The art of David Bruce Graves’ ‘Heaven and Earth’ – Artist Talk Friday, Jan. 17

Written by on 01/17/2020

“Heaven and Earth,” the title piece in the window of the Joyce Gordon Gallery in downtown Oakland, features a Black woman’s face. Her eyes are closed, her countenance serene, lights shine in her hair. Her bare shoulders glimmer beneath what appears to be a watery surface. Is a Black woman the link between heaven and earth? – Art: David Bruce Graves

Is a Black woman the
link between heaven and earth?

Review by Wanda Sabir

Born in Pittsburgh, yet raised in Oakland, David Bruce
Graves has been drawing and making art all of his life. His career began in the
commercial art field, when he graduated from the Academy of Art in San
Francisco at the University of San Francisco before heading for New York City,
where he lived and worked for many years. He says he wished he’d studied there
so that he’d have had more access to working professionals during his
collegiate years, but he made a success of it nonetheless before returning to
the Bay Area in 2012.

This success, Graves says, is directly connected to his
relationship with his aunt, Ann Tanksley, who was and is a fabulous artist, and
her husband John, who was one of the best photo retouchers in New York City. When
the artist’s family would visit the Tanksley home in New York, when he was a
child, he says, “I was enchanted by their world and how they were so successful
at it.

“Aunt Ann inspired and mentored me as she still does. John
Tanksley took me under wing in a sense when I eventually moved there, and the
many hours I spent looking over his shoulder as he retouched and manipulated
photos for major advertising agencies had a big influence and closely relates
to the technique I’m currently working in.”

He’s still shy in talking about the work which, in its
presentation, one can see how much thinking goes into each piece. Nonetheless,
visual art is the kind of medium where silence is often justified. In Graves’s
work, one wants an opportunity to just live in the painting and extrapolate
what a character might be thinking, as in “The Griot’s Wife,” where we see a
man with a bag and his musical instrument, the kora, preparing for a
storytelling journey. His wife walks with him, yet her eyes speak volumes as
she appears to contemplate her husband’s impending departure.

“The Griot’s Wife” – Art: David Bruce Graves

Questions arise in a person after contemplating the work. Too
bad there are no chairs or benches in the larger gallery. Each of the 31 pieces
deserves its own audience and then there is the art in the window – stunning.
The title work, “Heaven and Earth,” is there along with “Bush,” as in Angela
Davis’s hairstyle crossed with Eve and Adam’s abode, or maybe it’s the countryside
just outside of Accra – a place untamed, natural, pure.

Hopefully, the weather will stay warm and dry so patrons can
step outside and check out the art displayed in the Joyce Gordon Gallery (JGG)
window, 406 14th St. in downtown Oakland. Angela Davis might have had a bush,
but this “bush” is a world atop a woman’s head. Butterflies and hummingbirds
like the protagonist’s energy too. Graves’s butterfly motif imprint, like an
artistic DNA, allows one to trace artistic creations through the large gallery
from wall to window across multiple canvases. Images of warriors standing
unafraid with wild animals – cheetahs in “The Swift” – as other images show
characters dissolving, turning swiftly spinning into funnels, whirlwinds
juxtaposed with youthful energy, rites of passage and liberated women stepping
from the plantation into commerce and prosperity.

“The Swift” – Art: David Bruce Graves

Graves says he is fascinated by the period after captivity
when Africans could join this American society as participants economically and
politically. So we see these women in compositions: “Flor De Noche (Flower of
Night),” “Freebird,” “Lady and the Tramp,” African American women dressed for
success challenging prejudicial and racist ideas of worthiness or equality.

In other work, not in this exhibition, Graves adds future
elements like spacecraft, an allusion to the Dogon, who perfected cosmic travel
without leaving the ground. Graves’s work is layered and illustrates for finite
minds the infinite span that is African culture – whether this is the Western
episode characterized by African enslavement which seems to have run its course
or what is to come. Slavery does not define African people; “Heaven and Earth”
puts this in perspective.

“Freebird” – Art: David Bruce Graves

These compositions show characters who are emancipated, free
from white pathology. Graves’s characters, the majority of whom are Black
women, are take-charge personas. It is no wonder his work flies from the walls
or bins wherever he exhibits.

When asked why he paints Black women, he says simply that
African women inspire him. I guess everyone needs a muse and there is nothing
wrong with seeing such beautiful African Diaspora women cover JGG walls. When I
visited Graves’s fine arts website
I saw a rendering of his mother and father. I can’t wait to have that
conversation with him about his parents and how they nurtured his desire to

“Lady and the Tramp” – Art: David Bruce Graves

David Bruce Graves’s “Heaven and Earth” exhibit at Joyce
Gordon Gallery through Feb. 28 is more residency than typical art showcase.
African people have agrarian roots pre-captivity. This connection between Black
people and the earth is a constant theme in this exhibition and is intended to
remind patrons of relationships reflected in African spirituality. Such
acknowledgement affirms the ashay or energy that courses through all beings
regardless of said entities’ presentation. Whether one shows up as a rock or a
tree, a leopard or a butterfly, we are from the same river.

