Archive for September 1, 2011

Inner City Art Exhibition Tells Wide Range of Stories

September 1, 2011 10 comments

Here’s another art story about some African-American artists in Omaha. I did the piece a year ago or so for The Reader ( in conjunction with an exhibition at the Loves Jazz & Arts Center. Some talented folks had work featured in the show and due to space considerations I chose four to focus on. One of these, Gerard Pefung, is increasingly making a name for himself.
Inner City Art Exhibition Tells Wide Range of Stories
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in The Reader (

Loves Jazz & Arts Center’s 4th Annual African-American Art exhibition, Telling Our Stories, displays work by some two dozen artists.

The stories of four of the featured Omaha artists follow.

Art saw Yolanda Williams, aka Ms. Yo, through an abusive childhood and early adulthood. Today, this accomplished single mom studying for her master’s in leadership still uses art as “therapy.”

Of her intuitive, self-reflexive approach, she said, “I get consumed with the emotion in the piece of work. When I’m painting I’m talking through my problems, I’m talking through my past. Every paint stroke for me is, OK, this happened, how do I deal with this?’I want every single thing to be based on what I’m going through. When I look at my artwork from when I first started to now I can chart where I was in my life.”

With “Enojado” (Spanish for angry) she flung paint on canvas to release the primal rage she endured with the death of her father and a bad breakup. “Serene” pictures a poised woman standing her ground, sure of herself. It represents self-affirmation. Said Williams, “I love who I am — as an artist, as a parent, as a professional, as a community leader.” “Ra” is her meditation on life, mood, energy, faith and her affinity for the warm orange glow of sun and spirit.

Williams mentors school kids through her North Omaha Youth Art and Culture Program. She also writes and performs music.

Gabrielle Gaines Liwaru, aka G. D’Ebony, infuses threads from her life — family, multiculturalism, social connectivity — in her work, which incorporates found objects.

“Tribute to Lila” is an acrylic portrait executed on an old projector screen she salvaged. The subject is her grandma Lila Gaines, “a pillar” for several generations of South Chicago family and community. Working from an old black and white image, Liwaru’s choice of gray, black and white for the skin palette and regal purple for the backdrop imbues the work with sweet nostalgia.

The mixed media “Human Frailty and Salvation: The Wheat Perspective” ruminates on the fragility, interconnectedness and renewability of sustainable resources, human and otherwise. “The Thaw” is a watercolor/mixed media ode to the rite of spring, as the frozen winter gives way to the free flow of life again. “I Am, I Was, I Shall Be” poignantly renders the dimensions of a young girl on the path to maturity.

Liwaru is an Omaha Public Schools art teacher. She and husband Sharif Liwaru are African Culture Connection board members.



Gerard Pefung, from, ©photo by Abby Jones



The dreamlike imagery of 20-something Cameroon native Gerard Tchofor Pefung  variously pays homage to the tribal culture of his homeland and to the urban environs of his adopted country. Vibrant color schemes, kinetic shapes and familiar rituals celebrate life. In “Farm Watchman” a villager’s thoughts commingle with the flame and smoke of a fire. In “Music Festival,” a saxophonist holds sway over a jiving crowd. In each, a conjuring and communion occurs. There’s a deep spiritual fervor and electric immediacy in the work.

Though often starting from a sketch, he said “when I go to put it on the canvas I just let the canvas be itself until the work is complete. I’m not in control of what it’s going to be. Sometimes I’m guided by personal life experience, or by music, or just by the aura that surrounds me.” He works in acrylic and mixed media but mostly spray paints. Pefung, who has a Hot Shops studio, does diversion work with kids to channel them from destructive graffiti to positive modes of expression. Part of the proceeds from sales of his art go to his foundation that supports young people in West Africa.

DeJuan Cribbs, whose day job is at Metropolitan Area Transit, produces “digital paintings” entirely on his home computer, working from found images or from memory. Trained in fine art and graphic design, he melds traditional and nontraditional styles. Many of his images, such as “Native Omaha Legends,” salute a gallery of hometown heroes, including Malcolm X, Ernie Chambers and Mildred Brown. “Native Omaha Days” is a shout out to the biennial heritage event and the family reunions it spawns.

Some of his graphic design prints are abstract but most are figurative, including straight up portraits, caricatures, anime-like imagery, poster art-inspired work and more fine art-like studies. When he uses color it pops with an intensity and richness that comes from deft layering. His non-color work has an engaging older aesthetic to it.

