The artist, designer, and community innovator Binta Ayofemi’s work is a complex symphony. Each work of art is composed with the intention to have Black art felt with the same passion that one would feel music.
Reclaiming spaces for art means having the same focus on as many moving parts as a conductor in an orchestra. “I have to actually have this kind of discipline and clarity to do this work,” Ayofemi said. She adds that some people also “don’t expect to have a Black woman anchoring space.”
Some of Ayofemi’s art installations are done outdoors. When the pandemic hit, it made her work as an artist and visionary a longer process. However, she said in some ways, there were benefits. “[The pandemic] allowed me to be more nimble about really honoring things that can be done in the outdoors, things that can be done with few elements to create an environment. I really came to love the fact that through both planning and improvisation, you could create such a beautiful experience.”
Working behind the scenes on many projects throughout Oakland and San Francisco, Oakland-based Ayofemi’s work in reclamation for urban spaces takes on a life of its own once they have been set in motion. She reimagines urban developed spaces, taking over empty buildings, lots and turning them into a safe haven for Black people to find joy.
Ayofemi is the founder of Ground, the organization reclaims abandoned or underutilized buildings, then transforms them into artistic spaces filled with what Ayofemi describes as “notions of Black abstraction that points to Black joy.” Ground was founded in 2018 as a way to take space that was underutilized for the sake of beautifying spaces. Ayofemi has been doing this work professionally for five years.
In 2016, she held a musical performance called “Untitled (Chorus)” as part of Yerba Buena Center for Arts (YBCA)’s Third Thursday. In “BLACK MATTER,” Ayofemi worked with turf dancers between Embarcadero and West Oakland BART stations as part of an exhibition in 2019-2020, and was a 2021-2022 honoree for the Yerba Buena Center for Arts cohort. She will debut “BLACK ENERGY,” a sculpture series exploring “Black and indigenous music, movement, and land practices,” which is slated to open this June.
Ayofemi’s “BLACKSPACE” is an ongoing series of reclaimed storefronts and sites transformed, including a vacant lot turned into a meadow. One of these is titled “Commune,” expected to open this month as a gathering space for performances, music, and movement.
Ayofemi also created a pop-up farm stand with East Oakland Youth, and later at Liberation Park in coordination with Black Cultural Zone. Ayofemi has plans to bring the farm stand to the Grand Lake area. “PORTALS” is an installation created for the Oakland Museum of California (2021-2022) and will debut this summer. The artist created the installation in West Oakland by milling a set of benches using local wood and metal, culminating in “a lush, Afrofuturist, Black, and Indigenous garden sculpture with iridescent surfaces.”
Ayofemi is the founder of Guild, a separate effort for creating woodwork pieces. There are future plans for the Guild project to work on homes. Building wood furniture is an artwork in itself, Ayofemi said. “Actually, the artwork for me is just like actually having us do craft and manufacturing.”
The latest long term venture Ayofemi is working on is reclaiming the space at 1716 Broadway, Commons, at the former Best Music Company location.
When asked to describe the work that Ayofemi does, she likens her work in art to the music of Alice Coltrane, the spouse of musician John Coltrane, describing the work as slow notes that build over time. “I see it less as being really fluid,” Ayofemi said. “It’s more that we have a very specific set of notes and there are many different combinations that I can make. So, I see my work as more of a composer and working with these notes.”
The notes of work she has built over time has been to take up space with Black art in different forms. “I love the way bands have different people playing together and together those differences create something really harmonized,” Ayofemi said. “I try to approach that with community-based projects.”
Whether it’s reclaiming industrial spaces or creating art with turf dancers, Binta Ayofemi’s work, much like ethereal musical notes, are far too expansive to describe in words alone.
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‘Black Voices in the Town’ is funded by The African American Response Circle Fund. In 2020, the Brotherhood of Elders Network in partnership with the East Bay Community Foundation established the fund in response to the impact of COVID-19 as a public health crisis for African Americans who live, work, and worship in Alameda County.
This article has been updated to clarify names of artworks and years of the installations, along with additional descriptions of some of the installations.