Interview

There Was Love Included in It: Linking Art and Abolition

Interview with Malik Seneferu and William Rhodes

On a rare sunny day in San Francisco, two long term friends, artists, and grassroots community leaders, Malik Seneferu and William Rhodes, met in the summer amidst the chaotic backdrop of 2020. While the year brought heightened turmoil to the world, California endured a reemergence of protests against police brutality, coupled with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, and a particularly intense start to fire season causing terrible air quality and evacuations for many residents. These two old friends relished the opportunity to meet in-person, albeit outdoors and distanced, for a lively conversation on abolition and spirituality. Brother Malik and Brother William are lifelong artists, they serve as role models in their community, teaching and mentoring young artists, with a focus on Black youth in particular.

Malik Seneferu is a prolific painter, muralist, illustrator, and sculptor whose work has traveled internationally, adorning book, magazine and newspaper covers as well as the walls of museums and galleries. William Rhodes is a sculptural artist with a fine arts flare; trained in traditional woodworking and joinery, his creations blend craft and design with meaning and function. Both artists have travelled extensively, making their way to Haiti, Kenya, South Africa, Italy, and Egypt. Their travels influence their artist styles, which you will note in the paintings and sculptures featured through this piece, as well as their global perspectives of Black life and death.

Guided by the questions that frame this special issue, the conversation that follows represents the authentic voices of these two artists, although it has been edited for clarity. Brother Malik and Brother William discuss their daily practices of self-care, their experiences with police violence, and their methods for deepening spiritual practices. The advice they offer carries the voice of ancestors and the words of elders, echoing their wisdom for younger generations.

—Editors


Part I: “I Stay in my Sketch Journal…”

Malik Seneferu: So, we here, meeting. Me, Malik Seneferu, and my good brother, William Rhodes.

William Rhodes: Malik, it’s an honor to be here with you. Let’s dive right in. How are you? How are you showing up right now? How are you taking care of yourself and others?

Malik Seneferu: You know, I feel as though I finally figured out how to make all of that work as one motion—so how I show up for myself is how I show up for my people. Every morning, I always ensure that I’m fasting and not talking because I know my whole day will be filled with talking. So a lot of my time is just sitting down, doing nothing, and listening. I close my eyes and allow my body just to pull in the morning. My day-to-day activity is working in my sketch journal. I stay in my sketch journal, and it brings me visions that help me push forward through the day. 

My diet is very, very high in water these days. I stick with alkaline water. If there’s such a thing as a “break fast,” mine is water. Really, I’m not breaking a fast, rather, I’m just feeding my body the energy that it received from the sleep. I ignite that energy by drinking water. The healing aspect for me is to feel the water go down and feel the tingling of my armpits, the tingling of all of my sweat glands, and the opening of the pores in my skin. When I feel that vibration, I am inspired to move the way I wish to move. This is often helping somebody in their life, being a life coach, and being an artist. You know, we as a people have been more of a tongueless culture without the kinds of language we need to express our lived experience. So my thing is trying to figure out, what can I ignite with that same energy in others? How can I take that energy into the world, into the work that I create, into being an urban shaman?

All right. So, Brother William. We’re gonna pull this together. How are you showing up right now? I turn that first question to you.

“San Francisco Soul Quilt” by William Rhodes.

William Rhodes: Yes. So I have a basic process very similar to you, Brother Malik. I get up in the morning and I do a spiritual or meditative practice as my morning ritual. I sit back, meditate, and contemplate. I also pray for the day, pray for my family, and pray to my ancestors. So that’s the first thing. The work I do for others has been through my heart, through figuring out ways to use my art as a vehicle to tell their unsung stories. Lately, I’ve been working on projects that focus on San Francisco artists and the black elders of that community. I have created a quilt project called the San Francisco African American Narrative, where I create hand painted portraits of Black seniors living in the Fillmore and Bayview community. Each portrait is sewn into a larger quilt. I also video record the stories of each of the seniors participating in the project; they have these powerful unspoken stories. Just like you’ve said, Brother Malik, we have been condemned with this current situation of having a voice, but yet not actually having our own language to speak for ourselves, because we speak in our captors’ tongue. It’s very frustrating and it eats away at people. So I’ve been using my art as a vehicle to express the people’s voice.

