LA Weekly, Mar 2015

Race Meets Feminism at the New Blk Grrrl Book Fair in South L.A.

By Liz Ohanesian

Tuesday, March 10, 2015 | 2 hours ago

Blk Grrrl Book Fair organizers Skira Martinez and Teka-Lark Fleming stand outside of Cielo.

Blk Grrrl Book Fair organizers Skira Martinez and Teka-Lark Fleming stand outside of Cielo.
Liz Ohanesian

When Teka-Lark Fleming, an Inglewood-based journalist, essayist and poet, started work on Blk Grrrl Book Fair last fall, she contacted various organization to see if they would be involved in the project. The responses didn’t match what she had in mind. Some people asked to set up literacy trucks or health-centric projects. “We wanted to show them that you can do more in the black community than have a health fair,” says Fleming.

Fleming, who hosts the web-based interview series Blk Grrrl Show!, wanted an event that was filled with art and literature, but was also fun. Fleming joined forces with Skira Martinez, who owns Cielo, a live-work space in Historic South-Central that hosts arts and educational events, to produce Blk Grrrl Book Fair. After months of planning, the festival took shape last Saturday.

Their event highlighted the kind of feminism that focuses on “intersectionality” — a word coined by law professor Kimberlé Crenshaw that describes the overlap of sexism with racism and classism. It has recently gained steam thanks, in part, to young people on social media sites like Twitter and Tumblr.

It’s similar to the ideas that Fleming champions in her interview series. “I call it The Blk Grrrl Show!, but it’s inclusive of everybody,” she explains. She describes her show as “challenging what black means — not for white people, but for everybody, for black people too.”

Inside Cielo, individual artists and small publishing companies set up shop. There were books on politics, volumes of poetry and thin, illustrated stories for kids. Small piles of zines were stacked up at table after table. Artists self-published collections of their visual pieces. One publisher had a few recipe zines, in which food is part of a bigger story. There was even a tiny comic based on the story 1960s rock ‘n’ roll singer Chris Montez.

An area near the front of the space functioned as an art gallery, displaying the works of Lili Bernard. The L.A.-based artist showed a series of paintings that explore the horrors of slavery through references to famed paintings. In The Sale of Venus, a visibly pregnant black woman stands like Botticelli’s Venus as a white man digs the tip of an umbrella into her navel. It is a devastating scene and, perhaps, the kind of crucial, thought-provoking image that could be deemed too disturbing for some audiences. Here, though, Bernard’s paintings are welcome.

On the stage in front of Bernard’s work, a string of writers perform spoken word. Some are well-established in their field, with books to their credit. One was the elementary school-aged descendant of the late activist Lillian Mobley. Other groups and individuals took to the mic throughout the day as well. Los Angeles Queer Resistance spoke about the recent murders of transgender people.

Creating an all-inclusive environment included encouraging people to bring their children and providing kid-friendly spaces in the event. Fleming notes that if kids aren’t welcome then women with children are often excluded from participating. Martinez points out that she tells people to bring kids to all of her events at the space. “I think it’s important for children to see the art and hear the dialogue,” she says. “I think it’s important for children to be around these conversations and grow up with these conversations in the back of their mind.”

Blk Grrrl Book Fair is as much about Los Angeles as it is about feminism. For decades, the neighborhood that’s home to Cielo was known as South-Central. While this part of town was re-branded South Los Angeles ages ago, Fleming prefers to use the old name when promoting the event. “You can’t just throw things out and start over,” she explains.

The history here runs deep, as does the creativity. “There’s art in South-Central,” says Fleming. “There’s writing in South-Central.” But, as both Fleming and Martinez note, people in L.A. often stick around their own communities.

Fleming says that Blk Grrrl Book Fair is “trying to show what Los Angeles is” and Martinez adds that this is the kind of event that plenty of Angelenos crave: “I think they want to see a whole hodgepodge of different people, different age groups, different looks, into different things.”

Liz Ohanesian