UNA Gallery and Y.G.B.: Asserting the community

Two Portland collectives are creating space for Black, Brown, queer and femme communities in the heart of oh-so-white Portland

By HANNAH KRAFCIK

Denizens of Portland’s nightlife have probably heard of Y.G.B. The name stands for Young Gifted and Black or Brown—depending on the identity of the person speaking about the work—and Y.G.B.’s events include some of the city’s most vibrant parties, known to attract lines around the block. The Y.G.B. collective identifies as “pro-Black, pro-Femme, pro-Queer,” and, as such, they explicitly make these identities the center of all events.

Anyone moving around in the visual art world might also have caught wind of UNA, a new gallery nestled in the Pearl District. This collective-run space has a mission similar to Y.G.B., and its name stands for “Uniendo a Nuestros Artistas” (Uniting Our Artists). As stated on UNA’s website, the gallery is “holding space for POC, Queer and Femme voices,” and its programming ranges from carefully curated exhibitions and performances to community happenings such as White Guilt Work Group and Tender Table. With such intersecting missions, it’s no surprise that Y.G.B and UNA are coming together for a collaboration.

Y.G.B. at Produce Row/ Photo by Rose Léon

Last month, Mercedes Orozco and Blair Crissman, who make up the UNA Gallery collective, and Natalie Figueroa, one of the founding visionaries of Y.G.B., sat down with me for separate conversations about their respective organizing work. The initial impetus for these interviews was to discuss the collaboration between UNA and Y.G.B. for Y.G.B’s 2 Year Anniversary Retrospective. This event will take shape as a gallery showing at UNA 6-10 pm July 6, featuring photography, short films, music, performance and a look back at Y.G.B.’s promotional art in celebration of “two years of Y.G.B community.”

These interviews also offered an opportunity take a deeper dive into the missions, visions, organizing, and creative work of both groups. Through our discussions, it became apparent that there is so much at play underneath UNA and Y.G.B.’s organizing work—so many rich and intersecting ideas, priorities, and messages that are resonant with one another, making their collaboration at this moment in time so intuitive.

If you want to understand what UNA and Y.G.B. do in this world, look at their missions. If you want to know why they do what they do, start by looking around at what has been defined as the whitest large city in the nation. Normativity is pervasive in Portland, and the statistical advantages of white hetero-normative culture can lead to rapid consumption of everything else. The outcome can be trauma.

“People just show up to consume fun,” said Figueroa, as we discussed one of Y.G.B.’s larger events in Portland. She observed that “culture can be consumed very easily here…I think that there’s a group of people here who are used to everything being theirs to devour. And there are groups of people here who are used to being devoured. And then there’s this space in between of people who are like, ‘Ok wait. We have to stop this. We have to demand space. We have to do it in a way that’s healthy.’ And for us, we’re [Y.G.B.] doing the organizing around people of color, black and brown people, around women, around queer folks.”

Of course, all identities are welcome at Y.G.B. happenings, but the collective’s priority is to create healing and healthy spaces for black and brown people, while also giving the stage to Portland’s wealth of talented black and brown artists to tell their own stories, share their art, and elevate their voices (read YGB 101).

From left to right, Vaughn Kimmons, Natalie Figueroa, Renée Lopez, and RaShaunda Brooks at a Y.G.B. event/Photo by Miss Lopez Media

This organizing is a collective effort. According to Figueroa, Y.G.B.’s efforts come from a “rotating cast of people…and their capacity.” This includes Renée Lopez of Miss Lopez Media, a prolific photographer shooting the hip-hop scene, activism in action, and women of color; Lamar LeRoy, a DJ and sound artist from Michigan (“He does everything technical. He’s amazing,” says Figueroa); Vaughn Kimmons, a musician from Chicago; Rose Léon, a photographer from Portland; and RaShaunda Brooks, “a genius at making things appear,” also from Chicago. Of course, Figueroa is also a major part of conceptualizing and organizing Y.G.B.’s work—something she can speak straight to the heart of.

Collective organizing still takes resources, and, this year, both Y.G.B. and UNA received support from the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art’s Precipice Fund—another point of intersection between these groups. UNA received funds to help run its ongoing programming—but Y.G.B. secured support to start a new endeavor: “Y.G.B.: Portland to Chicago.” This “performance residency” will allow Y.G.B. to travel a small cohort of artists from Portland to Chicago and vice versa (more details on these events at Y.G.B.’s website).

The drive to help artists of color travel is something deeply considered by Figueroa. “How do we do it in a way that feels good…where we’re not just commodifying ourselves? That’s something that’s so important to me, personally, as an anti-capitalist,” she said. Like many of the Y.G.B. organizers, Figueroa is from Chicago—and she goes back and forth between Chicago and Portland. Given Y.G.B.’s connections to Chicago, and the greater connections between that city and the black community in Portland, it makes an ideal site for cultural exchange. As Figueroa notes, “Chicago is one of those places that we can connect people [in Portland] to, that they can travel to…so that they can be inspired.”

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For UNA gallery, collectively holding space is a new venture. Before starting UNA, Orozco, an artist from Mexico City, and Crissman, an artist from Southern California, had previously worked together in the gallery world. They stepped away from their last gallery jobs, in part, because they were not able to do their work “in the inclusive way we wanted to,” as Orozco explained.

