“Arts’ Power Couple, Najee and Seteria Dorsey, Celebrates 10th Anniversary of Publishing ‘Black Art in America’ Magazine!” by Debra Hand
In the art world, the name Dorsey has been showing up everywhere — from having their art collection exhibited at the Houston Museum of African American Culture – to Najee Dorsey’s own art work “Return to Eden #2” being featured in Forbes magazine by Natasha Gural in her coverage of the PRIZM art fair during Art Basel. By the way, the Dorsey’s collection includes works by iconic artists including Elizabeth Catlett, Kerry James Marshall, Faith Ringgold, and Woodrow Nash to name a select few. But today’s headline is all about them as a power couple.
A big CONGRATS is in order for Najee and Seteria Dorsey! This year marks the 10th Anniversary of their online magazine “Black Art in America” (BAIA). What a thrill it is to see them cross the threshold into a decade of publishing! BAIA Magazine not only illustrates the Dorsey’s influence as a power couple in the arts’ — but also proves their commitment to culture, and places them firmly in the category of a Black Arts’ power couple that is serving the culture at the highest level, and for the greater good.
This is what the Dorseys have done throughout the past ten years. Through continuous personal investment and hard work, they have created one of the foremost leading platforms of Black arts’ advocacy. And that platform is helping to change the culture of mainstream art. It is enabling Black artists and collectors to discover their places in the global conversation of fine art, and it is helping the work of past generation artists to inhabit its long overdue space in America’s art historical canon. For ten years now, BAIA has sounded a message of Black artistic excellence, and has continuously served as a megaphone where the voices of Black artists have been traditionally drowned out by the mainstream art world.
The words “Black Arts power couple” are not words I toss around easily. This term is reserved for the select few: those couples who not only collect art, but as a result of who they are as a team in life, have created or expanded opportunities for their generations. These couples use their mutual resources, platforms, and influence — to move the entire culture forward. As for the Dorseys, this is in addition to the multitude of artists they have supported directly by collecting their works.
When I say, “Black arts’ power couple” there is another couple that quickly comes to mind in this category: Kasseem Dean (known as Swizz Beatz) and his wife, the award-winning, Alicia Keys. This Black-Arts’ royal couple are leading the way in creating change for visual artists. Swizz Beatz has taken his arts’ advocacy to the most elite platforms in the mainstream art world (the secondary auction market) as well as to Art Basel, in his efforts to create justice for visual artists. I use the term “create justice” because artists cannot achieve justice without first making known some irrefutable issue of unfairness that demands equity as the remedy. In the art world it matters when your voice is one that can influence others to buy art and Swizz Beatz voice is loud and booming in terms of influence. It’s fantastic to know that he is using his platform of notoriety to speak out on issues of unfairness regarding visual artists, and to try to elicit change across the art world. And the art world is paying attention to his influence.
A while back, Swizz Beatz was invited to curate Sotheby’s “Contemporary Curated” auction according to Sothebys.com. The auction raised just shy of 31 million dollars. I love that Swizz Beatz is zooming-in on the subject of fairness for artists, in addition to his creating exhibits and collecting art as well. Much in the same way, Alicia Keys is using her platform. She has created a community and a platform of opportunities for performing artists and music makers through her “She Is The Music” organization. Together the couple collects art and are making power moves for the greater good of culture. In my opinion, these are the kinds of investments and sacrifices that place power couples like Swizz Beatz, Alicia Keys, and the Dorseys, topmost in the court of Black art power couples.
As for the Dorseys, creating a significant online presence for Black art on behalf of an entire culture, could not have been an easy feat 10 years ago; especially with so much other Internet content vying for our attention. Even now, content that rises to the top of the public’s interests quickly fades as trends arrive and pass. And there were other challenges for the Dorseys back when they began their publication. Black artists were far from occupying the routine record-setting headlines that we see today. There was no fervor by museums to collect them, as we are seeing now. The Dorseys had to help create the audience for the content they were curating.
