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David Huffman | The San Francisco Standard

Sideshow, 2009. Acrylic, oil, glitter, collage on paper. 52 x 120 inches.

This Weekend: David Huffman, Off the Grid, Papercuts, Boyz II Men and More

Written by The Standard Staff

The astronauts in David Huffman’s paintings—the ones seen rescuing others, carrying and consoling the wounded or walking tightropes in the sky—are all Black. These are the “Traumanauts,” a title that Huffman says is appropriate for figures meant to symbolize the centuries of violence, abuse and mistreatment Black Americans have endured.

Dressed in spacesuits, the Traumanauts wander along the tops of clouds and pirouette in heavenly environs, but they also take time for Earthly pursuits, like shooting hoops and whipping donuts on the streets of Oakland. 

Over the years, Huffman has exhibited his Traumanaut series in bits and pieces. MLK which depicts what appears to be a funeral procession, freedom march and mass exodus all at once, was a highlight of the Oakland Museum of California’s recent exhibit, “Mothership: Voyage Into Afrofuturism.” But the Museum of the African Diaspora’s new exhibit on Huffman’s series, “David Huffman: Terra Incognita,” is the first time the full arc of the Traumanaut series has been assembled under a single roof.

The result: A stirring and intense show across several galleries, one of which has the life-sized Traumanaut suit and helmet that Huffman wore in his 2009 video, “Tree Hugger,” which MoAD is also screening.

“Death isn’t the only trauma there is; trauma can be embedded in isolation and separation,” Huffman told The Standard during the exhibit’s press preview. “Slavery was a great rupture of Black culture that kept the continuity of life away from the people who enjoyed it, who lived it, and … created a situation of deep trauma.”

Based in Berkeley, Huffman created the bulk of his Traumanaut series from about 2005 to 2009, when he shifted his focus to abstract compositions. In 2014, SFMOMA purchased the last piece in Huffman’s series, The Black Hole and a Traumanaut’s Uncertain Journey.

The 2006 painting, Katrina, Katrina, Girl, You’re on My Mind, a meditation on Hurricane Katrina from 2006, is on loan from the Arizona State University Art Museum serves as one of the centerpieces of the exhibit.

The MoAD exhibit also features a series of painted robotic figures with forced smiles, or as Huffman calls them, “trauma smiles.” 

“The robot comes from the stereotype of ‘the happy darkie,'” Huffman explained. 

As a child in Berkeley in the 1960s, Huffman witnessed major civil rights protests. He was inspired create the Traumanauts after drawing connections between the experience of being Black in America with NASA’s space program. The series, Huffman said, asks questions like: Where am I? Where do I go?

“It’s this idea of being new to a space and checking out the landscape. For me, the space program had that quality to it—the idea of landing on the moon and taking a step. Everything is about minutiae and nuance. . . . My thing is to find a range and a nuance.” 

— Jonathan Curiel 

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