’90s Bay Area hip-hop scene on display at West Oakland Photo Exhibit
When photographer and hip-hop dancer Traci Bartlow reads her artist statement out loud, it brings her to tears. Specifically, the portion taken from a journal entry she wrote as a young adult in the early 90s after deciding to return home to Oakland from New York: “I abruptly returned home to support my family, who, like most of my community, was being devastated by the crack epidemic,” Bartlow reads. “It was at the Wash House that I started a photography business.”
Bartlow shared the memory last Saturday at the opening of his new exhibit, Oakland Picture Lady: Tales of a 90s Girl. The collection of photographs, collages and short stories capture moments from the Bay Area hip-hop scene in the 1990s. For Bartlow, it’s work that began at The Wash House, the laundromat his family operated in East Oakland.
By age 19, Bartlow had moved to New York on a scholarship from the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. After traveling the world with the dance company, returning home and to the family laundromat at 98th Avenue and Birch Street was a must. She had intended to return several times to New York, but something kept her at home.
What resulted from those days of youthful exuberance and wanting to get away was Bartlow’s visual documentation of Oakland. Bartlow began taking pictures of his neighbors and the surrounding community; one of the first photos you come across in the exhibit is a self-portrait of Bartlow standing in front of the taped window of the laundromat. She never stopped photographing, and it was these early works that helped Bartlow launch a career as a hip-hop photojournalist.
Looking back, Bartlow now understands that the reason she never got to leave was because she felt called to capture images of Oakland – its style, music and culture – and share them with the world. . “It was a bigger picture that I didn’t see or understand yet,” Bartlow said. “I see it now and it’s like, ‘Wow, thank you.'”
Through her experiences in the entertainment industry as a dancer, Bartlow was able to transition into photojournalism, filming and writing for hip-hop magazines like rap pages and based on the East Coast Source. It was on a modeling audition for Source that Bartlow transitioned him into professional photography in this magazine.
Using a plastic photo album with photos she had taken in Oakland as a portfolio, Bartlow was able to get her foot in the door. “I talked about meeting the photo editor, Chi Modu,” Bartlow said. Modu was skeptical but accepted it. “He was like, ‘If you get any pictures of the scene in the bay, we’ll post them.’ So I started posting photos first in the Coast to Coast section of Source magazine.”
Bartlow’s first photos are among those now featured in the new exhibit, which is free to the public and located in a Victorian home Barlow owns in West Oakland. The space, which she also advertises and rents as B Loves Guest House, often serves as a place to stay for her traveling artist and musician friends when they are in the Bay Area.
The images on display, full of fashions and clothing that were dominant in the 90s, transport the viewer to a time when black men and women wore finger hairstyles and Cross Colors clothing. Portraits of hip-hop dancers, many of whom still work behind the scenes in the music and entertainment industry, range from sweet to jaw-dropping.
“In collages there are a lot of stories,” Bartlow said. “There’s a story about that picture I took of Biggie. There is a story about a rap battle. There is a story about Queen Latifah. Bartlow plans to print some of the collages with augmented reality.
Throughout Saturday’s gallery tour, Bartlow shared stories that have been pivotal in shaping the way he works in the entertainment world. One of those stories involves an interaction she had with Tupac Shakur. When Bartlow attempted to introduce herself while working on an album cover shoot, she received a dirty look from the artist. “Shadow!” Bartlow said, referring to being looked at as if she didn’t belong on set.
“Early in my career, that moment was formative,” Bartlow said. The interaction taught her a lesson about being a woman in the world of hip-hop. “Not another one of you will treat me like I’m a groupie,” she swore. “I’m here on business.”
It wasn’t until browsing through the exhibit’s photo collection, Bartlow said, that she realized how male-centric her work was at that time. “While doing this show, I noticed how male-dominated it is,” Bartlow said. “My focus has always been to uplift men and that was because of the music and what was dominant in the culture.” Bartlow intentionally needed to go through his photos to ensure that women were properly represented in the exhibit.
Covering two rooms and the entrance to the backyard of the Victorian, the gallery display was a long-term goal for Bartlow. In 2016, she began the process of sorting out the photographs and received a business loan in hopes of one day creating a book with the encapsulated memories. Portions of the exhibit were originally shown at the Oakland Museum of California’s 2018 Hip-Hop Expo, Born on the west coast, which included contributions from rapper Mystic as well as journalist and DJ, Davey D.
Photographs of Oakland Picture Lady: Tales of the 90s Girl aren’t allowed, but visitors can browse brochures and framed portraits, and peruse photos of artists like rap group De La Soul and comedian Lunelle, the latter of whom lived in Oakland in the ’90s.
Seeing her portraits at the exhibit, it was clear why Bartlow had been moved: she had finally fulfilled her mission to capture and share stories Oakland needed to be told, in a time when the crack epidemic and the financial recession were hurting the neighborhood in ways that would continue to have an impact for years to come.
The piece of her journal entry that she now includes in her artist statement, reads like a testament to those days in Oakland. “It’s that I did survive and find something else,” Bartlow said. “It was really hard but I survived. We are all capable of overcoming certain things.
Bartlow, who continues to practice and teach dance on and off, recently won an Emmy for his contribution to the documentary, If cities could dancean honor she shared on her social media page.
Visitors can see Oakland Picture Lady: Tales of a 90s Girl free Saturday 1-5 p.m. Guided and narrated tours with Bartlow are available for purchase on the B Love Guesthouse website as well as on Airbnb.
For more information about the exhibit and visitor information, call 510-686-3351 or visit [email protected]