Publishing a magazine solely focused on Black art was not like publishing a magazine about Pop music, for example, where there already existed a wide fan base to immediately appeal to. The subject of Black Art did not necessarily share this kind of broad appeal back then, so it was not just a matter of “build it and they will come,” it was more a matter of “build it so ‘it’ can then help build the audience that will finally have a platform to come to.” I absolutely must clarify one thing before I go any further. I’m not saying that there wasn’t an audience for Black art back then because there has always been a Black Art ecosystem filled with Black collectors, long before most mainstream institutions began to take notice of Black art. But…that ecosystem back then still largely existed in fragmented pockets, with little to no centralized repository for thought, content, and information on a web-wide basis. So, outside of frequenting places like the Studio Museum of Harlem, the DuSable Museum, the Museum of Science and Industries annual Black Creativity programs, or the SSCAC (South Side Community Art Center) , and other Black arts institutions, it wasn’t easy for Black artists and collectors to commune as a national cultural force; or to move as a cohesive unit beyond their local regions. This is what made publications like BAIA so timely and critical. Solving this problem of separation was key to forging a new Black Arts’ presence and aesthetic and BAIA was key in helping to bring Black art to the forefront of the global art world by bringing artists, collectors, and cultural enthusiasts together on a single platform where they could participate in the complexity and beauty of their culture, and where they could unapologetically indulge in the visual interpretations of what that means when channeled through the minds and sensibilities of Black artists. Non-Black collectors also came to BAIA to learn about Black culture and the creative minds currently travelling along its continuum. Today, as back then, BAIA’s readers are able to explore its many articles and podcasts, and learn about Black artists, as well as hear from cultural thought leaders. BAIA not only provides thought provoking, intellectual content for its readers, but it further illuminates the issues that must be addressed in order to position the current Black Arts’ movement within context of the global trends that are underwriting the sudden rise in popularity of Black art.
I think one of the Dorseys’ greatest contributions to Black culture is their shared vision of how to present Black Art in its finest context. BAIA magazine is filled with vibrant, complex images and narratives that are relevant to a comprehensive understanding of Black culture. Through the years BAIA has shared tens of thousands of images of artwork to highlight the artistic excellence and ingenuity to be found among Black artists.
With Najee as the CEO of BAIA, and Seteria Dorsey as the CFO (aka – the all-in life partner who jumps in where needed to keep the plates spinning and to bridge activities and operations) this power couple is serving Black art on the front lines as it edges into its deserved place of prominence in the canonization of American art. What the Dorseys are doing for Black art is the same thing that the artist and architect, Giorgio Vasari, did in the 16th century when he took it upon himself to create a benchmark for artistic greatness by documenting the biographies of Italian Renaissance artists. In effect, Vasari decided who the masters by selecting certain artists and then laying out their biographies in his book which according to Britannica “criticized Western art and outwardly favored Tuscan art.” Still, the effect was — Vasari drafted the blueprint for Italian Renaissance scholarship and a reference for artistic mastery that is used even today. Vasari wrote about the culture from which he came and cohesively combined his heritage, and the journeys of all those other artists, into a story that positioned them as an artistic force that “reset art history after it had fallen into a dark period,” according to Britannica. In the end, Vasari really just took the initiative to document Italian artists in his way, on his own terms. But, this is really as it should be, in my opinion. Those who know the stories from the most intricate points of view should be the ones recording those stories. It can be reasonably assumed that, even with bias, Vasari’s account of Italian painters contains more associations with the actual truth than any account supplied by a complete stranger to that world. Vasari took it upon himself to position the artists of his culture in the precise way that he wanted them to be known and remembered. He took responsibility for documenting the culture. This has precisely been the work of Najee and Seteria Dorsey. Like Vasari, they are artists who have taken responsibility for documenting the culture from which they’ve risen and they are still laboring to assure it is being positioned in its proper light in the rest of the art world.
The Dorseys have long been positioning Black art and artists to be seen, heard, and included in the global conversation of mainstream art. They are both artists who have paid close attention to the story of Black art as it played out in real time. While Seteria currently chooses to devote her artistry to uplifting other artists through her contributions to BAIA, Najee has continued on as a career artist. He has become very well known in the process and his artwork is being hotly coveted and snapped up by collectors and investors. One look at his work and one can certainly see why. It strikes and echoes with both profoundness and beauty. But while Najee Dorsey is successful in ways that most artists can only dream about, it was an interesting journey from the bottom to the top that reads like a great book. This successful artist, turned collector, turned magazine publisher, was a born entrepreneur. A man now in his 40’s, he learned the work ethic of a true hustler as a child. He was about making something happen to avoid financial dependence. He liked having his own. By middle school he was already showing the hallmarks of an entrepreneurial mastermind when he started selling cinnamon-dipped toothpicks to his classmates. This is a kid who also worked chopping cotton in the South to put money in his pockets. I can only wonder what might have become of a kid with this kind of creativity and drive had not art claimed his passion? What might have become of him had there not been those key moments in his life where an encouraging word was spoken, or where a kind deed was shown him? These are the things Najee thinks about when he reaches back to mentor young people. He remembers those who have impacted him: a Junior high school art teacher named Mrs. Barfield who encouraged Najee to enter a contest where he won an honorable mention; or the time he momentarily drifted away from his passion for the arts and
Najjar Abdul-Musawwir provided a place for him to paint in his housing project studio. As Najee says, “Najjar was the one to put the paintbrush back in my hand at that time…. he also was the first person that told me it was possible for people to make a living from creating art. I never had any idea that was possible until he told me.” Many people have come into Najee’s life to help create who he is a man, and through BAIA he is, likewise, affecting the lives of other young people.
