Portland photographer Intisar Abioto’s work is showing in two galleries. The exhibition at the Art Gallery at The Patricia Reser Center for the Arts in Beaverton showcases her own pieces and those of the other women artists in her family. She’s also part of the Oregon Contemporary show in Portland. The historic Cannady home in Northeast Portland is the subject of one of these installations. People working to elevate Black history say this residence that once belonged to Black activist and civil leader Beatrice Morrow Cannady is a place that should be recognized as historically and culturally significant. Intisar Abioto said, not only that, but when she learned it was for sale earlier this year, she thought it could be reclaimed by the Black community as a place to gather, organize and create art.
She spearheaded an effort to buy the property. Abioto worked with other artists, Black political leaders, business owners, historians, activists and someone who volunteered to finance a backup offer on the $1,135,000 home. The sellers went through with a sale to a different buyer, but Abioto says there are still valuable lessons to be learned from both Beatrice Cannady’s history in Portland, and the story of the community effort to buy her home. She joins us to talk about art, history and the present moment, and how this experience synthesizes all three.
Note: This transcript was computer generated and edited by a volunteer.
Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller. It is Intisar Abioto season in the Portland area right now. Abioto is a photographer and artist whose work is now on display at two shows: one at the Oregon Contemporary Gallery and the other in conjunction with her mother and four sisters is at the Reser Center for the Arts in Beaverton. What’s more, Abioto has been in the news recently for her efforts, ultimately unsuccessful, to buy a house in Northeast Portland that once belonged to Beatrice Morrow Cannady. Cannady was a pioneering Black journalist and civil rights activist in the state. Intisar Abioto joins us now to talk about all of this. Welcome back to Think Out Loud.
Intisar Abioto: Thank you.
Miller: You have a lot going on right now and over the last month and a half or so. These two shows at the same time, and this whirlwind attempt to buy a historic house that we’ll get to as we go. How are you feeling right now?
Abioto: I’m feeling pretty good. There are a lot of things happening, but it’s exciting work. So I’m happy to be doing it.
Miller: Both of the shows that are up right now, that include your work, are group shows. The one in Oregon Contemporary includes artists from Oregon and around the world, including New York and Rwanda and other places. The one at the Reser Center, the new place in Beaverton, is full of art from members of your family, your mother and four sisters, all six of you artists in your own right in different media. How did this show come to be?
Abioto: I think maybe about a year ago, Karen De Benedetti, who is the curator there, reached out to me about the possibility of this show. So it’s been in the works for about a year. She had seen our website for our studio, Studio Abioto, and that’s how it got going.
Miller: The name of the show at the Reser Center is Red Thread: Green Earth. What is the red thread?
Abioto: That’s a title that we kind of came up with collectively. I think for us it speaks to intuition and history, and Black women’s connection through time with intuition, with art, with force, with imagination. For Black women in the African diaspora who are the descendants of people who have been enslaved, your history, your names, it would seem that you would be broken from that generational awareness. And it’s to say that despite that, there’s still deep knowledge that’s connected to our understanding of the earth, of the world. It’s a thread of connection and understanding.
Miller: You said that you came up with that together. Is that a challenge? You’re family, which can be a complicated set of relationships. How well do you collaborate together?
Abioto: Yeah, it’s interesting. We grew up together, and with my sisters, we’re between the ages of 22 and 36. So you know in the house, even just play, dancing and singing, talking about dreams. And also with our parents, like mom, who’s a storyteller and an orator and has a legal background, it’s a lot about stories. And also our father is a historian, a griot, a musician and an arts educator.
So within the home there was always art. But I think as you get to be adults, that’s a different level of collaboration. And I would say that we’re still learning. This is our first gallery show together, which is amazing. We’re still growing together. It’s still in the works.
Miller: For some of your work in the show, if I understand this correctly, you made portraits of people, printed them, and then put those prints out in various places in nature, in a forest, say, and then took a picture of that print in the woods. What were you interested in exploring?