“Heaven and Earth” speaks to the first peoples, African
people’s responsibility to care for and protect the planet. It is from this
place – respect for all things – from which ethics and values emerge. These
principles feed consciousness, which fuels a kind of soul force that Africans
in the Diaspora retain despite efforts to separate or to erase who we are.

Dianne D. Glave, author of “Rooted in the Earth: Reclaiming
the African American Environmental Heritage” (2010), looks
the “two strands of environmentalism – the first is preservation of what
some might term the ‘wild places,’ like the ocean, the woods and swamps. The
second is [concerned] with natural resources, including land, water, forests
and minerals. … (R)ural African Americans often applied both ideologies.” Key
voices in this discourse are George Washington Carver, Ned Cobb and Thomas
Monroe Campbell. These men saw the earth as something living which could be
injured. Dr. Carver, the director of the Tuskegee Experiment Station said:
“‘Unkindness to anything means an injustice done to that thing. If I am unkind
to you I do you an injustice, or wrong you in some way. On the other hand, if I
try to assist you in every way that I can to make a better citizen and in every
way to do my very best for you I am kind. The above principles apply with equal
force to the soil.”

“Songhai Woman” – Art: David Bruce Graves

Dr. King calls this is the “love ethic,” and one of the keys
to “a beloved community.” At
a time when ignoring the planet and its species hastens the end of life as we
know it, Graves’s work poses options, some involving magical thinking. The
artist illustrates across multiple compositions how powerful Black people are,
whether it is “Black Panther Lives” – his persona marked by distinctive African
lips and wide nostrils or in another work a glowing third eye watches from an
oracle’s forehead. On the journey to this foreign place, African people learned
to speak in colors and form, such as Graves displays in his “Songhai Woman,” an
insight into his creative process.

If we look at “Songhai Woman,” the work is both intellectual
and pragmatic. Her character is a composite of multiple images – a nose, eyes,
ears from different models. While other characters in titles such as “Swan
Lake” or “Venus Africanus” are women who have modeled for Graves, “Songhai”
starts with several found archival photos which the artist methodically layers
in a digital application to create the composition. As we spoke, Graves showed
me where water color effects and textures transformed the dominant figure as it
passively interacted with the other mediums. Who would have known technology
had such capability?

“Suns of the Masai” – Art: David Bruce Graves

In Graves’s works, unraveling is a part of a larger process
of building, rearranging – allowing textures to develop as the ingredients,
like spices, migrate or move from aroma to concept. I asked if he were a sort
of an Obatala, the god of the white cloth, who created the human form. Graves
said he was more a Visual DJ – sampling, scanning and remixing as he rocks to
tracks from Black Coffee and Louie Vega. He uses both Adobe Photoshop and Corel
Painter to work his magic and it is magical. Imagine a young African woman goat
herder, a kid on her shoulders. There is a work depicting another young woman
with a crocodile lifted over her head, “Genesis” open at her feet. This canvas
is unframed waiting for a purchase in a print bin. It’s one of several deals;
Graves’s work is affordable.

The artist said he works between two large 32-inch screen
monitors, a move from traditional mediums to digital. Strategic randomness
marks his canvas as colors juxtaposed in unusually creative ways have one’s
head swiveling – the glass bead textures and almost tie dye moments on some
canvases make fingers itch to touch.

“Swan Lake” – Art: David Bruce Graves

“Heaven and Earth” is peopled by characters we’d like to
know about, especially the stoic yet beautifully serene Mother-Goddess, whose
rendering is what one might call the title track. In the work exhibited here at
JGG, Graves illustrates the synergy between Africans and their environment,
whether it’s “Traveler,” where we see a youth in his robe and kufi hat striding
across an open plain, or the already mentioned “Africanus,” a multi-limbed
goddess standing on water swirling beneath her feet. She is Kali and Yemanja.

In “Suns of the Maasai,” there are boys becoming young
warriors through initiation. In other works, there are ravens in league with
oracles, favelas and statues of Jesus. In “Swan Lake,” Graves suggests multiple
endings to a story that shares many origins. The woman pictured wears the swan
like a sarong, the bird comfortably draped over one shoulder, while other swans
swim near her feet. A lush forest surrounds her on a bright day. David said
that the natural surroundings in this work were from his walks at Lake Chabot
in Castro Valley. The water reminds me of Oṣun River in Oṣogbo, Nigeria.

Graves compositions allow histories or multiple narratives
to exist simultaneously. His work is not stagnant, rather the artist invites us
into the medium to share our perspectives. We are in the now and then, joined
at the horizon or along the edges where the two calabashes meet, damballah or
the magical snake holding the two sides together where heaven meets earth.

David Bruce Graves stands at the entrance to the exhibit of his work, “Heaven and Earth,” at the Joyce Gordon Gallery, 406 14th St., Oakland, where the title painting is in the window. The Artist Talk is Friday, Jan. 17, 7-9 p.m., and the exhibit’s run has been extended to Jan. 31. – Photo: Wanda Sabir

Join Graves for an engaging free Artist Talk moderated by
the amazing Brian Keith Thomas, Friday, Jan. 17, 7-9 p.m., at Joyce Gordon Gallery, 406 14th St.,

View Arts Editor Wanda Sabir can be reached at Visit her website at throughout the month for updates to Wanda’s
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Source: San Francisco Bay View

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