This story is part of a series we are presenting about how local Santa Cruz businesses faced challenges of the last couple years with strength and perseverance. From the COVID pandemic shutdown which began in March 2020, to the CZU fires of August 2020, to the continuing pandemic rollercoaster in 2021, our community members have proven their resiliency. This particular story focuses on an individual, Abi Mustapha, instead of a business.
Santa Cruz artist Abi Mustapha continuously works toward racial equity and social justice. In 2020 she played a key role in bringing Santa Cruz’s Black Lives Matter mural to fruition. In addition, she co-founded the organization Santa Cruz Equity Collab. Her works have appeared in galleries and museums including the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History, Richmond Art Center, and Indiana’s Garrett Museum of Art. You can see her art at abimustapha.com.
Mustapha moved to Santa Cruz in 2016. Originally from Indiana, she has lived in California since 2014. “I first identified as an artist when I moved to California,” says Mustapha. She is fortunate to make ‘most’ of her living as an artist but has done other types of work for income when no sales or commissions were in the pipeline.
Transforming Through Challenges
“The challenges of 2020 made me really confront what I was doing as an artist,” says Mustapha. “Not being able to do the other odd jobs I’d been doing, I finally took the dive into art full-time as my only means of income—in part because I really didn’t have a ton of options.” At first, she took almost any graphic art job that came her way. “This wasn’t really my intention with my art, but it was a means of earning an income.” Now, she is able to be more selective.
During the pandemic, Mustapha delved deep into her philosophy and beliefs. “I learned about my limiting subconscious beliefs regarding my ability to succeed as an artist. I had lots of work to do around detaching from the outcome when I worked on passion projects, asking to be paid fairly for my time and work, how to say no to jobs that weren’t really in alignment with my medium and style.” She also discovered she sometimes has to make art even when she’s not inspired. “Momentum is really important,” she adds. “Sometimes the spark comes later.”
Mustapha refers to the CZU fires as “…a huge wake up call. My house was evacuated for at least 3 weeks. It was a practice in detachment for sure.”
Black Lives Matter
In 2020, Mustapha and hundreds of other community members collaborated to create a Black Lives Matter mural on Center Street. In 2021, it was vandalized in a very aggressive manner by two men who took turns driving over the mural. The BLM mural experience over the last couple years has been complicated. “This is an ongoing challenge,” she says. “On the one hand we brought awareness to inequity issues, on the other hand it was brought to our attention that not everyone understood what we were trying to do, and it has clearly caused some tension and now trauma.”
Also in 2020, she cofounded the Santa Cruz Equity Collab. “I believe this was one of the best things that came out of the last year and a half. Working with the collab has changed me and I believe it’s changing our community for the better.” As its name suggests, SCEB’s goals relate to equity including providing tools for those working on their own and/or others’ racial equity standards.
Receiving Strength from the Community
Being an activist, including her work with BLM and SCEB, has brought Mustapha closer to the community. “In getting to be hands-on in our community I’ve naturally come across more opportunities and projects that I otherwise wouldn’t have known about or been asked to participate in.”
The period from early 2020 onward has held many stresses and uncertainties for everyone. Staying optimistic in such a tumultuous time can be difficult. “Sometimes I’m positive and sometimes it’s harder,” says Mustapha. “I had a lot of breakdowns, breakups and soul crushing experiences in the last year and a half. Having an amazing community around me has been key; I feel like I have family out here.” She also credits her supportive friends. “They are great at showing up for each other, and we frequently celebrate each other. This keeps me smiling.” In addition, Mustapha has found herself reading many self-help books and meditating more.
Challenges that Remain Today
“Feeling worthy of being paid well and equitably for my time and skills is still a mental hurdle for me,” shares Mustapha. “There has been such a surge in opportunities for artists of color. In the beginning I was inundated with opportunities that sometimes felt like they were more about having a black artist rather than my skills and vision. That still stings and when opportunities come up, I still question myself and my work a lot.”
Generosity from Local Art Organizations
As a result of the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History (MAH) being closed during the pandemic, Mustapha was offered a residency. “The MAH had the space to do this, and it changed my career because at the time I didn’t have a studio.” After that, she received a grant from Arts Council Santa Cruz County which enabled her to get into a studio at the Tannery Arts Center, where she is now.
More About Her Art
Mustapha sells her art through a variety of ways. She receives art commissions from Instagram (@abimustapha), and has received many inquiries after people see pieces they like in a gallery show or in an article.
In 2021, she had the opportunity to participate in a Sea Walls: Artists for Oceans project. Mustapha painted a mural that you can visit in downtown Santa Cruz. Look for Sesame Korean Grill on Front Street; her mural is on the Cathcart side of the building.
Sea Walls is PangeaSeed Foundation’s public art program that “brings the oceans into streets around the world…with the help from our growing community of 300-plus supporting artists, we continue to bring attention to the global plight of our oceans through ARTivism” (from seawalls.org). The organization has worked with artists to create more than 400 murals in 17 countries. “Sea Walls was awesome,” says Mustapha. “It taught me a lot about the kind of art I want to focus on and made me examine my process moving forward. Getting to meet and watch so many talented artists/muralists from all over was one of the most inspiring things I’ve ever gotten to do.”
Reading the quote that has served as Mustapha’s email signature for the last decade, “When it’s dark enough you can see the stars,” is very telling. No matter what obstacles arise, she works hard to create powerful art and to restore justice. Looking at Mustapha’s art, activism, and experiences over the last couple of years, her resilience and strength are clear—which helps ensure that her future, and thus that of our community, will be bright.
Side note: Mustapha says she first came across this quote as an old Islamic proverb, but has seen others receive attribution including Ralph Waldo Emerson and Martin Luther King Jr.
All photos by Paul Schraub