Art Collecting

At a gallery in the Bay Area | Pro Club Bd

They’ve played basketball in space, helped out in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, and most recently spent two years terrified in camp thanks to COVID and other unforeseen delays. Now Oakland artist David Huffman’s “Traumanauts” – a crew of adventurous astronauts – has landed at a gallery near you.

Huffman’s Terra Incognita exhibition runs through September 18 at San Francisco’s Museum of the African Diaspora, located in the city’s South of Market Museum District near the Museum of Modern Art and the Contemporary Jewish Museum. Huffman’s show, which touches on the themes of black identity, trauma and the longing for home, is full of robots, spaceships and other imagery of Afrofuturism. But Bay Area viewers will also see more familiar scenes, like cars doing donuts and other tricks during a sideshow in Oakland.

Pedestrians walk past the Museum of the African Diaspora on Mission Street in downtown San Francisco, California on Friday, June 3, 2022. (Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group)

The exhibit is Huffman’s largest yet — and it almost didn’t happen.

Even in the best of times, staging a major exhibition isn’t just about hanging art on the wall—and those weren’t even the most mediocre of times. How did it all come together? MoAD staff gave us a behind-the-scenes look at what it takes to put together a museum exhibition during a global pandemic.

One of the masterminds behind the show, curator Elena Gross, had been interested in hosting a Huffman show for some time.

“He’s an artist who’s had a very long career here in the Bay Area, but most of the work that he’s known for is abstraction,” she said. “His Traumanaut series has received less attention… It’s a very interesting, non-linear narrative around these characters and these ideas that have long been dominant in David’s practice.”

She began working on the project in 2019 with a goal of opening the show in March 2020 — so you can imagine the challenges that posed. But let’s start in 2019: Gross and co-curator Emily Kuhlmann began the process with countless conversations with Huffman about his work and how it would be exhibited. They visited his studio and began selecting the pieces they wanted to use for the exhibition so the art could be packaged by a professional shipping company and transported to the museum.

SAN FRANCISCO, CALIFORNIA - JUNE 3: A group of Traumanaut Tree Huggers visit a forest in a painting bt=y David Huffman of Oakland hanging in "Terra Incognita" Exhibit at the Museum of the African Diaspora in San Francisco, California, Friday, June 3, 2022.
SAN FRANCISCO, CALIFORNIA – June 3: A group of Traumanaut Tree Huggers visit a forest in a painting by Oakland’s David Huffman that hangs in the Terra Incognita exhibit at the Museum of the African Diaspora in San Francisco.

The curators wrote the blurbs that hang on the wall next to each artwork, as well as the larger, introductory paragraphs at the entrance to the exhibition. And they had the gallery walls painted a pale mint green. It’s a color Huffman calls “Oakland green” because he saw it frequently as a child visiting other people’s homes in Oakland.

To nail down the exhibition layout, Gross and Kuhlmann took iPhone photos of the art and locked them into a computer program alongside the gallery floor plan. When choosing placements, they had to think about the story they wanted to tell and how each piece would fit together. Some of Huffman’s larger, more well-known works were given a wall all to themselves at the front of the exhibit. Deeper in the exhibition, several smaller paintings filled a wall practically from floor to ceiling in what is known as a “salon-style hang”.

The curators were careful to give Huffman’s “Sideshow” a prominent place of honor. The 2009 painting depicts traumanauts riding in a parking lot and spinning donuts, leaving plumes of smoke and spiraling skid marks in their wake.

Oakland artist David Huffman's new show "terra incognita," is on display at the Museum of the African Diaspora in San Francisco.  (Courtesy of Francis Backer)
Oakland artist David Huffman’s new exhibition, Terra Incognita, is on view at the Museum of the African Diaspora in San Francisco. (Courtesy of Francis Backer)

For Huffman, the play raises the question of why a practice that has become something of a cultural icon in Oakland is still marginalized in society.

“They haven’t created spaces where they can compete or safe places where they can do it,” he said. “It’s still a very dangerous thing because people are doing it in neighborhoods and blocking freeways, just the craziest stuff.”

Curators had already installed one of the exhibition’s largest and most important works — Huffman’s painting of traumanauts in a flooded New Orleans — when word of a possible pandemic broke.

Then COVID struck. The world closed and Huffman’s art was put back into storage.

“For a long time, given the ignorance of everything that’s happening in the world, it was really unclear whether or not the show was going to go away altogether,” said Gross, who has worked for MoAD for three years.

The museum had reinstalled the exhibit in late 2020, hoping to open in early 2021 when another disaster struck. A leak at the top of the St. Regis Hotel caused water to pour through the museum’s ceiling — a development Gross called “devastating and disappointing.”

“I was like, ‘Oh, the work has all been damaged,'” Huffman said. “That’s what I thought.”

Somehow his work was spared. Only one piece got wet—a life-size spacesuit Huffman had made as a traumanaut costume—but it was canvas, so the moisture didn’t bother it. Despite this, the museum had to spend months repairing the building.

On March 31, two years after its original opening date, the exhibit finally opened to the public — no more delays, no more disasters, just art displayed on walls painted a vibrant Oakland green.

The stars of the show include “Luxor DX” and “TraumaEve”, small ceramic statues of robots with wide, lewd grins. The smile is inspired by racist depictions of black people throughout history — such as on blackface minstrel shows — where wide, happy grins masked the trauma black people actually experienced. Inspired by sci-fi and anime, Huffman used his robots to reclaim this racist image. His grinning robots are, in a word, badass – TraumaEve can fly and shoot her fists at bad guys.

“They are both symbols of black body empowerment,” Huffman said.

Huffman hopes the show, which features work dating back to the ’90s, will help people recognize him as one of the early pioneers of Afrofuturism.

What else does he want?

“Hopefully people like it,” he said. “That they find something compelling.”

The Museum of the African Diaspora

“Terra Incognita” is one of four exhibits currently on display at the MoAD. The museum is open Wednesday through Saturday from 11:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. and Sunday from 12:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m. at 685 Mission St. in San Francisco. General admission is $12, with senior, student, and teacher tickets available for $6. Children under 12 are free. Visit for more details.

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