SF Juneteenth Art Show Shines Light on Shipyard's Black Artists

NBC Universal, Inc.

A Juneteenth art exhibit featuring the works of eight Black artists from studios in San Francisco's Hunters Point Shipyard -- where thousands of African Americans migrated for maritime and military jobs in the 1940s -- opened this week in the historic Bayview Opera House. 

The exhibition coincides with the newly minted June 19 -- or Juneteenth National Independence Day federal holiday -- commemorating the emancipation of African Americans. 

The holiday rings especially loud for the roughly dozen Black artists crafting works in the shipyard's former military buildings -- where a colony of more than 200 artists has worked since the 1980s. The former Naval shipyard was among Bay Area's military bases that attracted a migration of African American workers during World War II. The bases closed after war's end leaving their adjoining communities in economic tatters. 

"A lot of the families were thrown out of jobs," said artist Dolores Gray who founded the Black On Point Collective to support the shipyard's Black artists. 

Joe Rosato Jr.
Artist Dolores Gray hand paints a tile in her studio in San Francisco's Hunters Point Shipyard Studios. Gray founded a group called Black On Point to promote Black artists working in the shipyard. (June 16, 2022)

Gray, who celebrated Juneteenth growing up in New Jersey via her Texan-born father, contributed several pieces to the Juneteenth exhibition. Her hope is the art exhibit will draw more attention to the Black artists who make up a small percentage of the total artists working in the shipyard. 

"The show at the opera house is I think important," Gray said, "because part of what we’re trying to do is make the neighborhoods here in the Bayview and the wide community more aware of what we are and do." 

The Hunters Point Shipyard art studios are a cornucopia of artists working in different mediums -- from painting to sculpture to even stop-motion animation. In his studio in Building 101, artist Ahmad Walker creates stop-motion cartoons featuring handcrafted Black characters who appear in his series The Adventures of Brothers & Behr. 

Joe Rosato Jr.
Artist Ahmad Walker sits with characters he makes for the stop-motion films he makes in his studio in San Francisco's Hunters Point Shipyard Studios. Walker said African-Americans are barely represented in stop-motion animations. (June 16, 2022)

"There’s no representation for African-Americans in stop-motion," Walker said, flanked by the miniature sets where he painstakingly photographs his characters to create their movement for his films. 

Walker also contributed several paintings for the opera house exhibit. He said he was excited last year when President Joe Biden signed legislation declaring Juneteenth a national holiday, though he worries the holiday may eventually devolve into things like lawn furniture sales and parties devoid of historic context. 

"I don’t want something so historic to be commercialized," Walker said, "to the sense it’s so watered down there’s no more flavor in it." 

It seemed what is credited as a Juneteenth art show, runs in parallel with themes shared among the shipyard's Black artists - who make up a sliver of the population in what traditionally was a heavily African American area. 

Their experience mirrors the greater exodus that saw San Francisco's Black population fall from 13.4% in 1970 to around 5.2% in 2020. 

Painter Pete Dent who has lived in the Bayview-Hunters Point for 40 years, and shares a studio wall with Walker, sees the Juneteenth art show checking a couple key cultural boxes. 

"It’s important in that it’s highlighting Juneteenth but it’s also important that it’s highlighting the community," Dent said, "that we are here." 

The exhibit at the Bayview Opera House runs from June 10th to July 31st @ 407 Third Street.  

Contact Us