Malik Seneferu: Your recent creations have been quite beautiful, man. I’ve been loving the ascension of your work, how you work with cloth, how you are integrating the thread, because of how we all thread together. I love it. Love it. I got to get a piece, man. That’s what we got to work on.

Part II: “Life Beneath His Knees…”

William Rhodes: Now, the question is, how do we tie what we’ve talked about into how we’re showing up in mindful solidarity with the movements confronting violence against Black people by demanding the abolition of police and prisons?

“Foul PIGS I” by Malik Seneferu. Mixed media digital collage.

Malik Seneferu: It’s interesting, man. You know, I grew up experiencing death after death. I had friends and family members getting killed, and watched police plant drugs in my own house, so I definitely get the urgency of the issue. We don’t want a police state. My whole life has been plagued by these circumstances. Almost like a file cabinet, you know, filled with crimes perpetrated by the state. So this present situation is, unfortunately, another crime I’ve had to add to the file cabinet. I create art in regard to that situation. It’s my creativity that gets me through. I’m always pouring into my art and creative expression; it’s my vibration.

William Rhodes: I have also been a victim of issues with police. When I went to school in Philadelphia, I had quite a few experiences with police targeting me unfairly. So it’s not a new phenomenon. My father had a magazine, where he wrote about police violence in black communities, about living in a police state from the early ‘60s through the early ‘70s. So for me, none of this is anything new. It’s no surprise. We live in a country where for 400 years Black people have been murdered and killed left and right, really from all angles. No one even blinks an eye.

“For Ahmaud” by Malik Seneferu. Mixed media digital collage.

Malik Seneferu: Oh, that’s interesting. I would like you to go on with that. We got George Floyd. We got Ahmaud Arbery. We have our sister, Breonna Taylor, who was killed in her bed sleeping. Those are each different sorts of murder. Let’s talk about that. How does that coalesce into our understanding? With George Floyd, we saw the knee on the neck. With Ahmaud Aubrey, he fought to his death. He fought—he put up a fight before he died. That’s what our ancestors prayed for. Then we have our sister who passed away, Sister Breonna Taylor. Those are three different ways that White supremacy seeks to eliminate us. It’s crazy that everything really went wild around George Floyd, the released video and all types of things we saw online. Maybe it was due to the pandemic, where they had made people stay inside. Everything was closed. People couldn’t shop their way out of it. They couldn’t work their way out of it, because their work was closed down. They couldn’t say, “well, I’m about to get my check next week,” because many of them lost their jobs. All the while we’re watching a man with no concern for whether there’s life beneath his knees. Just there with his hands in his pocket.

William Rhodes: Normally, we would have a resting point. But now we are completely in a video world, so these images have forced more people to focus on what is happening. It is fascinating to me, this fixation on the visual, because I think about the lynchings that took place during the Jim Crow era, when there were no videos. Yet people took photographs, proudly smiling in front of this audience while people were being burned. Even to the point of taking people’s body parts, Black people’s body parts, cut off, put in jars as souvenirs. Even postcards made out of the photos taken of lynchings. It’s fascinating that so many Americans are shocked and surprised with a video documenting the death of George Floyd. America has repeatedly continued to abuse Black people well before the invention of a cell phone video.

So as far as my feelings and how I’m actively dealing with these issues of police violence, I’m just doing more spiritual work. Like you said earlier, I’m trying to stay calm and be mindful. I’m not letting the excitement and the drama unfold over me, while also using my work as a way to express my emotions.

Malik Seneferu: The best way to win a fight is to be out of your emotions, but this war on Black people is very emotional. So that’s the dichotomy of it.

