The Mills Public Art Initiative
In early summer 2020, Mills students created and installed a sign at the front of the Mills campus demanding justice for George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor. This activism inspired the College to dedicate space at the campus entrance for public art that expresses our community’s ongoing commitment to gender and racial justice and our solidarity with the national Black Lives Matter Movement. We hope this is the first in a series of public art installations created by our community members to bring awareness to and generate conversations about the meaning and importance of social justice.
The Debut Artwork: Converging Flora
The first art piece launching the Mills Public Art Initiative in the fall of 2020 is entitled Converging Flora. The art is the shared creative work of Cristine Blanco and Yétundé Olagbaju, two graduates of the Mills MFA in Studio Art Program and members of the Class of 2020, which graduated amidst the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and just weeks prior to George Floyd’s death.
A committee convened by Mills President Elizabeth L. Hillman and spearheaded by Professors Catherine Wagner and Ajuan Mance commissioned these Oakland-based artists to create a piece for the front of campus. This new exhibit space and the debut artwork, Converging Flora, serve as a public statement of the College’s beliefs in social justice, equity, and the inherent value of Black lives.
Supported by gifts from alumnae and friends of the College and in collaboration with Mills College Art Museum Director Stephanie Hanor and Director of Facilities, Compliance, and Sustainability Karen Fiene, the artists created an eye-catching installation to greet campus-goers, visitors to the College, Oakland neighbors, and all who pass by Mills. Their work features a wallpaper-like design printed across two four-sided vinyl panels that wrap the pillars at the College’s front gate alongside a matching banner that reads Black Lives Matter.
The central motif of the artwork is the dance of local plant life, including both indigenous species native to the Oakland foothills in which Mills resides as well as introduced species, like the eucalyptus that grows abundantly on campus. Accenting the flora are pops of color, also sourced from the surrounding Seminary, Millsmont, Laurel, Maxwell Park, and Fruitvale neighborhoods. The interplay of indigenous and introduced plant life mixed with a color story inspired by the local neighborhoods offers a naturalist metaphor for viewers to consider the dynamics of native and non-native populations, historic residents and newcomers, gentrification, and land use. The mural serves as a commemoration for Black lives lost that invites reflection on the ways in which national conversations about racial justice find roots in the Oakland landscape.
I want our piece to make the gate an entryway for people to enter into conversation with us.
The intentionality behind the mural and the meaning is not necessarily right in your face. 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.Yétundé Olagbaju, MFA ’20
As artists and recent graduates of Mills College, we began this collaborative piece by examining the ways we have processed the current global pandemic and civil rights movement. As a way to cope, we have been spending precious time outside, finding refuge and comfort in the colors and flora of our neighborhoods (Fruitvale and Laurel). In the same breath, we have also reflected on the location of Mills, its neighboring communities, and the flora that makes them. Specifically, we have considered how the campus is a nexus for many converging backgrounds and perspectives. For many, it is also a place that holds tension: barriers between the campus and surrounding neighborhoods, gender inequalities, grappling with police brutality, and so much more.
It is our belief that the relationship between indigenous and invasive plant species can mirror this tension, within Mills, the history of Oakland, and what we experience in our everyday lives.
Converging Flora presents portraits of that tension as it is: layered, detailed, but in an inextricable relationship. You will find no faces in this piece, but it is our hope that through color, composition, scale, and line that you will bear witness to that conflict.
For me, plants are a form of offering to those who have passed. In a time of grief, I wanted to honor and celebrate the passed lives.
We were thinking about how gentrification has changed the cultural landscape in Oakland. And that’s also in conversation, I think, with all of the social justice organizing that is happening.Cristine Blanco, MFA '20
Thank you to the generous donors, including members of the Mills Board of Trustees and the Alumnae Association of Mills College, who have provided funding for the inaugural exhibition of the Mills Public Art Initiative. If you would like to contribute to future art installations, please visit our Giving to Mills page or contact the Mills College Office of Institutional Advancement.
Black Lives Matter at Mills
Mills has long been committed to racial justice and has renewed our efforts to take the next step to become an antiracist institution. Visit our Black Lives Matter page to learn about the initiatives we are undertaking to support our students, faculty, staff, alumnae, and our East Oakland community.