Abioto: Yeah. I did those images out at the Sitka Center for Art and Ecology this past summer. And I’ve been working a lot with substrates that have a level of transparency and translucency. And I think for me, taking those prints out there and putting them in the landscape was really about memory, and time, and thinking about the presence and the movement, the emergence and the experiences of Black people here in this landscape. Understanding that we are on Indigenous lands, and always paying respect to that beyond words but with our actions. There’s so much in this state, with this history of the exclusion laws that were part of the constitution, with the history of redlining, of housing discrimination, there’s truly something here that would continue to obscure Black life and presence. So for me, taking those images out into the landscape and imaging that was about that kind of connection. And also again, that thread of we’re here, we’ve been here, we will be here.
Miller: You also hung these photos in interesting ways. Some of them are sort of transparent as you noted and on windows. And you can see both the photograph and you can see outside, they’re sort of superimposed on each other. Others are almost curled up at the edges, and they’re hung with string and clothespins, not all super fancy gallery hung where the means of the hanging is obscured. Why use clothespins?
Abioto: I think this is also that collaboration, being in collaboration among us, and also with the curator who’s an amazing artist herself. We had ideas. and she truly listened and worked to make it happen. And so once again, going to texture and textiles and presence, like thread and fabric. And as for the kind of curl of the images, that really came through my mom. We’re trying to listen to what’s the effect of how these images are put up there, and a kind of sculptural aspect of how they might be there, something that could be touched and felt.
Miller: You have an installation in the other show, the one at Oregon Contemporary, called Reclaiming Beatrice. For people who aren’t familiar with Beatrice Morrow Cannady, can you give us a sense for who she was?
Abioto: Yeah, it’s powerful, and I’m still learning. She came here in 1912, I believe at the age of 22. And she was a groundbreaking, dedicated, unrelenting civil rights activist, a journalist. She was the editor of The Advocate, which was the second oldest Black paper here in the state, founded in 1903. She was the first Black woman to graduate from law school, exactly 100 years ago. She was the first Black woman to run for state office in 1932. She was a part of getting the exclusion laws taken off of the law. She was just so powerful. She did a lot, and I hope that people spend more time finding out about her, because her influence on the state is truly immense.
Miller: You took photographs of the house where she lived, a house near Grant Park in Northeast Portland, a few years ago for a project. Did you go into the house at that time?
Abioto: I did. I was taking photographs for this document that was being submitted to the Historic Register. I was going across the city, documenting properties connected to Black presence here. And I saw the house, I was invited into the house by one of the owners who shared some documents about her.
Miller: What was that interaction like with one of the owners?
Abioto: It was positive. He saw me outside the house, and he came out to say hello. It wasn’t a long interaction, but it was a positive one.
Miller: That was a couple years ago, and then you found out a few years later that the house was for sale. What did you do?
Abioto: Yeah, I randomly saw that it was for sale on my phone. And it was I believe September 15th, and I was in the midst of two big productions regarding Black artists here, this thing I’ve been producing, Black Art/ists Gathering, which is the convening of Black artists. And then I was also working on production for this Black arts dinner, Black Feast. And so I was in the midst of Black arts community, and I saw this. And I reached out to my family, I said “we should try to get this house.” I spoke to the Black artists and Black artist elders that I was with about the house. And they said that we should try to get this, we should try to bring this house back into Black ownership.
Miller: If you had been able to buy the house, what was your vision for what you would use it for, what its life would be?
Abioto: Well right at that time, and even into the present moment, I was looking for a new place to live. If we think about this city right now regarding housing access, the cost of housing, and also the the history and the present day experiences of housing discrimination for Black people and People of Color, it kind of dovetailed with this house, where this young Black woman lived in the early 1900s. So for us, it was to say that it would be a Black home in the Black arts and activist tradition. We hoped to activate the house in similar ways to how she did when she lived there with her family. She hosted these teas and salons, these interracial teas for for you know around 200 people there, getting people to know each other. She hosted Black thinkers and artists, like W.E.B. Du Bois and Paul Robeson, Black people she often brought into town, she would host them there, they would stay there. So we wanted to activate that once again.