Part III: “Overseers Became Officers…”

William Rhodes: So work with your difficult emotions, Brother Malik? What contemplative wisdoms are you finding relevant for society or for your own personal life at this time?

Malik Seneferu: It is very, very simple, nothing too complicated. Right now, my focus is on breathing and staying hydrated. Why breathing? We’re breathing, everybody’s breathing. However, when there’s a consciousness attached to breathing, and that consciousness, along with the proper water in your body, brings you to another level of existence. Right now my thing is not to get caught up in reactive behavior or not to react out of anger.

William Rhodes: As far as dealing with the prisons and policing: That is going to change over time, because society needs to let go of constantly keeping an artificial system in place. Police in America started as slave catchers, which, again, is perpetuating an artificial system. Overseers evolved into what we currently are dealing with now: police officers. When I talk about police I want to be clear that there are good people that serve as police officers. But the system of policing in America comes out of a history of slave catching, immigration control and systematic racism.

Malik Seneferu: Right, overseers became officers.

We are right now in a certain type of pandemic, but Black people have had layers and layers and layers of pandemic: slavery, forced migration, econmic disenfranchisment, racism, police brutality, all of it. These overlapping pandemics have not been called “pandemics,” you know. For none of those have we been asked to stay inside. For none of those have we been asked to wear masks. None of those.

William Rhodes: Let’s continue with talking about changing the issues around policing and prisons. Right now, prisons are used as tools to keep this artificial system of white supremacy in place.1 As we move forward, you know, I am hoping that we’re going to figure out ways to let that go. For example, there are plenty of people in the African diaspora that need mental health counseling over severe trauma, which has been passed down now for over 400 years. People want to overlook that, but we must talk about post-traumatic stress disorder.2 Can you imagine this trauma going untreated for 400 years? If you start to have psychologists or professionals helping and healing people in that area, the prison population is naturally going to go down. But if you keep this system in place, which is about creating criminals and supporting white supremacy, then, yeah, the prison population will only increase because it is not about helping people—it’s not about “corrections.” It’s about enforcing policies that are unnatural. That’s what we’ve been dealing with.

So then the question is, how can spiritual teachings help shape our demands for the future? How can the changes we need, including the abolition of prisons, be spiritually guided?

Malik Seneferu standing next to his mural made for The African American Art & Culture Complex in the historic Filmore District of San Francisco, CA, 2020

Malik Seneferu: Before we can answer that, we need to understand first that many policy-makers currently in positions of power work to prevent abolitionist calls to action from being passed, because they do not follow the lead of the people. In the case of police, what do they “protect the people” from? Whom do they protect and serve? You’re protecting and serving those who are making the policies—but the people are supposed to make the policies. So we have those kinds of realities, along with our ancestors who’ve been fighting for all power to the people. “All power to all people,” we sometimes say; what does that mean? Take a child, a baby—they can be properly empowered by having good parents who are present in their lives. Right? If a baby has parents who are there—as in not separated from their family by the police state—and love them, that’s what we’re talking about. Now that child is empowered to aspire to their best in the world. Not everybody needs to be a parent, but you still play a position in the culture. A child needs the village to raise them, not just good parents, but you need those parents to introduce them to the village. You know what I mean? “All power to the people,” means the ability for folks to grow a greater future, the ability to determine their future. That is the power we’re talking about. But you can’t determine your future if you’re being distracted from your future. So many of the realities we’re living with right now are distractions from the future.3

Part IV: “It’s Like Winter without a Coat…”

Malik Seneferu: So Brother, how are you moving through that? I’m gonna flip it back to you. What spiritual wisdoms are you finding most relevant at this time?

William Rhodes with artwork. Photo by Michelle Kilfeather.

