April 5, 2014 was the first time I’d heard about Kimberly Robertson. Her lifeless body was found early that morning beaten, raped and left for dead in F.M. Smith Park, just two blocks from my house. Initial media reports said she had moved to Oakland six months prior from Texas with her three year old daughter and was last seen around the corner the night before. Later it was reported that she had been waiting for a bus when a man, known to be a vendor of clothes at local farmers markets, picked her up in his SUV where the assault occurred. I kept imagining her brutalized body lying in the park. Thinking about how she was a newcomer to our town, twenty-three years old and here to make a life for herself.
Pat Parker was another young Black woman who came to the Bay Area from Texas. From the late 60s through the 80s, she became an important revolutionary poet in the Gay Women’s Liberation, Women’s Press Collective and Black Power movements of Oakland. Her influential 1978 poem, “Womanslaughter,” described the murder of her sister as she was leaving an abusive marriage – a particularly dangerous time for anyone trying to end a domestic violence situation – and the immunity from prosecution that the ex-husband received for, Parker wrote, being “a quiet Black man” who “works well’ and “only killed his wife.”
Parker ends the poem resolutely:
“Hear me now, it has been three years and I am again strong.
I have gained many sisters and if one is beaten or raped or killed
I will not come in mourning black.
I will not bring the right flowers . . .
I will come to my sisters not dutiful. I will come strong.”
Hazel Streete is another Oakland woman who lives only a couple blocks from where Kimberly Robertson’s body was found. In response to yet another heartbreaking womanslaughter, Hazel began speaking to others and looking for a way to respond. She initiated the “Her Resilience” project and invited others to join her vision. They wanted to paint a mural in the park where Kimberly’s body was found, yet it became clear that the city’s restrictions would not allow it, due to the park’s historic landmark status. So they moved the home base of the project to Park Community Garden, the terraced garden maintained by neighborhood volunteers located about five blocks up Park Street. On Saturday March 21, 2015, almost a year after Robertson’s death, the mural was unveiled.
“Her Resilience” is an arts-based and woman-centered inquiry project centered around addressing violence against women in our community. The amount of violence that women experience both on the streets and in our homes leaves very few who don’t have a direct or indirect relationship with this struggle, yet the silence and separation from each other’s struggles contributes to a feeling of powerlessness. Through curating public imagery of women’s struggles and survival, “Her Resilience” highlights the ability of art and ritual to express and transform. Engaging the community through an open call, “Her Resilience” reached out to female-identified artists, survivors, family members and volunteers who wanted to contribute to this project.
Central to the vision of the project is its community outreach coordinator, Gabrielle Rae Travis, who gathered images and stories from families and loved ones of women lost to violence. Some of these stories were related to the artists who then sought to pay honor and witness these women through their art. Other artists addressed the history of violence within their own families.
Sixteen-year old Greshanda, who was killed by a stray bullet, is depicted twice on the wall by two different artists, insistent upon being seen. In her artist statement, one contributor, Magick, asks “What is one to do with these painful and traumatic memories that become stored inside with nowhere to go?” Another contributor, Shana La Reina, reflected on her own artistic process in her artist statement. “Addressing the cycle of violence against the women in Oakland has encouraged me to process what got broken in my own family. To create an active prayer for the five generations of women who have come up. For the ghosts that remain and for the lives that are both vibrant and vulnerable in this wounded town.”
Phase one of the “Her Resilience” public art installation (additional phases are planned) saw twelve individual panels hung on the outside walls of the community garden as well as a large central piece designed by lead artist Nicole Gervacio which was completed at a Community Paint Day, held on March 8th. The twelve artists include Melody Shaiken, Kira Marriner, Shana La Reina, Joanne Ludwig, April Lelia, Adee Roberson, Ines Ixierda, Kindah Khalidy, Angelica Padmavati, Summer “Solstiz,” Kate Klingbeil, “Magick” Monica Santos and Nicole Gervacio. These powerful works of art now hold a strong presence on Park Street as witness, storyteller, and guardians of resilience.
The day of unveiling was initiated with an opening ceremony by Calpulli Huey Papalotl, an indigenous dance group led by Maestra Pati Juarez. Ceremonial and ritual dances known as Danza Azteca called out the name of Tonantzin, mother earth Goddess of this land, over and over again. It was a prayer and an opening, a sacralizing of the ground and a call to this deity of sustenance for support of women warriors. After burning sage inside the garden and on the street, and honoring the four directions, Calpulli Huey Papalotl danced to honor our ancestors, and for Tonantzin, as well as a dance to plant the corn — jumping and leaning in low, to nourish the new seeds of what will grow.
Throughout the day, a wide diversity of people came to the community garden, including families, loved ones and community members, who continued to arrive into the late afternoon. Organizers facilitated open dialogues about gender violence, and BAWAR was present to provide counseling. Mamacita’s Cafe–a youth-run economic development project for young women of color– provided fresh donuts and coffee, while Tamales la Qaxaqueña — another woman-run business– offered fresh traditional Mexican fare. It was quite appropriate on this day of birthing the mural project that bathroom facilities were offered by the Bay Area Midwifery Center across the street.
The mural unveiling itself was a testament to women’s memory and to the powerful energy created when women speak up and come together. In her artist statement, Angelica Padmavati spoke to the experience of the day: “this poem reflects on how it feels to be in the women’s skin and go through a transformation into freedom.”
Padmavati, who mixed her son’s ashes with her paint in order to bring forth his presence, said in the poem which she’d written on her mural panel, “my children and i ride the cloud in the sky and we are eternally bonded in the power of love.”
The heartless murder-rape of Kimberly Robertson– whose alleged assailant has been arrested, but not yet tried– motivated a collective reaction from women artivists which could have long-term impact. Thousands of cars a day pass by the Park St. garden on their way to the 580 freeway. They will see the mural panels and perhaps wonder how they came into existence, why has this beautiful art been created, what is the message being put forth?
More than a memorial, “Her Resilience” speaks to the need for public art created by and focused on the lives of women of color — an important consideration for the project’s organizers. Much like the freedom fighters revered on many of Oakland’s murals, the fight against violence towards women must be fed by public recognition, support and an honoring of women’s courage and leadership. “Her Resilience” is a meaningful step in that direction.
Visit “Her Resilience” on their FB page at: https://www.facebook.com/herresilience