They called me “womanish,” a defiant, dark-skinned Black daughter born in Detroit in 1968 on the heels of an uprising while the United States was on fire. The Black Panther Party for Self-Defense was two years old, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated the same year, and the momentum of the civil rights movement was palpable. There was no doubt that what would be birthed would be the next generation demanding to be heard, to be revolutionary, to be radical, and to do so through new technologies. Poised to know the classroom before the fields with the refrain of “Black Is Beautiful” falling effortlessly from our lips, they called us “riot babies.” We were born woke and ready with a particular capacity for navigating the creative terrain of the movement.
My parents, both artists, were two of the estimated 250,000 people who participated in the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in August 1963. Their activism politicized me at birth. From a young age, they instilled in me the belief that I could be anything that I wanted to be if I was willing to fight for it. They encouraged my curiosity and celebrated my experimentation, and as I reflect on my thirty-plus-year journey as an artist, organizer, independent curator, and cultural theologian, I realize more fully that their actions modeled for me how art invites each of us to imagine and witness the fullness of our humanity through narrative and action. Because of their embodied commitment, I know that artists inspire us to build worlds in which we, especially in communities deeply affected by racialized trauma and state-sanctioned violence, are positioned as the deserving architects of beautiful and safe spaces for healing and belonging that can be touched and felt.
I first heard the term “first responder” twenty years ago on September 11. That morning, I was packing my bags to go to the airport after having spent a week at the Toronto International Film Festival. I lived in Colorado at the time and was curator for the Denver Pan African Film Festival. The bed-and-breakfast host, with urgency in her voice, told me that “something” had happened in New York City and pulled a television into the dining area. We watched together as the news commentators tried to explain what had occurred. As the second airplane crashed into the South Tower, my body began to tremble. It was on the screen that I saw a kind of first response offered by the EMTs, paramedics, firefighters, and everyday people who ran into the debris to save others’ lives.
I began to wonder about artwork that would come, the archive that would be compiled and how a delineating line might be drawn designating what was being produced, by whom, and if it would be defined as art. Over the next few weeks, the questions became clearer to me: would artists be the storytellers in this poignant moment? Would the films, photographs, poems, plays, and music of the times also be acknowledged as “first-response” heroism?
September 11, 2001, was a specific inflection point that challenged everything I had known before and for myself. It was catalytic in shifting how I thought about the impact of artists and the utility of artistic labor.
Fast forward to early 2015 when my mother died: I was diagnosed with a life-threatening disease, and a small group of Black cis, trans, and gender-variant interdisciplinary artists and accomplices shut down the financial district in San Francisco by bearing their breasts and blocking rush-hour traffic. I watched, in awe, from my hospital bed. I also vowed to help amplify their demand to “say the names” of the Black women who had been murdered by police at a time when the public #BlackLivesMatter narrative was focused on the lives and murders of men.
Ten months later, I made it my job to help produce the inaugural “Bay Area Breaking The Silence” Town Hall on Girls & Women of Color, where I publicly introduced the concept of Artist as First Responder. AAFR has since developed into a six-point philanthropic and interactive arts platform that acknowledges, engages, and financially supports Black, Indigenous, and other Artists of Color whose creative practices heal communities and save lives. Through public talks, printing and publishing, exhibitions, artist residencies, site-specific ceremony, and grantmaking, AAFR transforms the cultural sector into an inclusive space where BIPOC culture bearers are protected, honored, and invested in in unprecedented ways.
I’ve committed my own art practice to designing intentional spaces for artistic inquiry and ceremony. In 2010, I moved to Oakland, California, in part to study in closer proximity to the freedom fighters and cultural workers who served as abolitionists in the ’60s and ’70s.
To that end, present-day AAFR freedom work invites innovative collaborations that demonstrate that artists also show up first in celebration. The Reflection Fund for Artists, a racial equity project exploring research and regranting by providing unrestricted funding to artists by artists outside of the traditional city-led funding structures is an example of trauma-informed and joy-informed restorative strategies. Made possible by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration Resiliency in Communities After Stress & Trauma (ReCAST) Grant, this project supports arts laborers and community healers through the Human Services Department at the City of Oakland, working at the intersection of social practice and economic justice.
Among other AAFR projects, Black [Space] Residency is an artist collective and residency for Black creatives working across genre and discipline. Visual artists, curators, writers, dancers, and artists working in film and virtual and augmented reality are paid a stipend and granted access to Adobe Creative Suite, studio space, equipment, instruction, mentorship, and full memberships to select local museums. Touted as a physical space for imagination, inquiry, activity, and rest, BSR principles are rooted in joy, belonging, abundance, and mutual aid. Black Joy StoryWindows is a curated, self-guided, multimedia public art exhibition installed in various storefronts in downtown Oakland. The murals and displays highlight the artwork of local Black artists and Black-led arts and cultural organizations and businesses.
Throughout every inflection point, every revolutionary moment, artists have been the first to respond in both crisis and celebration because, as my friend Jeff Chang reminds us, “culture precedes policy.” It’s artists like Oree Originol—whose open-source project Justice for Our Lives works with impacted families and activists to commemorate the Black and Brown kin we have lost at the hands of state-sanctioned violence—and Alisha B. Wormsley—creator of the “There Are Black People in the Future” platform—that defiantly assert the radical presence of Black people and Black joy in the past, present, and future through an Afrofuturist politic while addressing systemic oppression in Black communities.
I am often asked, “What do artists need?” I am always confused by the question because I believe that we already know that artists need what all workers need: affordable housing, a safe environment to create, access to fresh food and clean water, and permission and the ability to rest and retreat. During the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and ongoing global uprisings for racial justice, there has been increased economic insecurity and a sense of place specific to the Black creative community. Nationally, nonprofit arts organizations and cultural institutions reported losing an estimated $16.5 billion as of May 10, 2021, and BIPOC artists experienced even higher rates of unemployment and loss of creative income compared to white artists. Furthermore, fifty-two percent of all creatives were unable to access or afford food, and forty-three percent were not able to visit medical professionals due to inability to pay.
We, the culture bearers, the artists, the creators, have always taken care of our communities, but now more than ever, we need actions and initiatives that dismantle white supremacy and anti-Blackness within the arts and culture sectors. We are currently inside of another poignant inflection point, and what artists need are laws and platforms that create more opportunities for mobility and social-financial success. It’s now time for artists to be venerated. It’s our time to get free.
Ashara Ekundayo is a Black feminist interdisciplinary independent curator, cultural theologian, and consultant whose creative arts practice utilizes joy-informed pedagogies to reimagine collective liberation strategies. She works and lives between the San Francisco Bay Area and her hometown of Detroit.