William Rhodes: There are certain spiritual practices that people can do to protect themselves when they go out in the streets, when they go running, or when they confront police officers. One option is using a protection mantra. You can make your own or recite familiar ones. I tend to use Psalm 23 from the Bible and chant it 108 times. There is also a powerful mantra you can chant 108 times when you are endangered: OM NAMAH SHIVAYA.4 The thing is, do people really want you to give them those practices? Or is it a situation where people are going to be too afraid to receive wisdom? One of the trends I see so often in African Diaspora communities is that what gives us power is what we’re taught to fear. So when we have power tools, whether it be our understanding of dreams, the universe, or the science behind it, we’re taught that it’s the devil’s work. When we’re around people who give us insight, even educating us on using fruits, vegetables, and herbs to heal ourselves, many times we’re considered very bizarre, like witches. We have been trained to think negatively about these practices because they involve stepping out of the Western paradigm. This is a fight against ourselves, against the power that’s within us. We must not push away that power. Trying to embrace such power has been one of my strongest spiritual practices.

Also, meditation, my study of astrology, and my study of history are essential spiritual practices. Those have supported my thinking, contemplating, and focusing. When I talk about astrology and history, I mean that all of this has been predicted. We are not talking about anything new. Any astrologer could tell you we were coming into a period of protest, conflict, unrest, and disruption that would expose all of its injustices and hidden secrets.

Malik Seneferu: According to the principles of numerology, we’re in a time of four. This time is about building, and a lot of building is about destroying. So building and destroying go hand in hand. This new millennium that we’re in, it’s going to be quite interesting.

William Rhodes: You know, Western astrology states that we are moving further and further into the Aquarian Age. With astrology, there is a belief that there are different cycles that we go through, just like the seasons, winter, spring, summer, and fall.5

“From the Hill in Beyond II” by Malik Seneferu. Acrylic on canvas.

According to Indian Vedic cosmology, the world is in a cycle called the Kali Yuga.6 It is a really rough period. It’s like being in the winter without a coat. You’re walking around with this cold weather. We’re still in the Kali Yuga, we knew it was gonna last for a minute, but we’re coming into a transition. We are moving into a spiritual cycle that is similar to Summer and within Western astrology, that is the Aquarian Age.7 So with that coming into play, there are naturally going to be shifts happening, which we’re starting to see. Now, as we move further and further into that period, it is going to be more about us trying to integrate ourselves, mind, body, and spirit. Our ancestors have been talking about that, whether consciously or unconsciously, for a long time. With all the oppression that we’ve endured, how do you still integrate yourself, mind, body, and spirit? Know yourself without a doubt. So that’s going to be a huge focus of where we’re heading.

Malik Seneferu: The idea is to try to detach the tree from its colonial roots and give the tree its independence from the dirt, right? There is still this colonization of our intellect, colonization of how we engage ourselves. We have a lot of trauma that has caused us to follow deceptive lines of intelligence. So it’s really our perspective, our perception, which leads to our predicament.

Part V: “They Had Love Included In It…”

“From the Hill in Beyond I” by Malik Seneferu. Acrylic on canvas.

William Rhodes: Let’s just be very clear. Black people, in their true essence, are self-healing people. Would any of these types of issues or attacks or traumas have happened to us if we had been left alone? I want to be very clear that if we are left alone, we will naturally find a way to work through our traumas and issues. The problem is that we’re in a world right now where we are constantly under attack. I like to give the following example: If you take a garden and you cover it in cement, the reality is that nature will find a way to take a small blade of grass and let it find its way through the cement. If you leave, if you don’t spray pesticides or cover and re-cover all of it, then over time, maybe even in 40 years, it will be a jungle, right? But the reality is, in a Western context, they are constantly putting cement over that grass, spraying pesticides, and preventing it from growing. So how our ancestors have responded is collectively working together. That is why it is important for this society, in this reality, to keep us separated and keep us at each other’s throats. If we naturally come together, we naturally figure out a way to get through it. Listen to that. Our ancestors constantly had ways to work through all of the trauma, all of the issues, and pass it through. It could even be in simple things like cooking. Some folks scoff at soul food, because they don’t understand…

Malik Seneferu: Our ancestors had relationships with all that food. It was a love elixir rather than just, “here’s something I made and we’re just gonna eat and not really even think about it.”

