'Throughline' exhibit celebrates Oakland's Black women leaders with art, poetry, food + music
Portraits by artist Taylor Smalls of McMullen founder Sherri McMullen, on display at Oakland's multidiciplinary art show, Throughline. (Jeremy Chiu)

'Throughline' exhibit celebrates Oakland's Black women leaders with art, poetry, food + music


Black women are the engine that drives Oakland.

They are the caretakers and innovators, the creative problem solvers, the warmth, and the joy. Black women are the spark that drives the community towards positive change. Black women are the throughline.

This month, a multidisciplinary art show of the same name—Throughline—celebrates 13 of them, each one an agent of change whose work connects the Oakland community and stokes the fire of well-being.

“They are individuals who, if you removed them from a space, from a community, from an organization, whose presence would be missed,” says Xaviar R. Cunningham, Throughline’s co-creator and producer.

Some of the honorees, like chef Tanya Holland and retailer Sherri McMullen, are well-known figures. Others, like founder and executive director of Black Joy Parade Elisha Greenwell and cofounder and CEO of Blk Girls Green House Kalkidan Gebreyohannes-Royster, do their work more quietly. But regardless of their public visibility, the contributions of every one “absolutely reverberate through the community,” Cunningham says.

The creative team of Throughline, from L to R: poet and thespian Michael Wayne Turner III, photographer Brandon Ruffin, co-creator and painter Taylor Smalls, co-creator and producer Xavier R. Cunningham, and vocalist Mara Hruby (Last Supper Society's CEO Ryan Royster and chef Byron Hughes III not pictured)(Jeremy Chiu)

Throughline isn’t just a gallery show. There are paintings, yes—moving portraits by artist and show co-creator Taylor Smalls that capture the essence of the women in line, texture, and color—but they are just one of five creative elements forged by a coalition of emerging Black artists in a variety of mediums.

To create the show, the group played a game of “toss the artistic baton,” says Smalls. Photographer Brandon Ruffin began the process, shooting portraits of each of the women. Smalls followed, painting the women from their photos with a color palette inspired by their individual energies and idiosyncrasies.

To illustrate the poise, sophistication, and shine of McMullen, for example, Smalls used black, white, and chrome, and incorporated architectural-inspired linework to represent the intentionality and boldness of McMullen’s work. She captured the warmth and easy laughter of journalist, director, and producer Niema Jordan with shades of marigold.

“She’s an incredibly intelligent person, and so wise, but there’s so much brightness to her, too,” says Smalls.

Portraits of journalist, director, and producer Niema Jordan.(Jeremy Chiu)

Poet and thespian Michael Wayne Turner III then interpreted Smalls’ portraits in verse, digging deeply into the origins and meanings of the color palettes chosen by the painter. CEO Ryan Royster and chef Byron Hughes III of the Last Supper Society followed, using both images and words to inspire 13 culinary creations to represent each woman’s nature and honor her craft.

Finally, vocalist Mara Hruby represented the women in songs both soft and powerful. Her voice, says Smalls, is “a perfect encapsulation of the multifaceted nature of both women and Black women, and who we can be.”

At three-hour evening events, all five elements combine in a unique, multi-sensory experience guided by the show’s creative guardians. But even those who can’t attend the “performances” can still engage with some of the work they feature. Tuesday, Wednesday, and Friday afternoons through December 2nd, Throughline’s photography, paintings, and poems are open to the public at its Uptown Oakland home by appointment.

Whether they attend an event or pursue the gallery independently, Cunningham hopes the show will encourage visitors to seek out the throughlines in their own lives—and recognize the power in community. Throughline celebrates “a communal nature and selflessness that isn’t really promoted or rewarded in American society,” he says. “Everyone wants to be Beyonce, nobody wants to be Destiny’s Child,” despite the brilliance the group achieved.

“We don’t want people to walk away thinking about themselves, but to walk away thinking about [the bigger picture],” Cunningham continues. “I hope that they’re inspired to find the connective tissue and the magic of life, whether that’s in art or in science or in education.”

Mara Hruby performing at a Throughline event.(Brandon Ruffin)

While Throughline will lower its curtain in Oakland in early December, the show is a starting point, not a finish line. Cunningham and Smalls are already in talks to expand the multidisciplinary concept to honor other under-celebrated change agents in cities in the U.S. and abroad.

Although often the last to be recognized for their essential contributions, it is women—especially Black women and women of color—that make the world go ‘round. Throughline aims to make sure they are seen.

// Throughline’s gallery is open by appointment from noon to 5pm Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Fridays through December 2 at 1500 Broadway Ave. (Oakland), make an appointment @throughline.art. Throughline events take place from 7pm to 10pm on Thursday November 30 and Saturday December 2; tickets at eventbrite.com.

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