Laguna Peralta, the jewel of Oakland, the lake of a thousand smells, a hunting ground for the Ohlone, the indigenous people of the land. It was once referred to as Merritt’s Lake, named after the mayor Samuel Merritt, who transformed the lagoon into a lake and the surrounding lands into prime real estate. In order to avoid stray bullets from local hunters, Merritt managed to convert the lake into America’s first wildlife refuge in 1870 so nobody would be shot accidentally when resting on their porch or playing in the beautiful nature surrounding the lake. Cut off from the sea however, the new lake became polluted and was eventually nicknamed “the lake of a thousand smells” by locals. More preservation efforts ensued. Once reconnected to the sea, wild salmon returned, and birds from around the globe visited on their migratory paths. Although a public space, and in principle accessible to all, issues and conversations regarding gentrification, race, preservation, and ownership still surround the jewel of Oakland (1).
“With references to past, present, and potential future, the work in this exhibition is a sort of love letter and thank you to Laguna Peralta, more commonly known as Lake Meritt, the jewel of Oakland, California,” Muzae Sesay says. “It’s a space I would consider the recreational and social engagement center of the Town. There, on any given day, one would find a sample of the subcultures that define such a diverse region. At the lake as in the paintings, a vibrancy cuts through the weight of troubled times. So let’s walk an evening lap around the lake. See how people come together and acknowledge life. Hear the sounds of everyday Bay Area motion.”
This story of continuous transformation is the point of departure for Muzae Sesay’s anthropologically angled exhibition. For the past year, Sesay spent time around the lake, observing, being, participating, photographing, lingering, sketching, relaxing, laughing, snacking, and creating audio field recordings. He did laps around the perimeter of the park from sunrise past sunset, part flâneur, part adventurer and local resident, enjoying moments of recreation and reflection in a period of pandemic isolation. Sesay’s respite evolved into an interest in the relationship between the particular and the universal, acknowledging that belonging is simultaneously metaphysical and an embodied state. Laguna Peralta transplants this state to Copenhagen, Denmark. Through six large paintings, a sound piece consisting of a 57 minute field recording of Sesay doing a loop of the park, the exhibition presents a vivid investigation, interpretation, and translation of the experience, history, and potential of a place: fragmented, curious, close, abstract, present, and always in flux.
(1) Markovich, Ally (2020): ”A new film celebrates Lake Merritt’s 150th anniversary as the nation’s first wildlife refuge”, The Oaklandside, https://oaklandside.org/2020/10/21/a-new-film-celebrates-lake-merritts-150th-anniversary-as-the-nations-first-wildlife-refuge/