Besides loving black culture, Cribbs said he wants his celebrations of high achieving blacks to show youngbloods the possibilities for success. He hopes to produce a coloring book of black Omaha legends and a digital graphic novel set in urban Omaha.

Other works of note in the show, which continues through May 22, include: Wanda Ewing’s whimsical “Black Catalogue” embrace of ebony women; Sebron Kendrick’s funkadylic religious inconography; Bob Duncan’s stark black and white photos; Jason Fischer’s gangsta rap Pop photo art; and Tina Tibbs’ sublimely textured digital photo collages.

The LJAC is at 2510 No. 24th St. Call 502-5291 for hours. Visit

Art from the Streets

September 1, 2011 2 comments

I am not an art reviewer, but on occasion I am called upon to write about art, and in this case street art. My story for The Reader ( discusses an exhibition from a couple years ago at the Loves Jazz & Arts Center that focused on Art from the Streets. The idea by then LJAC administrative director Michelle Troxclair, who is an artist herself, was to give artists who don’t often get the chance to show in gallery settings an opportunity to present some of their work. I was captivated by most of what I saw. At least one of the four artists featured in the show is a genuine celebrity – mixed martial arts figher Houston Alexander. This blog contains a profile I did on Alexander.




NME Crew Omaha, ©photo by Ginkz


Art from the Streets

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (

Urban Pop Funk might best describe Art from the Streets at Loves Jazz & Arts Center. Curated by LJAC administrative director Michelle Troxclair, the exhibition highlights the work of four Omaha artists whose subject matter, approach and mediums reflect art trends emanating from the inner city.

Troxclair organized the show to give props to artists of color whose self-taught airbrush-graffiti-graphic art remains off-the-grid. By presenting it in a gallery she’s validating this grassroots “street” art and implicitly slamming elitists who dismiss it.

“There’s a bias in the art world as to what is fine art and what is not, and there are some art forms young people have been putting out there for some time that have just not been validated by the art world,” she said. “These art forms were born in urban communities and I thought our (LJAC’s) position in this community gave us a unique opportunity to put some deserving young people’s art out there.”

To represent this movement, she selected artists with made reps for keeping it real: Graphic artist-digital photographer Jason Fischer, aka, Ginkz; airbrush artists Bruce Briggs and Spot; and graffiti artist/hip hop ambassador Houston Alexander.

The street-themed opening included sports cars out front inked with the latest graphic design detail work and Alexander on site creating two original graffitos. Together with the stylings of spoken word artists and the featured gents talking about their work, you had a street salon thing going on.

Fischer, whose business is called Surreal Media Lab, makes visceral, cerebral, suave images for magazines, CD covers, web sites. His shots of urban desolation bring an edgy, social critique. “Wasted” is one of several Fischer pics dealing with notions of refuse. He turns a littered gutter grate into a poetic indictment of excess and waste. Cutting through the black and white is a Coke can caught up in the wash, a glaring red symbol for capitalism’s disposable, discarded flotsam and jetsam.

He likes strong contrasts. “Cross the Line” pictures a crumpled yellow crime scene tape. It’s an interesting take on these garish plastic artifacts of violent, often fatal crime scenes. What do they symbolize once an investigation ends? Are they merely debris or markers commemorating tragedy? Or talisman warning of danger?

His “Razor’s Edge” series makes near abstractions of barbed wire. Troxclair told this reviewer the wire’s a security deterrent outside a youth detention center. That information lends the images deeper meaning. Yet no panel-guide text notes the context or artist intent for any exhibit works, an omission that hurts the show.

Briggs displays amazing control, precision and artistry in his expressive airbrush portraits, some mixed with acrylic. His pieces range from lush, glowing, colorful reveries of iconic pop stars (Beyonce, Christina Aguilera, P. Diddy Combs) to intense, moody, interpretive glimpses — in muted black-gray shadings — of Mos Def and Miles Davis. The mesmerizing Davis portrait, “Miles Away,” captures the jazz great in the throes of creative brainstorm, fingering his forehead as if a horn.

Spot’s equally impressive riffs on pop stars are by-turns whimsical (Barack Obama as a hipster in “Ba Roc-a-fella”) and mythic (Scarface’s Tony Montana in “The World is Mine”). His stunning portrait “Tupac” raises the late rapper to Sinatra Cool status in a swirl of joint smoke framing the artist in all his fly machismo splendor. The dense, abstract-like “Blue Pride” reveals another aspect of Spot’s vision.