William Rhodes: Yes. They had love included in it, so they were going to fix a meal for you out of love. It was infused in it.

We can tie this into spirituality, into our revolutions and protest. The revolutions are about us just being allowed to be naturally our God-given selves. Being authentic becomes a protest act in Western society. That relates to spirituality because I believe with spirituality you have the right to free will and to be who you are naturally. If you are fighting for that, that is a spiritual fight.

The fight for being authentically oneself is absolutely going to sustain the future. That is the focus that our ancestors had while fighting for justice and being authentically themselves. Yes, it’s going to be in alignment with our true nature. That is what the future will hold. We’re moving in that direction. That is why everything is being challenged right now. That is why there are so many attacks upon us—because the Powers-That-Should-Not-Be know that their time is ending.

Malik Seneferu: That’s amazing, man. Absolutely beautiful.


William Rhodes is a sculptural artist trained in traditional woodworking and joinery with a fine arts background. Rhodes blends fine art, craft and design with meaning and function. His work explores themes of hidden knowledge, iconographic imagery and forms and how they can change meaning, depending on the cultural context. Rhodes received a BA in Furniture Building and Design from the University of the Arts in Philadelphia and a MFA from the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth. Rhodes’ creative works are in the collections of various galleries and museums. Most recently, his work was included in the collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. Rhodes, dedicates part of his time to art education, including art collaborations with schools in San Francisco, South Africa, Italy and Egypt. Rhodes is the co-founder of a Black art collective in San Francisco. The 3.9 Art Collective was formed in 2011 in response to the declining Black population in San Francisco. Website: www.williamrhodesart.com.

Malik Seneferu is a prolific painter, muralist, illustrator, and sculptor. Seneferu’s work has traveled internationally and adorned book, magazine and newspaper covers and the walls of museums and Galleries. He has several public art projects throughout San Francisco. After his travel to Haiti and Kenya, Malik has implemented a variety of visual art techniques and genres. Seneferu’s artwork inspires motivation through his philosophical outlook. Malik’s attributes usher his creative commitment to culture thus contemporary art. Website: www.maliksart.com. PEACE POWER AND CREATIVE PROSPERITY. WE MUST INHALE AND EXHALE IT! REMAIN CREATIVE.


Return to table of contents for Spirituality and Survival: Imaginative Freedoms for Abolition Futures.


Artwork by the authors.


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Notes

  1. Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (New York: The New Press, 2010).
  2. For an in-depth discussion of the intergenerational transmission of trauma among racialized groups, see Resmaa Menakem, My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies (Las Vegas: Central Recovery Press, 2017).
  3. For a timely example of the challenge of racism as distraction, see Ayana Elizabeth Johnson, “I’m a Black Climate Expert. Racism Derails Our Efforts to Save the Planet,” The Washington Post, June 3, 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/2020/06/03/im-black-climate-scientist-racism-derails-our-efforts-save-planet/.
  4. The mantra Om Namah Shivaya is commonly chanted in the Shaivist tradition of Hinduism to invoke Lord Shiva. Om Namah Shivaya is one of the names of God. Chanting the mantra 108 times is said to give protection, the number 108 being sacred in Hindu and Buddhist traditions, and a symbol of completion. See, for example, Contzen Pereira, “A Comparative Study of Frequencies of a Buddhist Mantra – Om Mani Padme Hum and a Hindu Mantra – Om Namah Shivaya,” International Journal of Innovative Science, Engineering & Technology 3, no. 4 (2016): 325-329.
  5. Nicholas Campion, The Book of World Horoscopes (Bournemouth UK: The Wessex Astrologer, 1999).
  6. The Mahābhārata, trans. John D. Smith (New York: Penguin Books, 2009).
  7. Campion, The Book of World Horoscopes.