Miller: You ended up getting in touch with the then owners, the sellers of the house. Can you describe the unofficial agreement that you struck with one of the sellers?
Abioto: Yeah. The previous owners had accepted an offer on the house before we got in contact with them. But when we reached out to them, we were invited to submit a backup offer. And we wanted to be able to reach out to the other buyers to let them know about the importance of this historic house returning to Black activation and stewardship. And so we gathered letters and words of support from the community. We wanted them to know that it wasn’t just a regular house, that this had community support. We had words of support from former Senator Avel Gordley, from the Regional Arts and Culture Council, Oregon Historical Society, from Meyer Memorial Trust. And also just some individual artists in the community. We asked if those letters would be able to be shared, and it was communicated to us that if we were able to submit the offer letter and the proof of funds, that those letters would be able to be shared.
Miller: So basically, if I understand correctly, one of the sellers said that if you were able to secure funding and put in an offer, you’d be the official backup, meaning if the accepted offer fell through, you’d be next in line. And also, significantly, once they got that official backup offer from you, they would share this packet of letters of support with the buyers whose offer they had already accepted.
Miller: So let’s turn to the funding. How did you go about getting proof of funding for a house that was going to cost more than $1 million?
Abioto: Yeah, well, I believe in myself. And I believe in Black history and culture. I believe in the communities of which I’m a part. So I just began. I sent out emails. I would say that I am not someone who’s unknown in the city, I am rather connected. And so I just began asking. It was a constant effort over the period of time that we were doing this to bring this into reality.
And there was someone in the community who reached out to us, who believed in what we were doing, and said that they would essentially finance the purchase of the house and submit that offer letter and the proof of funds to allow us to get the house. And also, because the time frame in which we had to raise that was so short, I had been in contact with foundations who said that they were interested in supporting it, but the time frame was so short. So we were able to bring it together, thanks to someone in the community.
Miller: What happened after that? You were able to secure funding and you put in this official backup offer. What happened next?
Abioto: Well, our real estate agent reached out to them, to the owner and broker with those materials, with everything that we said we would do. And at that time, they communicated that they weren’t going to share the letters, in opposition to what had been communicated to us before. So that was truly a blow to our efforts. And it was a question of how we may be able to influence it from there on.
Miller: I should note that we did reach out repeatedly to the sellers over the course of the last four weeks, but we never heard back from them.
I’m curious now in the big picture, how you’ve been thinking about what happened with this Canady house in the context of the long racist housing history in this city and this country, whether that’s the inability to get financing, or redlining, or racist covenants in particular neighborhoods. How do you think about all of this together?
Abioto: It’s a long history. And that’s why, even here now, I think deeply about the words that I’m sharing. Black people weren’t supposed to be here according to white thought, white word here. That was written into the constitution. And it still affects us to the present day. Even thinking about recognizing historic properties. In the state of Oregon, there’s around 2,106 properties that are on the Historic Register. There are only 13 properties that are associated with Black life here.
For me, it’s about obscurity. If you walk through Grant Park, you would never know that this was the site of Black activism here in Oregon in the early 1900s. And I jump to the present tense, where I with my family are looking for a place to live that is affordable, whether to rent or to buy. And it’s not abstract, it’s very real for us, just as it was for Black people all along the time that they’ve been here. And, once again, thinking about Indigenous displacement, everything that they’ve experienced, I have to continue to acknowledge that.
We’re going to continue to do our best. It’s important that people hear, thinking about her legacy of the Advocate. It was important for me to tell this story for documentation, for people to know. And when something like this happens again, a historic Black property comes up for sale or that house comes up for sale, that people are going to think about this, whether or not we seemingly succeeded in the purchase of this house at this time.
Miller: Thanks very much for joining us.
Abioto: Thank you.
Miller: You can see Intisar Abioto’s work right now through early January at two shows: one at Oregon Contemporary, the other at the Reser Center for the Arts in Beaverton.
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