The Crossroads Art of Najee Dorsey

The art of Najee Dorsey is an embodiment of the material and mystical crossroads. The aesthetic and philosophical underpinnings of his art production speak to past glories and tribulations while at the same time present experiences and future possibilities. It is essential to move the understanding of the crossroads beyond marginalized spiritual Africanisms and place it back in the center of the African Diaspora experience it has sustained.

The process by which Dorsey makes his art is rooted in the tradition of montage and mixed media. This gives clues to African and African-American traditions that others have spoken of and that should be examined in Dorsey’s work. His creating of art is rooted in multiple medias and layers; aesthetic altars of experience that hold stories and prayers and spiritual powers are part of a deep and long process. This philosophy of the art of the crossroads has existed in our Osirian and Kongo myths, our Ifa and Voudun informed spiritual practices and art making, in our transatlantic lives, in the montage of our multi-dimensional existence in America, our music making, our quilt-making, in the making of our very bodies and our culture rooted in innovation, collage, montage and sample.

There is a visual language that has existed since humanity’s dawn that speaks to humankind’s attempts to walk between worlds, through the cracks, breaks and leaps of consciousness. What was captured through art in these journeys has laid the foundation for millenniums of art production. The crossing over and bringing back of visionary experiences by shamanic practitioners, the marking down of spiritual memory, the telling of tales of soul adventures coupled with the experiences of the material world has created a tension in art that exist to this day.

The correlations I draw between these historical precedents and Najee’s work speaks to both. There is an art that seeks to see the world as the eye sees it and an art that seeks to see the world as the soul sees it. Then there is the art that seeks to stand between those two worlds. Najee Dorsey’s work lives in that third space, what I would call "shamanic space," where the crossroad lives and rules. That space that was always here and there and always will be here and there. The shamanic space is one of griots and tricksters, lovers converging, and storytellers who know how to improvise and embellish the narrative for the audience it speaks to. It is the space of eternal truth and permeable realities.  

Down a long dirt road, Najee Dorsey, 35 x 10″, photomontage, 2017, © all rights reserved

Deep down in the Mississippi Delta, Najee Dorsey © all rights reserved

Deep down in the Mississippi Delta, Najee Dorsey © all rights reserved

The art that emerges from this experimental and experiential space has fueled beauty and fear for ages. This is art that wakes with the shadows before dawn and catches the colors of the sunrise. This is the art that seduces us to reach for the sun at high noon and chase the fleeing colors of the setting sun. This is the art that haunts full moon midnights and hears ancestors' voices in stereophonic color.

When we speak of the art of the crossroads, we speak not only of visual works, we speak also of works sonic and social. We speak of writers, dancers, and singers as well. The avatars that have guided the African-American experience have all been masters of the crossroads, Sankofans looking backward and forward at the same time while progressing step-by-step into uncharted futures. Najee Dorsey's art is an art of avatars. His characters and landscapes based on historical beings and created ones act as divine stand-ins for our voices, our moods, our emotions and truths. The bluesmen and women of our romantic and traumatic dreams are brought to life by his brushed and cut and paste techniques, by his complicated layering of image and idea. The contemporary souls that walks through his work speak eloquently of our continued journey toward justice and equity.

Somewhere South, 48×60″ and Return to Eden, 48×60″, Najee Dorsey © all rights reserved

Najee shows us the hopeful and hateful experiences of our past and present times, of our visionary dreams. Like Romare Bearden, the visual art legend of montage art, there is an animating force in Najee’s work that will not allow the eyes to easily rest. We, as viewers are asked to search through the art and decode the messages, to listen to the painting as it speaks wisdom to us. We are asked to hear and heed the wisdom emanating from the surface of the work. What Najee Dorsey’s work shows us is that one does not have to sacrifice beauty to show the tribulations we endure and must overcome. What Najee Dorsey’s work shows us is that one does not have to show heavy handed political messaging to express our protest of the shortcomings of the implementation of the American Dream. Most of all, Najee Dorsey’s work shows us that we are essentially worthy and beautiful and transcendent, and our stories are not yet done and our contributions to the world are fundamental. I will leave you with a quote from one my early poems that sums up Najee Dorsey’s work:

 “And for those of you who don’t know the secret of the crossroads, the secret is you are the crossroads, for you are the cross that souls have rode and the road that souls have crossed, the sacrifice and the resurrection, the embodiment of sacred energies praising the manifestation of the divine one human being at a time.”

