by Renny Pritikin
Afro Hippie, the name of David Huffman’s one-person exhibition at the Berkeley Art Center, celebrates the late ‘60s and ‘70s when he was growing up in Berkeley. It was a singular cultural moment when nascent African-American consciousness rubbed shoulders with hippie mysticism. Innovation and change often arise at borderlands when cultures collide and intermingle, and such was the case throughout Huffman’s teen years. His mother, Dolores Davis, was involved with the Black Panthers—she designed one of the crawling panther logos long associated with the Oakland-based movement and knew Bobby Seale—but also attended ESP festivals and kept crawl-in pyramids in her living room. Afro Hippie is a small but powerful exhibition filled with autobiographical works of art and regional history pointing to the origins of Afrofuturism.
A melding of science-fiction and creative fantasy work by Black American artists, Afrofuturism first surfaced with Sun Ra, a mystic jazz musician and theorist of racial dynamics in the United States, who was active in the second half of the 20th century. In the period’s literature, the writers Octavia Butler and Samuel Delaney (still active) wrote dozens of influential books. Huffman brought the ideas of the genre to visual art as a graduate student in the late 1990s and achieved immediate local attention. Unbeknownst to many, he was also one of the earliest visual artists to define the emerging genre, the central impulse of which is to create a science-fiction world in which Blackness and Black culture can be seen, celebrated and investigated apart from white America’s fraught past and present. To that notion, Huffman adds abstraction, which he maintains Black artists can reclaim for precisely the same purpose.
This Season’s People (2021), one of two 72 x 60-inch paintings, demonstrates his approach. It consists of collages arrayed into an allover abstraction, built of West African textile patterns and spray-painted and stencilled images. They suggest African hair, chains, and an array of Sphinx images, the faces of which resemble Huffman’s mother in silhouette – an energetic, brazen, dense, aggressive and consciously inelegant effort.
Cosmic Pyramid (2021), a 10 x 12-foot re-creation of the mylar-sided pyramids his mom had at home, dominates the room. Visitors can peer inside to see rectangles of African cloth on the floor, framing a video projection of psychedelic/outer-space imagery and an egg in a small dish. The latter was his mother’s way of testing the efficacy of her pyramid: if the egg didn’t rot, she knew she’d achieved the positioning and construction required to focus the cosmic power of the form.
On an adjacent wall is a suite of acrylic drawings of pyramids that Huffman uses to get himself started in the studio. They’re filled with bright primary colors and shaped like stair-stepped pyramids, some bent, some picturing mounds of basketballs, a recurring motif.
Also on view are selected, blown up images from the Huffman family album, cherry-picked for snapshots that capture the energy and audacity of the times and the beauty of the people, including Huffman’s mother and Huffman himself, seen performing martial art exercises as a teenager, bare-chested and buff. One stunning image portrays the artist at an outdoor festival with Bobby Seale, whose arms rest on Huffman’s shoulders and those of his older brother. A display case contains evocative vinyl records, books, and other period artifacts. Among the most notable of those on view is a large re-creation of a FREE HUEY banner designed by Huffman’s mother. An authoritative small portrait of Huey Newton is tucked away nearby. Stylistically it resembles a suite of five paintings called Psychic Portraits (2009) the artist made from looking at reproductions of African sculptures. Since the sculptures have few details, Huffman meditates on the images, waiting for faces to emerge into his consciousness. The resulting images —which he’s not shown publicly because of their distance from his public practice—are portraits of great dignity and clout.
Nayland Blake, the Black New York artist who lived in San Francisco for many years, recently shared with me his vision of an alternative exhibition practice that emphasizes “the local and the modest.” The Berkeley Art Center has been local and modest for more than two generations and was a place Dolores Davis took David Huffman as a child. So, it’s a fitting venue for this show. It culminates in a larger-than-life painting of a Buddha in a lotus position, which became, as it developed, a Black woman with a full Afro. She’s given the same colorful, hair/chain/African-design, spray-paint treatment Huffman uses elsewhere. It is a sweet homage and an expression of gratitude to his still-living mother, a woman who made a home for her son that was full of the ideas and passions of the times, open to knowledge and full of a dream for America that was inclusive, hopeful and visionary.
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“David Huffman: Afro Hippie” @ Berkeley Art Center through October 16, 2021.
About the author:
Renny Pritikin was the chief curator at The Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco from 2014 to 2018. Prior to that, he was the director of the Richard Nelson Gallery at UC Davis and the founding chief curator at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts beginning in 1992. For 11 years, he was also a senior adjunct professor at California College of the Arts, where he taught in the graduate program in Curatorial Practice. Pritikin has given lecture tours in museums in Japan as a guest of the State Department, and in New Zealand as a Fulbright Scholar, and visited Israel as a Koret Israel Prize winner. The Prelinger Library published his new book of poems, Westerns and Dramas, in 2020.