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Why hosting a "Little Block Party" during Eugene's Friday Art Walk series is actually a big deal

At this week’s First Friday Art Walk in downtown Eugene, you’ll find an added bonus. It’s a special section organizers are calling “The Little Block Party,” where you can immerse yourself in Black and African-descendant contemporary art and culture.

Amalia Cooper-Davis is among the featured performers and is also one of the event’s producers. A singer-songwriter who performs under the stage name Amiia Nectar, Cooper-Davis got her start as a young child prompted by her grandfather to sing in church.

While her vocal range is influenced by her gospel foundation, these days Cooper-Davis is exploring what it means to make her own music, which she classifies as R&B and neo-soul.

For her, having a space both curated and by, and created for, Black and African-descendant artists and performers is important work.

“There's so much talent and oftentimes BIPOC performers, African American performers like myself may not feel comfortable reaching out to venues and to perform because we might feel like automatically we might be put on the backburner. So this opportunity gives us a place to voice our talent, display our talents, and really feel like a part of the community,” Cooper-Davis said.

At the event the performers are abandoning the big stages you might normally expect, and they’re doing it on purpose.

“If we get rid of the stage, and we just have people walking through, I feel as a musician, it feels like I can connect with the people more,” Cooper-Davis said.

Another featured artist at the First Friday Art Walk’s Little Block Party will be Zoe Gamell Brown, the founder and director of Fernland Studios. Like Davis, she’s also a producer of the event.

Brown says something special happens when an art viewer experiences an artist’s work. It’s a shared experience. But it’s also unique.

“The potential of having someone witness a piece of art – whether that's through performing art, installation art, artists in the marketplace – and feeling some sense of comfort in that, feeling some sense of like, ‘Oh, shucks, this is amazing,’ and having that connection be made. It just feels irreplaceable,” Brown, a multimedia artist, told KLCC.

At the Little Block Party, Brown will present a version of an installation she calls “Vexing Me.” The title derives from her Guyanese grandmother, who’d use the phrase to express love and frustration, as when Brown would follow her around in the kitchen, until her grandmother would finally exclaim “you’re vexing me.”

Her newer work incorporates that heritage and the powerful, transcendent memories that food holds. One way she’s done this is through a video she made with her mom. They talk, while Brown cooks Creolese curry.

In the video, you see and hear onions sizzle in the pan, as Brown adds curry and other ingredients. While she’s cooking, her mother, patched in over video, speaks of her days growing up on a farm in Guyana, learning about the medicinal properties of harvested foods. When she was old enough, her cooking skills created opportunities to leave the farm and forge a new path.

Those memories, coupled with the preparation of traditional recipes, form new connections across space and time within Brown’s Guyanese diaspora heritage.

“I love that this, this engagement with food and memory and family can be transferred across space, it's very much embedded into the installation itself,” Brown said.

Brown’s and all of the other spaces at the Little Block Party are meant to be fun, in part inspired by a professor of hers, Ernesto Martinez, who’d often say “If the movement doesn’t have a dance party, then I don’t want to be there.”

“It like sounds kind of silly when you say it. But it's true, right? Like, if we were working together, and these forms of reparative justice and these forms of having space and time for people of color to just do their work, then yeah, let's have some dancing, let's have some some joy, let's have opportunities for kids to come out and spend time with their families,” Brown said.

You can find the Little Block Party at the Farmers Market Pavilion. It and other First Friday Art Walk events will be held throughout downtown Eugene on Aug. 4, from 5:30 until 8 p.m.

Jill Burke became KLCC's arts reporter in February, 2023.