Heading East: The photographer

Pub date April 10, 2012

This week’s Guardian takes a look at San Francisco versus Oakland — and asks whether the big city may have lost its caché to the East Bay


Sasha Kelley grew up in the East Bay. The 22-year old photographer moved to San Francisco for the love of art — but she moved back East for the same reason.

“I was expecting [SF] to be this free-loving, accepting, encouraging place where anything can happen and everything would be welcomed.” Kelley told the Guardian through a series of phone and email interviews. “But it’s a place that is already established, the different art scenes have been formed and branded. Unless you are fortunate enough to have your own space, you are almost forced to fall into line with the given formula.”

That wasn’t the kind of artistic guidelines Kelley was looking for when she moved to the Tenderloin to study at the Academy of Art. While in San Francisco, she started C Proof (c-proof.org), a site she uses to explore African American life.

But she was having trouble finding the black arts community in the city. Besides MoAD, “the big exception,” as she put it, “the voice of the black artist just wasn’t there.”

And the call of home was a BART ride away. After three years in SF, Kelley decided to move away from the cramped studio she shared with two other people to Oakland in the summer of 2011.

“Right now in Oakland there is a little more wiggle room for experimentation,” she said. “There is still a lot of room to grow, to hold space, and establish new norms.”

One day, attending a general assembly meeting of Occupy Oakland, she met artist Githinji Mbire, who was opening up Omiiroo, a community gallery just one block from the 12th Street BART station (400 14th St., Oakl.) Kelley spent eight hours there the first time she visited.

“We just talked about art,” Kelley said. “A vision of a community space where people could just be and where it’s not about the formal aspects of it, it’s just really the work and reaching out to people.”

Now, Kelley hosts Sunday dinners at Omiiroo to bring together local artists. It’s become a drop-in creative space where Mbire crafts his multimedia maps of Africa. Local vegan food activist Bryant Terry stops by to sell his tea and talk to passers-by during the neighborhood’s thriving monthly Art Murmur. Kelley thinks such a space is possible in SF, but it would depend on finding an investor. “It’s a lot easier to sustain yourself in the East Bay,” she said.