Under the pervasive stress of the COVID-19 pandemic, waxing and waning ad infinitum, with no end in sight, finding time to be creative for creativity’s sake can provide a booster to mental health, according to a study conducted in March 2021. Members of the BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and people of color) community already coping with the degrading effects of systemic racism on their mental health are in even greater need of time devoted to arts and crafts. However, renting a studio space, affording equipment and supplies, or having any free time at all for creative pursuits may only seem like a pipe dream to poor Black creatives living paycheck to paycheck—ubiquitously oppressed by institutional racism.
With that in mind, visual artist Erica Deeman and interdisciplinary creative arts leader Ashara Ekundayo co-founded the Black [Space] Residency in 2020 to give members of the Black community in the San Francisco Bay Area a place to practice their craft.
“It’s been a scary time,” says Deeman. “I am just grateful we could offer a space as a distraction and as a place of solace, in an intentional way. We managed to do it safely, and finding a path through it all really speaks to Black perseverance.”
Black [Space] Residency is a project born out of opportunity. When Deeman was accepted into graduate school at the University of California, Berkeley, she realized that the college would provide her a studio, and she no longer needed to inhabit her below-market rent space in the Minnesota Street Project Studios in San Francisco where she’d been working since 2017.
“I was one of the inaugural artists awarded a space at Minnesota Street Project Studios, and one of three other Black artists in the space,” says Deeman. “It would have been easy for me to sublet it out to one of the rotating artists there, but I wanted to feel some intentionality and keep the space for Black creatives. I meditated on it for quite some time, and mentioned it to my friend Ashara Ekundayo. We started talking, and decided to create Black [Space] Residency together.”
Since its founding, Black [Space] Residency has hosted around a dozen Black artists from all disciplines, such as Trina Michelle Robinson, Sydney Cain and Amara Tabor-Smith. The studio in San Francisco contains resources like a wood shop, darkroom, kiln and staging area, among others, so it naturally fosters a sense of experimentalism to the artists in residence, who are not obliged by the residency to create anything at all.
“Many have come out to donate and support us, so we are able to offer our artists a space at no cost. We give them a small stipend and don’t expect any artistic output in return,” says Deeman. “We understand the power and value of rest in a creative practice, so if someone wants to just do yoga in the studio for a month, then that is what they do. We don’t want to add another layer of ask to creative artists.”
Black [Space] Residency has become more than the founders had anticipated as they now have a public platform to address the issues facing Black artists. In addition, the residency model spearheaded by Deeman and Ekundayo has inspired others in the Minnesota Street Project Studios building to adopt similar programs.
“The most important thing for us was to give artists space, but it’s become so much more than that,” says Deeman. “Other artists in the studio have created similar residencies since we got started, and I’m grateful people are starting to recognize that just giving space is an act of generosity.”
Moving forward, Deeman hopes that the model of Black [Space] Residency will inspire white-centric spaces to open up to Black artists and replicate their program. Deeman sees cooperation at the core of Black creativity as Black people have traditionally had to support each other to accomplish their creative goals.
“The idea of individualistic thinking doesn’t really apply to Black creativity,” says Deeman. “Collaboration is all Black creatives know, really, this idea of sharing what we have and amplifying each other’s creative practices and voices. The work that I do too is all a collaboration, whether I’m making portraits or prints, and, in many ways, art is just an extension of collaboration.”
On the other side of the country, in New York’s southern Catskill Mountains, another residency centered around BIPOC artists formed in 2018. After attending a music festival in Arizona, 29-year-old Brooklyn-based artist Kamra Hakim was inspired by the intimacy of the gathering, but disturbed by the lack of health precautions, and an absence of diversity.
“I noticed that all of the spaces were very white. There wasn’t much variety in race, class, or gender,” says Hakim. “I really felt that that gap needed to be filled, so in 2018 I formed Activation Residency in response to the lack of creative opportunities for Black, queer, and trans artists.”
After connecting with others in the New York art scene, Hakim decided to devote their life to giving Black and trans artists a surreal space like a music festival, focused on well-being, where they could create and collaborate. Hakim faced a number of challenges while founding Activation Residency in regard to funding, and had to charge a participation fee at the onset, but was fortunate to find an ideal space to house the residency at the Outlier Inn, 90 miles from New York City.
“When I was in the process of envisioning Activation, I was reaching out to friends, asking if they knew of any spots that could hold the vision that I had, and a friend from the Hudson Valley mentioned the Outlier Inn,” says Hakim. “The artists have direct access to nature there so the environment is conducive to the work we want to do.”
Activation Residency grew from hosting 20 artists its first year to 60 in 2019. In 2020, the BIPOC-only residency became free to artists after Hakim crowdfunded about $50,000, which allowed them to offer diet-safe, local meals and stipends in addition to the residency at no cost. The 2020 residency hosted artists and activists involved in the Black liberation demonstrations after George Floyd was murdered.
“We called the program Respite as Resistance,” says Hakim. “It was fully focused on rest and recovery, so we had practitioners from all different modalities there like massage therapists, reiki folks, and acupuncturists give their offerings to our artists.”
Although the Outlier Inn is an ideal space to host Activation Residency, renting is expensive. After spending more than $30,000 in rental costs, Hakim sought to find a more sustainable home for Activation Residency. In January 2022, they worked to close on a five-acre property in Youngsville, New York, that will permanently house their new forest garden artist residency called Farming Futurity, which focuses on food production and land stewardship.
“In terms of building structures on the property, it’s still a matter of securing funding, which could take as long as all summer. It just depends on how quickly that support comes in, but I am confident that we’ll get it,” says Hakim.
In order to conserve resources and stay focused on the Farming Futurity project, Activation Residency will host just one artist in September 2022, Emmy and Sage Award winning composer PaviElle French.
“We were chosen to do a special program with the Artist Communities Alliance where they selected a number of residencies to go through a capacity-building workshop last year. Through that they connected us with PaviElle French,” says Hakim. “We hope to host her in our own space, but the Outlier Inn is our plan B.”
In the future, Hakim hopes to create a sustainable garden in Youngsville that provides the residency with income alongside luxury rentals on the property that will allow the Activation Residency to thrive without donors.
“I want to show the world that there are other ways to do business than what we’ve been taught,” says Hakim.
This article was produced by Local Peace Economy, a project of the Independent Media Institute, which provided it to Intrepid Report.
Aric Sleeper is an independent journalist whose work, which covers topics including labor, drug reform, food and more, has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle and other publications local to California’s Central Coast. In addition to his role as a community reporter, he has served as a government analyst and bookseller.