Over the years, Bobby Fouther has watched the historic center of African-American life in Portland bloom, shrink and expand again. The 69-year-old artist was born into a creative family from the neighborhood of Albina, which he remembers filled with jazz music and beauty. “Black artists were thriving here in the 1950s,” he recalled. “My parents had turned our grandfather’s garage into a miniature theater, where my stepfather and his friends would perform late into the night.”
Then came a 1962 study by the Portland Development Commission, which declared the area — home to nearly 80 percent of the city’s Black population — lost to “advanced blight.” Over the next decade, many Albina residents found themselves forcefully relocated as the city carved through their neighborhood with an expanded highway system and hospital project. Even today, Black residents are fighting to preserve the area’s historic homes from circling real estate developers.
“They tried to scoop us out of the city,” explained Mr. Fouther. “Now there are generations of Black artists working in Portland to create historical artifacts around our own existence to show that we have always been here.”
As protests against police brutality, which began in late May, continue and the presence of federal agents on the streets of Portland remains, artists are looking to refocus national attention on the experiences of Black residents in what census data describes as the whitest city in the United States with a population larger than 500,000. And according to some Portlanders, the burst of creativity that has swept through town in recent weeks could provide a road map for other cities confronting racist histories.
Across Portland’s city streets, new murals have appeared on boarded storefronts and operatic performances echo from the steps of the barricaded Multnomah County Justice Center in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. Meanwhile, some of Portland’s art centers have formed alliances with community organizers, sharing their office space, redistributing resources and mounting exhibitions of protest art. And earlier this month, more than a dozen artists placed their easels in Chapman Square, in the city’s downtown, with scenes of the recent violent clashes there between protesters and federal troops.
Looking to create more opportunities for Black Portlanders, Sharita Towne, 35, created “A Black Art Ecology of Portland” to connect arts organizations with affordable housing groups, memorializing the experiences of displaced residents through murals, photography, oral histories and other artworks. The project, which has received nearly $150,000 from supporters like the Oregon Community Foundation and the James F. and Marion L. Miller Foundation, will also be included in Ms. Towne’s upcoming exhibition at the Portland Art Museum next year.
For nearly seven years, the photographer Intisar Abioto has created strikingly intimate portraits of Black people in the city for a project called “The Black Portlanders.” The 34-year-old artist has subsequently become an impromptu historian of the city, exhibiting her work in the Oregon State Capitol last year and working with community organizations.
The women spoke over Zoom about how Portland’s artists are guiding conversations about race and art. Here are edited excerpts from the conversation.
Portland is a city that, in many ways, was built on the legacy of Oregon’s exclusionary laws that prevented Black people from settling in the area when the state was still a territory in the 1840s. Why is it important that Americans recognize this history?
INTISAR ABIOTO Our city is a microcosm of what Black people experience everywhere, but the effects of racism are more pronounced here because our community is smaller; however, the notion that Portland’s lack of Black people translates into a lack of Black history is false. As a photographer, the care that I express for people extends into the past, and I often find myself naming the underrecognized artists who have strengthened and emboldened our city — like Charlotte Lewis, Adriene Cruz and Damali Ayo. There needs to be an intergenerational dialogue, because without recognition for those names, the spectrum of our humanity is forgotten.
And that lack of recognition extends into our institutions. While researching the Portland Art Museum’s archives, I recently discovered that the collection lacks a single work by a Black woman who made her artistic life and career in the Portland region.
Sharita, you recently served on a panel for the city’s Regional Arts & Culture Council, which has announced thousands of dollars in funding for new commissions from nearly 20 artists of color for its public art collection. How does that decision represent a shift in Portland’s willingness to confront racial inequity?
SHARITA TOWNE Our request for proposals was the first time that the Regional Arts & Culture Council has explicitly said that it would prioritize artists who are Black, Indigenous and people of color. I’m excited to see these artists’ work reflected in the city’s archive in an unprecedented way. For the council, it means looking at the public art collection and amending their own ways of collecting work.
Portland has experienced four major “slum” clearances in the last 50 years, so the Black community has experience responding to root shock with creative resistance. And almost four years ago, the Portland African American Leadership Forum created a visionary planning document that asked the question: What would your neighborhood be like if you lived in a city that loved Black people? That prompt became a hundred-page plan that captures a community urgency around health, housing, environment justice and other topics.
How have the plan’s cultural components benefited organizations around the city?
The Portland Institute for Contemporary Art has offered BIPOC community organizers access to its 19,000 square feet of space for physically distanced meetings. But they should also be paying Black artists and figuring out ways to have more Black staff. A gallery called Holding Contemporary has partnered with the nonprofit Don’t Shoot PDX for a new exhibition. And this summer, I started a residency for Black artists with the Nat Turner Project in a former church, which offered us a 75 percent rent cut. I think institutions can have a more long-term, permanent vision of what it means to house Black art.
So there is an increased amplification of Black voice at the moment, and I think there are some people who are reorganizing their lives around it. But I know there are huge swaths in this city that are bored, angry and frustrated. We will have a long way to go for the rest of our lives.
Intisar, you have an upcoming photography project at the Multnomah County Central Courthouse in Portland. Why was it important to bring your artwork into the criminal justice system, which is often seen as biased against people of color?
ABIOTO My paternal family, the Lees, were once called the most-arrested family in the country. I know that white supremacy is embedded in the penal system, but art can be an activator that — while it won’t solve every problem — can remind us of who we are. My proposal is to bring photographs of Black farmers and Indigenous people engaged with the land to show that we are here and we won’t be erased.
TOWNE I’m excited for Intisar’s new work at the courthouse because it’s going to be there forever. The fact that someone experiencing carceral violence will see Black people breathing within nature — that will be a huge medicine for the land and its people.
Has it been a struggle finding support in the state for artwork that confronts race?
ABIOTO Any funding that I get is addressing a lack of investment and funding for Black artists for decades, and the balance is still not equal. Even with my successes, there have been moments when I have experienced housing discrimination. There have been times when institutions have invited me as an artist who creates images about Black people, but I was silenced when trying to speak about how we could actually serve Black communities. So even efforts to focus on Black representation in the arts don’t necessarily translate into the same political power that white people have in Portland.
TOWNE I think that’s why so many artistic projects in the city are about creating new spaces that value Black genius and imagination. We need resources that allow us to create our own self-determined infrastructure — a creative sanctuary.
ABIOTO In Portland, we are finding new ways to care for one another. That involves addressing structures of power. Last year, I was invited to an exhibition in Oregon’s State Capitol. It was the first time in about 25 years that a Black artist had been invited. I asked eight other artists to accompany me into the building. We entered through the front doors to encounter the rotunda’s large mural of the Lewis and Clark expedition. The only Black person featured in the entire painting is York, a Black man who was enslaved by William Clark. We made our way into the governor’s office and the artist Akela Jaffi was moved to dance on the governor’s ceremonial desk. There was deep power in seeing Akela — a Black woman, a Black Portland native — making her mark on history and time through her art in a political space that has historically been the sole province and domain of white men and women. Art can open up space and possibility where there seemed to be none.