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The Art of Living Black: An Interview with Orlonda Uffre

Orlonda is an Oakland resident, originally from New York, of African Caribbean heritage, with a definite bi coastal state of mind. She has 4 siblings, and hundreds of first and second cousins, in the Caribbean. She was once called a Renaissance woman because of all the career and personal lifestyles she has experienced and occupied. Orlonda likes to start things, and is one of the original participants in the founding of The Women’s Interart Center in NY, and the first Art Director for Brava! For Women in the Arts, in San Francisco. Most recently, she has been functioning as Exhibition Coordinator, for The Art of Living Black at the Richmond Art Center.

Throughout all those transitions, she has always been a visual artist/painter, and photographer – and for the better part of the last decade, an educator as well.

What do you find most inspiring about making art? Tell us about your current projects.

I must confess, I have no choice when it comes to making art – I’ve done it all my life, with or without inspiration. I guess the euphoria that envelopes me when I get lost in the actual process, is most compelling. I am freed. Although I have to admit, much of what I create has purpose, and is addressing an idea or a reality, like the cultural narratives which define the African Diasporas. Some narratives can’t be contained by literal translation, and so I seek to explore them in abstraction – like the space that spirit inhabits in Nkisi or Ifa. The paradox of purpose within freedom.

My most recent projects have been driven by current events, and the recycling of history – like the resurgence of regressive isms, racism, sexism, classism, etc. Although I would prefer to be a free agent and artist, as opposed to reactive, I do feel compelled at times to include art that addresses ideas and realities that some of us face. “Along the Divide” is a painting which emerged as a reaction to police brutality and racial profiling. And to maintain a sense of sanity and dignity in the light of these demoralising times, I painted “Spirit”, which references the resilience and core dignity of African belief systems, and the idea of character as central to African ethics.

Gaslight, Orlonda Uffre, 2016

How did you become involved with The Art of Living Black? How does your work represent and uphold the tradition of this exhibition? 

I was told about The Art of Living Black by a former gallery owner, Corinne Innis, in 1999. She had the Chi Gallery in Oakland, and created a circle of artists, that are still inspired by her dedication to art making. Then I met Rae Louise Hayward, whose soft spoken beauty and spirit, welcomed me in.

The tradition of this yearly exhibit is to welcome new and seasoned artist, from the African Diaspora, to feel a sense of inclusion, and experience a community of creative exploration.

What was your path to becoming an artist? Please share some of your favorite work.

Having been born an artist, my sister and father negotiated with my mother, to allow me to go to the High School of Art & Design. I took several admissions tests, and was accepted.This was a definite shift in my life path from Brooklyn to Manhattan – from urban working class/barely making it, to witnessing wealth and privilege on display, every day as I went to school.

So many artworks have inspired me – the political statement of Winslow Homer’s “The Gulf Stream” depicting a black man in a rudderless fishing boat, struggling against the waves of the sea, encircled by sharks. Hale Woodruff, whose art spanned historic as well as abstract subject matter, and painted the Amistad Mutiny. Lois Mailou Jones, of the Harlem Renaissance, Wilfredo Lam, “The Jungle”, Marcel DuChamp, “Nude descending a Staircase, No.2”.

Who are your inspirations?

Gandhi, Malcolm X, Nina Simone, Toni Morrison, James Baldwin.

What do you like to do when you’re not making art?

Hike, wander through natural environments, go to the ocean, eat Indian or Ethiopian food – sushi too.

What’s on your bucket list?

Travel  – anywhere that’s safe for women to travel, in warmer climes.

If you could meet one artist, living or not, who would it be and why?

Wow, I’ll have to get back to you on this one – I’m sure I could narrow it down to one artist.

Actually, I would prefer a round table and open conversation between the brilliant minds of the past, and the conscious doers of today. Maybe 30 or so, multigenerational, multicultural women.

I could try to moderate…LOL.

Thank you, Orlonda.

The 21st Annual Art of Living Black is currently on exhibition in our Main and West Galleries through March 2. Please join us for an informative Artists Talk on February 2 beginning at noon, followed by our Opening Reception at 3pm.


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