When Jeredon O’Conner moved from Washington, DC to Portland, Oregon it was a culture shock, to say the least. O’Conner was raised in Memphis, a city steeped in African American history and the Civil Rights Movement. From there he went to Howard University in DC, where that sense of pride in knowing who he was and his rich history was celebrated.
Coming to Portland was confronting a sea of whiteness, where O’Conner felt out of place in a city that didn’t understand him.
“I started to notice no one really looked like me or had the experiences that I had. I couldn't relate on that basis as a whole, like I could in DC, which was a very diverse city, or Memphis which is a pretty diverse city as far as African American life goes. It was unnerving,” said O’Conner.
He was brought to Portland to work at famed indie Wieden+Kennedy, where he now serves as videographer and editor. After talking with the small-yet-close knit African-American community in Portland, O’Conner saw a role for himself to help people voice their feelings about being proud to be black. He decided to give artists a platform, The Culture Series, to let African-American and other under-represented communities speak out.
“I spent my whole life learning about who I am, but now I can't really be me in a city that doesn't understand me. So that is kind of where the idea of The Culture Series initially came from. I'm an artist, filmmaker, so I thought, there has to be other artists that feel the same way I feel. I can't be the only one that feels this,” he said.
He found from many of his artist friends that they felt they weren’t represented either and couldn’t adequately express themselves as artists of color, which is where The Culture Series comes in.
“I want to give them this base to express themselves and create the opportunity for us and for other artists to be like, ‘hey, this is me and this is where I stand and this is my reflection of myself in Portland,’ which is the whitest city in America.”
Giving himself and other artists this platform has proven both cathartic and successful. The initial, powerful film by O’Conner, “Elements of Melanin,” shows a variety of African Americans talking about why they are proud to be black, with responses ranging from the glow of their skin to the freeness of their hair to the depth and richness of the culture and resilience, warmth and culture.
“It was basically a film that was all about self-love and black pride and especially after the murders of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, it was like we need to be reminded how positive of people we are and how bright we are and how we are very diverse and we are not what you might see in the media and not these images that you might see,” said O’Conner.
That film sparked others to join and contribute and the result will be a show at Wieden+Kennedy in Portland. The show encompasses artwork by young artists of color who create pieces inspired by their culture — and spans all art forms, from painting and photography to dance and spoken word.
This is actually the second show for the group. The first one was a trial of sorts but ended up being well attended by a wide variety of people.
“It was a great turnout to see like, not only people of color, but everybody come together. We were talking about gay, trans, black, white, everybody was in this place experiencing this moment and this culture and creating culture,” said O’Conner.
With this latest curated show, O’Conner and his crew of filmmakers, authors, singers, dancers, spoken word artists, digital artists, DJs, photographers and painters, hope to reach an even larger and more diverse audience. One of the things that makes such a seemingly homogenous city so welcoming is the unique culture.
“The culture of Portland is so loving and so community oriented. It was easier for me to kind of grab people's attention and bring them together. People were more willing to be like, let's go to this,” he said, adding that he felt like it changed a lot of people’s perspective about what is going on in the city, something he hopes only grows with the latest show.
One particular part of the show that looks to be incredibly poignant is “Hood,” an installation that allows people to feel, through sound and touch, what it is like to be a person of color and to counter the negative stereotypes hoodies (hooded sweatshirts) have in media and culture. What makes this so profound is that participants will wear a hoodie of their choosing, while holding a can of Arizona iced tea and Skittles — what Florida teen Trayvon Martin was holding when he was slain in Florida.
“[There is] a large hoodie, medium hoodie, and small hoodie. Each represent a different preservative in the black community. So, it's an older black man, there's millennial black man, and there's a black woman, who is also millennial,” O’Conner described. “So, you go up and you put this hood on and you essentially become that person and you hear their perspective on what they go through wearing a hoodie — their feelings they have while wearing a hoodie. The observations that they notice from communities. And then how they feel about Trayvon Martin, but all the while having Arizona and the Skittles in your hand — the two things he was holding when he was killed.”
Other pieces include work on inner-sexuality, and “Shaded,” a beautiful work that celebrates the women of color at Wieden+Kennedy and has a prominent place at the entrance of the agency.
“You are going to walk in and see the women that you see all the time, but may not have noticed that we have this whole spectrum of diversity, right in our office,” said O’Connor.
The show’s performances will be just as diverse as the performers, even more so than the first show.
“Just to see how well it played out as far as bringing spoken word and then the spoken word in the midst of the paintings and the photography and the sculptures. And you're in this space full of all this artwork, physical artwork, but then you hear this performance piece and it brings it all together.”
O’Conner hopes that the show will do more than just show off the great works by diverse artists. He wants to bring people together so the community can be a more effective and positive place, which is why he wants to expand The Culture Series to other places, including Memphis, DC and LA.
“Culture is an all of society thing, so if you uplift African Americans, Asian Americans, if you uplift everyone, the whole picture is a lot better. If we can just show or we could all uplift each other and it will just be a better community where society can flow better, we can get a lot more done.”