‘Terra Incognita’ visual art exhibit spans decades of work documenting black trauma

By Gina Gotsill

Bay City News Foundation

The astronaut costume at the entrance to David Huffman’s “Terra Incognita” show, on view through September 18 at the African Diaspora Museum, is the first clue that we are no longer in San Francisco. We’re in the land of the Traumanauts, Huffman’s iconic black space travelers looking for a home. They take a surreal journey, stopping at a side show in Oakland, shooting hoops in random terrain, and playing guitar in an abstract void.

What is happening here? Where do the Traumanauts come from? And do they sit down, take their helmets off and say, “Mission accomplished”?

With this survey of the Oakland artist’s work spanning three decades, the MoAD attempts to answer these questions. But with its ties to science fiction and social and ecological justice, the Berkeley-born artist seems to suggest that the journey is ever-changing and eternal. It’s triumphant one moment, and painful the next.

Elena Gross, MoAD’s Director of Exhibitions and Curatorial Affairs, says it best: “It’s a narrative that has developed over decades, and we wanted to be able to bring that narrative in all its complexities to MoAD.”

The exhibition features a range of mediums, including several large-scale canvases, works on paper, ceramics and videos. Huffman’s 1999 ceramic sculptures, Luxor DX and TraumaEve, set the tone. The characters sport a disturbing “trauma smile,” defined as “a gesture of survival in response to acts of intentional and institutional anti-black racism.”

Standing next to their watermelon-themed UFO, Luxor DX and TraumaEve transport us to the age of minstrelsy, when white people wore blackface and played the fool. Then Luxor DX and TraumaEve begin to evolve. Their emotions grow. In a 2005 painting, TraumaEve angrily launches a tank in her image as smoke rises around her. These early figures gave way to Traumanauts in 2005, regular elements of Huffman’s work that depict black people traveling through strange, unsettling, and unpredictable worlds.

“Terra Incognita” has a “Twilight Zone” appeal that is enhanced by eerie sounds that vibrate through space. The sounds lead viewers to a nearby screening room, where Huffman’s 2009 video, “Treehugger,” plays on a loop. Huffman shot the video after seeing trees marked for cutting while traveling in the Sierra Nevadas. He donned his NASA spacesuit (the same suit on display at the show) and filmed himself walking around entwined trees, Huffman publicist Nina Sazevich said, describing a recent conversation she had. had with the artist about the work.

The video feels like saying goodbye to a loved one you wish you had more time with. There’s a dystopian feel — like with the Traumanauts — of being from Earth but not her, Sazevich explains. It speaks to ecological trauma – how we’re all visitors here and not very good stewards of the planet.

The MoAD intended to open the salon in March 2020, Gross said. “But now, in March/April 2022, it feels especially important because the Traumanauts remind us of what community, connection and caring mean today,” she says. “In the face of a national awareness of anti-black racism and a global pandemic, the Traumanauts provide a balm and a guide through these troubling circumstances in which we find ourselves.”

“David Huffman: Terra Incognita” will run through September 18 at the African Diaspora Museum, 685 Mission St., San Francisco. The museum is open from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Wednesday to Saturday and from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Sunday. Tickets are $12 for general admission, $6 for seniors, students, and educators, and free for youth under 12. For more information, visit https://www.moadsf.org/.