His character and level of consciousness is best demonstrated in an article he wrote to confront a museum when a rude museum worker spoke critically to Dorsey about a little 10 year old Black boy who was continuously showing up at the museum without an adult. The child loved the art there. And like the young Najee had been, this child was also an entrepreneur at heart. Within a short time of seeing Najee at the museum, the boy had sold Najee a small figure he pretended to have made. In actuality, the boy had taken the figure from a dumpster. When the museum worker spoke critically of the child and the boy hurried away, Najee not only spoke up for the child, but went even further by using his media platform to address the issue. His activism led to a change in museum policy, and in the museum creating an opportunity for the child to attend their summer arts program. This is the power of media, and in particular BAIA in the community and beyond. Perhaps one day that child will be filling BAIA’s headlines as a successful artist who is giving back to his culture. BAIA, no doubt, will be there every step of the way, as they have been for countless other artists.
Being a career artists and having personally endured many of the challenges that come with that life, is what compels him to want to change the course for the better for other Black artists. Najee, along with Seteria (also an artist whose current focus is more so on the impact she can have on the journeys of other artists through BAIA than her own work), the Dorseys continue working as a team to leverage their media platform to create change for the entire culture.
One such initiative was the BAIA campaign titled “Do You Basel?” This campaign was created several years ago (2012) in response to the lack of Black artists included in Art Basel, one of the globe’s most prestigious art fairs.BAIA used the curiosity provoking phrase “Do You Basel?” to bring much needed attention to the fact that the entirety of Art Basel and its art-world spectacle (including satellite fairs) did not include Black art as a relevant segment of its programming, production, or gallery representation. How is it possible that one of the world’s largest, most significant art fairs – a fair that attracted collectors from around the world – how is it that it can be held annually in a city that is predominantly inhabited by people of color, and yet artists of color were largely excluded from that platform except as spectators?
When Najee and Seteria started their Black Art in America publication, there was little to no representation of Black art at the convention center where the main Art Basel fair occurs annually; nor was there much to do with Black art in the satellite fairs surrounding Art Basel. Cut to ten years later, as well as the 10th anniversary of BAIA, and today we see Black artists in the Art Basel headlines boasting record sales and creating new collectors Black and White.
While a change like this hasn’t happened in a vacuum, it has most certainly happened as a result of Black art advocates like the Dorseys who are key in bringing the conversation of needed diversity to the attention of galleries, artists, and collectors alike. They didn’t create awareness by complaining about the problem, they created it by consistently showcasing Black artists and by nurturing a platform where the voices of artists and collectors could coalesce and emerge. The Dorseys saw a way to make things better for Black artists and they did the work to bring that vision to life through BAIA… not just for one year, or two, or three…but for 10 solid unwavering years of dedication. This required time, money, commitment and the constant overcoming of challenges, but the Dorseys persevered and they have grown BAIA into the respected, influential voice that it is in Black art today. In doing so, the Dorseys have helped to move the subject of Black Art to the forefront of global culture, thereby succeeding for the whole culture. According to the Houston Museum’s website, “Black Art in America” is the leading online portal and multi-faceted media company focused on African-American Art…”
BAIA was only possible because 10 years ago the Dorseys made the sacrifice to roll up their sleeve and do the work; to take proceeds from the sale of their own artwork to create an online media portal that could inform, teach, advocate, and cultivate cultural pride. They set out to confront the lack of diversity in the mainstream art world and to reinforce a proud Black aesthetic and identity, and they have succeeded greatly. Najee and Seteria Dorsey have helped to rewrite the narrative of Black art and artists for this generation and beyond, while always showing honor to those who came before them and those who have claimed space for the next generation’s dreams to fill.
So, please join us in wishing Black Art in America and the Dorseys a Happy 10th Anniversary! It is with great respect and appreciation that I dedicate today’s article to speaking about their work!
(As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments section below where you will also find a link to share this article)