Galleria Pasos Mia in the Fruitvale District of Oakland CA
By Jamal Jones
Ave Long is an Oakland native and a Black woman. Her work has been featured in showcases such as “The Black Woman is God” through SOMArts, and “Seeds” at the Naming Gallery. She is the founder of Keep it Diasporic as well as a member of the Dar+Luz Collective and Maji Press. Ave shares her views on art and the importance of preserving African traditions in her interview with African Voices magazine. She can be found at online at Keep It Diasporic.
AV: First of all, thank you for sitting down with us to discuss what you are doing with photography and art. We appreciate the time you’ve given us and the work you are producing. Can you speak a little about who you are as an artist?
Keep It Diasporic (KID): Right. I do have multi-forms of art that I explore, including African dance — specifically Folklore/Haitian. That really began when I was taking classes at Laney College, at the age 19 or 20. It was a beginning for me attempting to make sense of my being an African person in the United States. I was taking these dance classes and I began to get interested in going to Haiti. I said, “that’s where I have to go.” Later a friend of mine moved to Columbia and invited me. So I went to visit her and one of the places that I stayed in was a town called Cartagena, which, historically, was and is an African town. I began to feel more deeply rooted in the various cultures and I saw that…they were more linked to their origins than I was accustomed to in the States. I began to understand that Black people are everywhere. I wanted to inspire Black folks to travel and discover their history. The only way that we will learn about our history is to go get it.
AV: Can you speak about Cartagena?
KID: Cartagena…It is one of the oldest cities in the Americas because it was “founded” when the Spanish people brought over African slaves and colonized the Zenu people. It is known as the walled city because it is on the Caribbean ocean and because Africans built this beautiful wall along the city. There’s also a town outside of Cartagena that is very old and created by Maroon societies. Africans began to escape and create their own independent societies. These are some of the oldest freetowns. An interesting fact I learned was that one of the ways African folks navigated the land was through creating maps in braided hair. They would create these elaborate designs to help find one another. That’s where Keep It Diasporic was founded.
AV: You alluded to a disconnect between Black folks, born in the United States who have lineage in the Transatlantic Slave Trade and their history. Can you speak more about that and why that may be?
KID: I believe there is a real disconnect in African American culture, where we have lost appreciation for living and ceremony. Our grandparents had to assimilate into a culture that was not welcoming and in the United States there is a lot of history that is not taught or even allowed to be taught in our school system. We are removed from that. There’s a line in the Solange album where her mother is speaking about how knowledge of our culture is not anti-white. I believe that there is a misconception that Black people loving themselves is violent or anti-white. I saw in these places that…their culture was integrated in the system and living that made it natural.
AV: You are an artist who has this global perspective of Blackness and who is also very much rooted in Oakland, California. How does that influence your work?
KID: I live in Oakland. My grandmother and mother graduated from Oakland High School. I think that’s powerful. I believe that Oakland and the Bay Area is still special and unique because there is more opportunity for Black artists. I remember growing up and going to African festivals and jazz festivals and seeing drum circles. I don’t think a lot of other places have that and it really fostered me as a person and a creative. Then having Laney College be a place where I could really immerse myself in various cultures — meeting folks who were Afro-Colombian and Afro-Haitian. I also grew up in Miami (for seven years), which also has a strong Caribbean and Black culture. Many of my friends growing up, introduced me to their spaces and food. That opened me up. It always influenced me.
AV: So in 2017, you were featured in “The Black Woman is God.” Can you talk about how it happened?
KID: Well actually, I was picked for a section of the gallery called the Ramp Gallery where they showcase emerging artists. In 2016, I went to “The Black Woman Is God (TBWIG)” and it moved me to see so much work from Black women. It also helped to shape Keep It Diasporic. I began posting images I was taking, on my social media, and was contacted by someone in the SOMArts Gallery. I was in awe to be a part of and reached out to. It affirmed a lot of what I was doing. I’ve been in shows before but this, by far, was my biggest opening. I was so delighted, meeting all the people who were behind it was beautiful. I also got to share it with a powerful friend and artist, Francis Mead, which made it more special.
AV: Beautiful. If I may shift topics a bit…you are an artist who creates and has found success without going through an MFA program. Many people in the art world currently see that as the best or only way to create and live off of your art. What has helped you create in this space where you do not have that kind of support?
KID: I always think about that when I go into new spaces and build community. I think it’s pretty righteous that I don’t have that kind of educational background nor am I professionally trained. All of my work is self-taught. I would love to have those things but I would also like to not be in debt. I do have anxiety when I meet other artists who are from formal educational backgrounds. It feels like there is some kind of class system. However, my goal is to reach everyone and I so still go into spaces and say what I have to say. I think people are doing better with the way we make space for everyone, MFA or not, but I think we have a long way to go.
AV: Who inspires you?
KID: Francis Mead is an Oakland based painter and illustrator, I’ve been friends with her for eight years. I love to see the progression in her work and the skill. It’s inspirational. There’s a dancer and painter that I really love named Jeffrey Holden. He was a Trinidadian dancer and all around creator who really inspired me. James Vander Zee. He’s a photographer working today and his style is amazing. I am really inspired by Harlem Renaissance artists. It reminds me of what I am trying to do. Most of my work features Black people, as they are, and I think it’s important to see us. There’s so many people that influence me, I guess I can say one more. It’s pretty cliche but I’ll say it — Basquait. His work was so expressive and beautifully chaotic.
AV: Who do you hope to reach with your work? Who are you talking to?
KID: It’s hard to be specific when it’s so general but I’m talking to Black people everywhere. Specifically, young adults. I want to encourage them to get out there. I want to speak to people who are traveling and learning about themselves through their journeys. I know it’s so general, but my audience is Black people (laughs). I’m learning so much and I look forward to traveling and connecting to others. You know, I went to Columbia for two weeks, by myself and I was scared but I was driven to make that connection. Hopefully, I will inspire someone to do that.
AV: Do you have any current projects?
KID: Yes, I’m working on a series called Life’s Fabrics. I find them, these fabrics, at various stores. They are mostly different African fabrics. I am always searching for ways to use them. I saw some old Harlem Renaissance portraits of Zora Neale Hurston and I got the idea to use the fabrics I was collecting as the backdrop for my own portraits. I have been working as a part of the Dar+Luz Collective, which translates to “give life” or “give birth.” The Life’s Fabricsproject started off with asking collective members to choose a fabric that resonated with their identities as women of color and how the people that came before them inspired who they are. Ever since then, I’ve been running to up to folks and asking them to take pictures in front of these fabrics and to think about who has created them and [their origins].
AV: I always love to ask artists about any “trade secrets” that they may be willing to share with folks who are considering stepping into their own creative process. What are some of your “trade secrets”?
KID: Create your own destiny. Don’t do anything because society is telling you to do it. Create your own path. If school is not relevant or helping you, think about how you will do better and manifest your own art or space. Fortunately, we live in a time where we have access to so much through the internet — go out to different functions and see what inspires you. Leave your safe space. I know the internet can create this idea of me, and others, being social butterflies but I understand anxiety and wanting to stay in but it is so important to get out and live.