Written by Kevin Sipp: The Crossroads Art of Najee Dorsey - excerpt from The Crossroad Blues

Covid Crossroads, Najee Dorsey, 2020 © all rights reserved

Danny Simmons: The Crossroads Art of Najee Dorsey

Najee Dorsey has taken on transforming the mystery and musical artistry of legendary Blues singer and guitarist, Robert Johnson into a series of mixed media paintings, and the results are spectacularly fantastic.

Najee, whose work uplifts the image of black people, relies on his southern roots to inform and direct the content and style of these paintings. He transforms his subjects situated in familiar settings into complex and visually stunning works filled with patterns, textures and colors that draw you into the intricately placed nuances that he adds to emphasize the subjects' own unique personalities, styles, and attitudes.

He often leads you down pathways that leap beyond his deeply rooted southern background and into ancient and modern African spiritual connections. I see patterns of traditional tribal textiles mixed with more modern abstract patterns that are placed in ways that link what African people brought along with them across the Atlantic in the form of fashion, religion, family and everyday joyful human and community interactions. Clothing becomes carefully thought out jumbles of colors, symbols and shapes draped meticulously across black bodies, showing their pride, swagger, and unique style that reflects who they are as a people with deep histories and traditions that have been retained and developed over the centuries as singularly their own. Like American jazz, the distinct painterly juju embedded in much of African-American art is very much present in Dorsey’s work.

Making my way, Najee Dorsey © all rights reserved

Najee adds into that complex mix the mysterious and mystical Robert Johnson lore. His paintings are grounded in the well-known folktale of how Johnson gained his musical prowess in a clandestine meeting with the devil at a crossroads. It’s said that Johnson traded his soul to the devil to be able to wail out the blues on his guitar like no other—that is, until the likes of the great Jimi Hendrix came along. I’ve even heard it said that Hendrix was Johnson reincarnated. Dorsey harvests the story of that magical tale and pours a strong essence of southern roots conjured into this well-executed series of paintings.

A history of southern blues, Najee Dorsey © all rights reserved

His painting of Robert Johnson headed down the road after leaving the encounter with the devil speaks volumes of the African-American journey in America. You can see where Johnson has been, but the journey ahead remains uncharted territory. Armed with his instrument and newly-acquired juju, Johnson seems ready and confident to face any uncertainty that might be found ahead. Dorsey captures all of the history and struggle within this one painting. His use of muted colors and moonlight illuminating the road behind and ahead of Johnson takes the viewer down back southern roads on solitary nights musing about new songs and new gigs with a beautiful mysterious conjure woman on his mind. Najee is adept at placing moods and imagined narratives within his work. I could go on and weave story after story after just viewing this one painting.

So many black American artists are great storytellers. Their paintings capture scenes from the racial history of the black community that tell a tale with a strong narrative using color and texture with a paint brush. Dorsey can be placed alongside artists like Jacob Lawrence, Romare Bearden, Kerry James Marshall and Ernie Barnes, who connect people to things they’ve either witnessed firsthand or carried internally over decades by genes and/or stories told by griots. One doesn’t have to have gone to a juke joint to feel the energy in the music that’s been played there.

Stepping out, Najee Dorsey © all rights reserved

In his painting "Stepping Out," I can imagine Johnson putting on his sharpest gear, laying down his hair, adjusting his brim and grabbing his trusted guitar and heading out the door to walk that mile and a half to the gig that night at the local juke joint. He’s thinking about a frosty glass of corn liquor and that fine young lady who comes over from the next county to hear him play, hoping he had his juju working because he’d be playing songs just for her that evening.

American Juke Joint, Najee Dorsey © all rights reserved

"Stepping Out" said all of that to me, but what’s so beautiful is that the work allows you to build your own tale and tailor it to your fancy. Najee is in the tradition, as they say. He’s a master artist and storyteller in the making.

Najee balances his vibrant painting career with maintaining and publishing the immensely important web news publication, Black Art in America. This essential source of information and exposure for writers, artists, galleries and collectors comes from the same impetus his artwork does. Both endeavors are offerings of love, community and racial identity tied together and designed with his personal flair that distinctly spells out his name.

The black community is full of excellent artists whose works reflect who we are, where we’ve been and where we are headed. Najee is one of those artists whose work will stand the test of time and will tell a story to tickle your fancy down to its roots. Put Dorsey on your Those to Watch and Enjoy list.

Danny Simmons: The Crossroads Art of Najee Dorsey - excerpt from The Crossroad Blues catalog coming soon


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