Alexander’s large canvas graffitos, propped up on concrete blocks, illustrate the viivid style of his box car, bridge, wall tags and murals. Fisher photos document some scrib handiwork. One, “Inner Workings,” depicts a mural on a brick wall whose gaping hole exposes interior piping, adding layers of texture and intrigue.

Aptly, Troxclair incorporates tools of these artists’ trade, including cans of spray paint, along with apparel they’ve adorned.



Miss Leola Says Goodbye

September 1, 2011 12 comments

As music stores went, it wasn’t much, but it was a fixture in Omaha’s African-American North Omaha community, and when owner Leola McDonald decided to close her Leola’s Records and Tapes the decision was met by an outpouring of regret and fond memories. I did this short piece for The Reader ( in the wake of her announcement she was closing shop. It appeared not long after a cover profile I did on Leola for the same paper. I will soon be posting that cover. She and her store are missed.





Miss Leola Says Goodbye

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (


Miss Leola is moving on and the African-American community she served for decades at Leola’s Records and Tapes is treating her retirement as a loss akin to a death. Since Leola McDonald announced she’s closing her music store at 5625 Ames Avenue, mourners have filed in to pay their respects.

Felix Hall was among them last Friday. “What’s up, doc, how ya’ doin’?” Leola greeted the middle-aged man from behind the counter. “Oh, pretty good,” said Hall, before choking up to proclaim, “I saw in the news you were going out of business and I just had to come in to say goodbye.” “Well, thank you, that was nice of you,” a visibly moved Leola said.

It’s been like that now for weeks.

Attired in slacks and a T-shirt imprinted with aphorisms to motherhood, Leola, a mother and grandmother, has been a surrogate parent for neighborhood kids who “grew up” in her store. One of these, Marcus Roach, 18, said he and his posse have “been coming up here for years. A lot of people come up here. Yeah, everybody knows Miss Leola.”

Jason Fisher, 31, owner of the building housing Leola’s and his own multi-media company downstairs, can attest to the respect she holds.

“Miss Leola is known immensely throughout the north Omaha community. It’s unreal what kind of impact you can have on a community in 30 years. Just about everybody knows her like she’s the President,” he said.

“I think she’s kind of like the community’s grandma,” said granddaughter Mercedes Smith. “She’s always looked out for everybody that came to her…People having a bad day come in and talk to her because they know she’ll make them feel better about who they are. She’s a good person.”

Momma’s real…always lovin’ and always levelin’ with someone,” her son Seth Smith said. Mercedes feels her grandma’s personal stamp will make her missed. “This is not like Sam Goodies or any of the other (independent) music stores closing around the country. She’s the cornerstone of the community.” “I don’t understand it, she’s been here forever,” a young man in search of a CD said.

Leola doesn’t want to leave, but business has lagged. “In the last two years I’ve seen it go down, down, down…” she said. National chains hurt enough, but there’s no competing with music pirates. “It’s so much on the streets now,” she said. The cruelest rub is when black marketeers get source material from Leola’s to burn and then under sell her with it. “It’s just sad that somebody who always tried to be fair and right and correct in everything she did has to suffer,” Smith said.


Leoloa McDonald, ©photo by Jason Fischer




The woman who’s become an institution is pragmatic about it all. “I wanted it to last a little bit longer, but I guess my biggest problem is I haven’t moved with the times,” Leola said. “I’m still over there, while the times are over here. It happened and I didn’t even realize it. I’m saddened with it and I will miss it. I enjoyed what I was doing and if I was a little bit younger I’d still be doing it.

“I was young when I started and I ain’t young no more — no parts of it.”

Her legacy and her 70th birthday will be celebrated August 11 with a 6:30 p.m. reception at Loves Jazz & Arts Center, 2510 N 24th Street.

But, as Fischer noted, “This isn’t the end of Leola’s, it’s a new beginning.” Soon after Leola closes shop around August 10, he plans to make renovations to the existing space and reopen as Leola’s Urban Avenue, a retail music store “with a singular focus on independent artists, underground music and diversified merchandising.” As for the friend Leola was to the community, he’ll try to represent. “We’ll try to keep it going,” he said.He’s keeping Leola’s in the title to play off her good name and “to carry that torch for her and her family.”

“It gives me a good feeling that somebody cares enough about me to keep the name. I appreciate it. He’s been great to me,” Leola said of Fischer.

Beyond the name, she’s sure a little piece of her will remain in the new store. “I think it will,” she said. She plans to move to Calif., where she has family.

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