Imagining Our Return
Najee Dorsey Envisions Our Path to Eden
by D. Amari Jackson
“Hello, my love
I heard a kiss from you
red magic satin playing near, too
all through the morning rain I gaze
the sun doesn't shine
rainbows and waterfalls run through my mind”
——Strawberry Letter 23 (writer Shuggie Otis)
Five years ago, multimedia artist Najee Dorsey launched the “Poor Peoples Campaign,” a series of works highlighting the environmental racism impacting communities of color across the nation. Among these poignant, dystopian offerings was Dorsey’s personal favorite, Ice Cream Melting, a photomontage depicting a little Black girl gripping a melting SpongeBob SquarePants popsicle amidst a landfill and a refinery billowing smoke.
Three years ago, Dorsey turned art into action by taking out a massive billboard ad along a major highway in Memphis, TN, an hour away from his childhood home, to protest Plains All American and Valero Energy’s proposed 50-mile, crude oil pipeline across a pristine aquifer in Memphis and northern Mississippi that provides drinking water to over one million people. Dorsey’s Ice Cream Melting was featured on the billboard at I-55 and West Mallory Avenue, not far from Valero. Plans for the pipeline were ultimately scrapped in July 2021 after months of protests over the serious environmental threat to drinking water and land ownership for the area’s mostly-Black residents, particularly given these companies’ records of oil spills and their displacement of poor residents.
Fast forward to early December 2023, away from the charred, barren backdrop of urban refineries to the pristine glass and milky walls of the beachfront SCOPE International Art Fair at Miami Art Week during Art Basel in Miami, where Dorsey, a featured artist, exhibited his most recent series, Return to Eden. A surfer’s run from turquoise waters rimmed by the white sands of Miami Beach, Dorsey’s blissful Afrofuturistic vision claimed the panels about him, his Eden a utopian haven chock with lush colorful landscapes, Fibonacci swirls, and Black bodies in motion, loving, strolling, travelling, tending to nature, strumming instruments, perusing, contemplating, dreaming—being.
One can’t help but notice the remarkable transformation, from stark and bare to pregnant with beauty; from agitation and conflict to serenity and resolution; from ongoing loss to eternal triumph; from the hellish hues of an environmental nightmare to the vibrant and playful pastures of Eden.
“Return to Eden came about as a result of the energy and the mental space it took to create that Poor People’s Campaign,” acknowledges Dorsey, revealing “it was emotionally draining because, in order to create that body of work, for me, I have to place myself in the environment to basically tell the story.” The Blytheville, Arkansas native has “to think about the suffering of Black people in black communities and how we live in these spaces, these areas of landfills and garbage, power plants and refineries, all these things that intentionally impact our health because we typically don’t have any influence over power. So we’re kind of at the whims of the government and the powers that be.”
For his Eden series, Dorsey sought to reclaim some of that power as he was initially challenged by Miami’s Prizm Art Fair to imagine a world he—and by extension, we—could happily reside in.
“It is the polar opposite of the Poor People’s Campaign so it took me out of that space to create something the world needed, more beauty,” promotes Dorsey, explaining how the series evolved to be less of a “focus on the people or the individual, but really more so just on the natural world, on this imagined illusion of a new world, a new space, a new environment. It is a hopeful world, a hopeful space.”
“If we can imagine, in our wildest dreams, what a loving environment could be like, a world free of pain and suffering, a world where we can love on each other and just go back to the origin of things and let that exist eternally, you know what I mean?” offers Dorsey, noting “I really want this to help people to imagine something different, to feel something different.”
In the garden, I see
west purple shower, bells and tea
orange birds and river cousins dressed in green
pretty music I hear, so happy and loud
blue flower echo from a cherry cloud…
Even with the healthy reception of his popular series at SCOPE, Dorsey was most impacted by a poignant encounter at the fair with an awestruck female observer who moved well beyond the richly-rendered canvases of his most recent collection to land inside his work, actually meeting Dorsey within the idyllic and magical manifestation he most wanted her to experience, the boundless and affirming haven where our beloved community could be just that—loved.
“There was this one sister… the way she broke it down in terms of how we so need it, how we so need a space like this mentally, with all the challenges in the world, the hustle and bustle, the grind,” recalls Dorsey, his trademark baritone tinged with emotion. “She was saying how we need this new vision for a world that could be our own, a world that we can exist in. It was just really powerful.”
Esther Silver-Parker, an art collector based in Rogers, Arkansas and one of the first patron’s of the series, owns Return to Eden #1 which depicts a young couple existing in Dorsey’s visionary setting. “The couple is holding hands in a joyful way and looking very thoughtful and pensive, so it just resonated peace for me, peace with who they were as a couple,” says Silver-Parker of her own original piece, before speaking to the landscape-based series as a whole. “It’s almost like the Garden of Eden for me—peace, freedom, protection, safety, and a certain amount of security.”
“Dorsey’s Return to Eden highlights an aspirational space, inspired by ideas of peace, harmony and deep contentment,” says Faron Manuel, chief curator at BAIA. “In this body of work,” acknowledges Manuel, “the artist includes his customary mixed media collage approach and application to landscape painting to add elements of texture and depth.”
Such elements, for Dorsey, can represent themselves in sensational ways. “There’s something about the swirl, something about the texture… like that’s the one thing that you can’t really get from looking at a digital image of the piece,” insists Dorsey, noting how this changes “when you have an opportunity to experience the work. And I think that’s an important element that we lose a lot because of the world that we now exist in, with it being so digital and we’re all looking at a screen.” But, he continues, “when you are able to get in front of those colors and feel the vibrations of the piece—the tactile elements, the low relief of the collage elements in the piece, the things that are happening like with the trees swaying, and the movement in the piece, and these different elements—I don’t know, man. There’s something magical there.”
Feel sunshine sparkle pink and blue
playgrounds will laugh
if you try to ask, “Is it cool?”
If you arrive and don't see me
I'm going to be
with my baby
I am free
flying in her arms
over the sea
Part of the magic is that Dorsey’s series of Edenic landscapes don’t depict us as we are; rather, they envision us as we should be, in a safe and sacred space, a veritable heaven on earth where love reigns fully, completely, immersing residents in its ultimate acceptance, its spirit-nourishing colors and textures, its swirling symphony of resonating harmonies and hues. For, despite its classically imposed taxonomy, art has no inherent boundaries, no rigid time periods or historical delineations. It does not conform to the current laws of physics, nor does it honor the prevailing norms of a society gone rogue. Indeed, as Dorsey well knows, art is perhaps our last and greatest hope for envisioning ourselves in a world we actually want to live in, for projecting ourselves exactly where we want to be, for making home in a truly sacred space where there is no discernible difference between spiritual beings living a human existence and the other way around.
It is ultimately a place beyond definition or location, for, to enjoy your best shot at finding it, ironically, one has to get lost.
“Can we invite people to get lost in this work?” laughs Dorsey, upon pointing to its introspective nature. “Maybe we can find a new way to experience a different concept of what a landscape can be, what an environment that’s inviting us to love on each other in a safe and sacred space could be…”
“You know what I’m saying?”