Since the launch of UNA in September 2016, the gallery has attracted attention from artist and community members engaging with the work, and also in the form of press interest and calls from Google’s business arm. It’s all been a bit of a surprise to the organizers.

“I think that we’re continually surprised by it, not in the sense that it’s not deserved, but we never want to get to the place where be both feel like, ‘Well of course this is happening, and of course these people are interested.’ It’s more that, we’re surprised that it’s happening so quickly—but when we look at the project, and moreso, when we look at the community that’s already shown up to support us and already is the project itself, they all deserve it. And they deserve for the space to exist and for the work that’s happening there to exist,” Crissman said. “When you look at the community side of it, it shouldn’t actually be surprising that it’s happening as quickly as it is.”

Blair Crissman and Mercedes Orozco of UNA/Photo by Mercedes Orozco

If it is not clear already, community comes first—part of the beauty of true collective organizing. In my discussion with Orozco and Crissman, we talked about how the community has become another arm, reaching to hold up and support the work of UNA in tandem with its organizers. “We always want to be seen as people and UNA [as] being the community” said Crissman, reflecting on the ways that people have shown up to support UNA’s work. “The intention of the project [UNA] was never to be like, ‘I’m going to build this thing for myself.’ The moment that it takes that shape, the moment that it’s self-serving, it’s no longer doing what it’s meant to be doing,” added Orozco.

Figueroa shared similar insight into the organizing of Y.G.B., “We’re not trying to be a promotion, production company. We’re here to foster real relationships…We have a vision. But that vision has to shift—how we execute the vision has to shift—with what the community wants.”

This similar community focus helped make the collaboration between Y.G.B. and UNA for their upcoming July collaboration come together. “They [UNA organizers] are super supportive in making this thing happen,” Y.G.B.’s Figueroa said. “They are as invested in our event as we are, and I’ve worked with other people, other spaces, that aren’t that invested…You know, her [Orozco’s] patience with us and her understanding only comes from being in community with us.”

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Both UNA and Y.G.B.’s visions of the future are grounded in the needs of their communities as well as an awareness of their state as collectives. UNA’s immediate programming is driven by a deep interest in other artist’s work. “We’re coming from a place where we just love what other people are doing,” said Orozco. Next month the gallery will be hosting programs by De-Canon: A Visibility Project—yet another Precipice grantee.

For Y.G.B., space is becoming more and more of an imperative. While a space like UNA’s is great for more intimate events, Y.G.B.’s parties can go big (I waited in a line to get into one event for a good 45 minutes—it’s always worth it).

“There’s not a single place in Portland that is owned by a person of color who has the vision that we have, of love and liberation for our community, that can hold the capacity of a party,” said Figueroa. In our conversation, she also recalled the history of the Great Migration of African American people out of the rural South. “So much of our migration is forced, because of poverty, because of access, because of all the things. So for Y.G.B., in the next coming years, if we stay together, so much of the vision has been based around, how do we find a place that’s ours, and how do we build deeper roots, not wider roots, but deeper roots into the community?”

In terms of Y.G.B.’s programs, this also means holding more intimate events (in addition to big celebrations) and ongoing work with youth through public programming. Later this summer, Y.G.B. will collaborate with Deep Underground (aka DUG), Friends of Noise, and Libretto Jackson for a family friendly event at Holladay Park on August 18, as well as more work with DUG to bring artists to McCoy Park, at North Trenton Street and Newman Avenue, during the free lunch program—an offering called “Young Gifted Artists.”

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It takes incredible power to deliberately claim and delineate space in service of communities that have experienced forced migration (if you are not aware of what this looks like in Portland, here’s a quick primer). It’s easier to go where rent is cheaper, side-stepping many trying encounters, sites of trauma, and difficult conversations about why this work is so necessary. But both UNA and Y.G.B. are determined to establish community at the epicenters of this city, not its outskirts. This doesn’t require attention from the media, either. Figueroa said it best she she said, “Our success is based on our critical connections.”

It is safe to say that success for UNA and Y.G.B. does not look like that of corporations or even nonprofit work. It’s more likely that the truest indicator of their success can be measured by the strength and health of the communities they were founded to serve. Their work brings people to their doorsteps—and brings them to other people’s doorsteps—for continued healing, celebration, and fortification. Those interested in supporting this work can show up for Y.G.B. and UNA events and can also make direct donations help sustain their work into the future.

“Some of us are healers and some of us are warriors. And to understand that our music and our art is healing, reminds us of our humanity, reminds us why we’re fighting so hard, that it’s totally, absolutely necessary,” said Figueroa. “Then, it’s not so much like ‘Oh, do I want to keep doing this?’ It’s like, ‘I have to keep doing this.’ I have to keep doing this until it doesn’t serve my community anymore. And until people stop showing up. And until people stop feeling love, we’ll keep doing it.”

NOTE

Y.G.B. and UNA celebrate Y.G.B.: 2 Year Anniversary Retrospective, 6-10 pm Thursday, July 6, featuring photography by Miss Lopez Media, Rose Léon, Tojo Fotos and Anthony Taylor, with short films by Sika Stanton and Tiki Mon. As part of the retrospective, all of the digital art created by Alexander Wright for Y.G.B.’s previous events will be featured as well.

Vibes and music by DJ Lamar LeRoy, and a special live performance by Wes Guy.

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