes, ancient Kemet, and Rastafarianism.

detail from the new West Oakland mural

detail from the Market St. mural

The mural painting itself was completed on a fast schedule and took just 12 days in all, including weather delays. Refa notes that the participating artists included members of the Oakland Maroons art collective, as well as “a good representation of African artists and sisters.” This was important, he said, because the mural lives in a location inhabited primarily by black and brown folks; “Being able to see people from your community beautifying the community is not something you often see,” he said, adding that to him, many of the new murals coming into the community represent what he calls “cultural gentrification” because of the exclusion of people of color from the artistic process.

It’s uncommon, Refa said, for mural projects to have an African  lead artist, a point underscored by the reaction of the Oakland police, who rolled up with eight squad cars one day and harassed him and the other artists. Despite the fact that the artists had scaffolding up and the mural was as legitimate as they come, OPD “treated us like criminals,” he said.

Community members, however, had a different reaction: “One sister came by and brought homemade cookies from scratch,” Refa said.

detail from the Market St. mural

detail from the Market St. mural

For Vanessa Solari Espinoza, aka Agana, one of the artists who worked on the mural, the project was “a rewarding experience” that in her view, has had a “transformative effect” on the neighborhood. Massive concrete walls, she said, “are made to separate people.” This mural has the opposite effect, she said: it “changes your mood, changes how you feel,” and addresses the reality of poverty, violence, and trauma by becoming a means through which healing seems possible.

According to Agana, “the most powerful part of the painting was the reactions of people passing by.” During the painting process, she related, the artists witnessed a lot of drama, from car accidents to robberies involving “people who live under the underpass.” But as the mural took shape, and the hieroglyphic narrative of the design sketch was realized, the colors “brightened up people’s days,” she said, adding, “it brings hope to the community.”

Agana and Refa

Agana and Refa

Another phase is planned for the Market Street mural, on the wall of the 36th St. off-ramp, which should happen later this year. AHC also plans additional murals, at West and Martin Luther King, Jr.  Streets, with a target date for completion of summer 2015.

For the muralists, creating further transformative art projects is a no-brainer. “We definitely need more murals” which can have the same effect as the Market St. project, Agana said. As Refa explained, altering the visual landscape in a positive way also impacts the community’s sense of psychological well-being: “What you see in your peripheral and around you every day affects your thinking. We need attitude and spiritual adjustment.  Murals are one way of edifying and growing the community” — not just through the visual artwork which results, but also through the process itself. “It brings life,” he said. “You wanna treat it with respect.”


This week’s picks:

“Ghosts of Jeju” film screening, March 18, 7pm, East Bay Media Center, 1939 Addison St., Berkeley

W. Kamau Bell, March 19, 8pm, $20-$25, the New Parish, 579 18th St.

Mi Alma Flamenca, March 20, 7pm, $10, Awaken Cafe, 1429 Broadway

The 45 Sessions’ X Thud Rumble 4-YEAR Anniversary feat. DJ SHORTKUT + Platurn’s B-Day, March 21, 9pm, $10, Legionnaire Saloon, 2272 Telegraph

Book Release and Signing: “Black Girls Are From the Future/(H)afrocentric Comix, March 22, 6pm, $10, Betti Ono, 1427 Broadway


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