Mills Debuts a New Public Art Project to Honor Black Lives

A yellow banner staked in front of the Mills campus entryway reads Black Lives Matter; behind it stand two pillars featuring a medley of color and sketches of local plant life created by Mills alums.Oakland, CA—October 15, 2020

Campus-goers, visitors, and neighbors to Mills will be greeted with a new art installation at the College’s front entryway starting this week. A College-wide effort to dedicate prominent space for expressing the campus community’s values has transformed the four pillars flanking Richards Gate into a canvas for what will become an ongoing venue for rotating public art installations starting this fall.

This new public art exhibit space, dubbed the Mills Public Art Initiative, was formed as a direct response to the current civil rights movement that has led to a mass mobilization for Black lives and restorative justice.   

Inspired by student activism, the idea for the Mills Public Art Initiative was sparked when, in the wake of George Floyd’s death, Mills students created and installed a sign at the front of campus calling attention and paying homage to the lives of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor. 

“The Mills campus already had this sign that students had created up at the front of campus, and it seemed that there was some energy behind making that a more permanent thing at the school and a sort of overarching desire for the school to have a designed project welcoming people to campus,” says Yétundé Olagbaju, MFA ’20, one of the artists behind the inaugural artwork debuting at the gate this week.

Olagbaju and their co-creator, Cristine Blanco, MFA ’20, both recent graduates of the College’s Studio Art Program, were invited by a committee convened by President Elizabeth L. Hillman to become the first artists to be featured in what is envisioned as a long-term public art exhibit at the campus entrance. Artwork featured as part of the Mills Public Art Initiative will reflect the spirit and values of today’s Mills community and the College’s commitment to the surrounding East Oakland neighborhoods.

“Our call to host public art will transform the front gates into both an invitation to those who enter and a public statement to all who pass by our campus of our beliefs in social justice, equity, and the inherent value of Black lives,” says internationally renowned artist and Mills Nancy Cook Professor of Photography Catherine Wagner, who is a member of the committee that brought this exhibition to fruition.

Two of the pillars at the College's entrance flank a pedestrian pathway leading into campus. They are enveloped with public artwork featuring naturalist sketches of local plant life and eruptions of colors both bold and muted.The first installation consists of artwork printed on vinyl canvas that envelops the pillars at Richards Gate. Staked in front of the College’s entry is a horizontal banner designed to match that reads “Black Lives Matter.” The design of the artwork and corresponding banner offer a deeply layered metaphor that speaks to the current nationwide calls for justice and restitution in subtle and surprising ways. 

“I think the design will be very unexpected in that it’s really nuanced,” says Professor Ajuan Mance, who teaches in the Literature & Languages and Ethnic Studies Departments and who consulted on the new public art exhibit.

“Yétundé and Cristine are exploring this sense of site and place and where Mills is in Oakland,”  says Stephanie Hanor, director of the Mills College Art Museum and project manager for the new exhibition space. “To do this, they’re using images of really fluidly drawn flora and abstracted color blocks that represent invasive and native plant species, and using that as a metaphor for land use and social justice issues, and they’ve done it in this really beautiful wallpaper-like presentation.”

The piece, entitled Converging Flora, features naturalist sketches of local plant life, including indigenous species such as wormwood and soaproot alongside introduced species, like the plentiful eucalyptus that adorns the Mills campus. Overlaying these sketches are swatches of color that splash across the tableau like daubs of paint, some complementary, some clashing.

Though absent any depictions of people, the artwork points to the bodies at the heart of the work—Black and Brown bodies displaced by gentrification or cut short by state violence—in figurative ways. 

“It all started off for Yétundé and me with conversation,” says Blanco. “We discussed how gentrification has changed the cultural landscape in Oakland. This ongoing issue, I think, is in conversation with all of the social justice organizing that is happening and acknowledging that we are living on stolen Ohlone land. We wanted to layer these complexities together into a visual language.”

The visual language of Blanco and Olagbaju’s artwork maps the national conversations around social justice onto the surrounding neighborhoods not only through the depiction of local plants but also through the color story of the piece. Each hue has an origin rooted to the neighboring landscapes—the sage-like green hails from the community gardens of the Peralta Hacienda; the burnt orange has its provenance in the roots from the Laurel neighborhood that Olagbaju calls home. 

The midsection of one pillar depicts a detailed naturalist sketch of a spiky plant drawn in dark green overlaying a splash of burnt orange, colors inspired by the local neighborhoods.

“The intentionality behind the art and the meaning is not necessarily right in your face,” says Olagbaju. “Coupled with the Black Lives Matter banner we’ve created there may be an inkling, though. Through color and composition, there will be a sense of something disrupting something else.”

With its interplay of site-specific flora layered with local color, the art has been described by Professor Wagner, who taught both Blanco and Olagbaju when they were art students at Mills, as a series of “portraits without faces,” telling the story of a community in flux and the tensions those changes can create. 

“I think this is in some ways a way of really seeing this area,” says Professor Mance, renowned artist and writer. “The words connect us to the larger Black Lives Matter movement, while the references to the native plants and invasive plants make it about the Maxwell Park, Millsmont, and Seminary neighborhoods. Yes, this is in alignment with this national movement but it’s also about making it our own.”

For Blanco, the piece’s thematic approach also serves a commemorative function for lives disrupted, displaced, and lost: “For me, at least, plants are a form of offering to those who have passed. In a time of grief,” says Blanco, “I wanted to honor and celebrate the passed lives.”

Both the artists and the committee that commissioned the installation are hopeful that this artwork will lead to a larger ongoing conversation among those on the Mills campus with the surrounding East Oakland neighborhood about race, place, and accountability. 

“I think for Mills, as an institution that has a gate, to invite people who don’t encounter Mills in a more meaningful way, who may just pass by the campus or live in the area, to understand Mills in the way that we understand ourselves is important,” says Professor Mance, “Because Mills does believe that Black lives matter; Mills believes that Black and Brown lives are important.”

“I hope that people passing by are able to feel this is a really beautiful statement and wonder what else is going on here,” says Olagbaju. “I want our piece to make the gate an entryway for people to enter into conversation with us.”

About Mills College
Located in Oakland, California, Mills is a nationally renowned independent liberal arts college for women and gender nonbinary students, with graduate programs for all genders. Ranked one of the top-tier regional universities in the West by U.S. News & World Report, Mills is also recognized by The Princeton Review as one of the Best 386 Colleges in the nation. As one of the most diverse liberal arts colleges in the country, Mills has a strong record of academic success with first-generation students, students of color, Latinx students, LGBTQ+ students, and other underrepresented students. The Mills experience is distinguished by small, interactive classes, one-on-one attention from exceptional faculty, a culture of creative experimentation, and cutting-edge interdisciplinary learning opportunities which empower students to make a statement in their careers and communities.