Art of the Crossover: Jewels, Shackles, and Black Gallery
Perspectives on Artists Leaving for Whiter Pastures
by D. Amari Jackson
…thinking about a pop record, somethin’ made for the station
for a whole new relation
ship of a new type of scene
to go platinum and clock mad green…
-EPMD, The Crossover
Few would dispute that Black galleries were created for the Black community, particularly, the Black artist. Whether commercial vehicle or altruistic communal space, the Black gallery was a necessary expression from a marginalized community seeking self-representation in a nation ever empowering itself through the mass production of imagery. These images—at most, intentional and harmful, at least, skewed and incomplete—necessitated a platform where Black artists and the communities that spawned them could see themselves, support themselves, and celebrate themselves.
That acknowledged, it was also about the art. After all, the common denominator between the gallery, the artist, the community, and the self-representation was the art itself, a point that, ironically, gets lost amidst the challenging power dynamics inherent to the American experience. “Artists create art from the arc of lived experiences and essentially render aspects of their individual realities,” wrote Berrisford Boothe, in his 2019 catalog essay for “Afrocosmologies: Finding Faith in Creative Struggle” presented by the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art and the Amistad Center for Art & Culture. Boothe—an artist, educator, and the African American principal curator for the Petrucci Family Foundation Collection of African American Art—simultaneously recognized the centrality of “the impulse—the charge—of African American art to represent cultural experience as an affirming act and sometimes as an act of resistance…” Yet, he further penned, “the experiential and cosmological history of the African American does not interfere with the fact that the African American artist is the same as any artist from another named race, gender, or culture and is therefore subject to the same irrational and immutable desire for expression.”
Adapting Boothe’s insight to the role of the contemporary Black gallerist, it presents the groundwork for a compelling question, particularly at our current moment when African American art is in high demand. Given the historically unique role of the Black gallery, should Black gallerists expect loyalty, or a sense of cultural responsibility from those artists pursued by white galleries with greater resources and connections?
“The responsibility does not lie in whether the gallery helps the artist or the artist helps the gallery, but rather that the gallery provides accessibility to the work of African American artists,” offers Jumaane N’Namdi, director of N’Namdi Contemporary Miami. A second-generation gallerist, N’Namdi stresses that “the arts teach us about every culture. They tell the stories of every civilization from the art they leave behind. It’s very important that each culture plays their primary part in preserving and collecting its own culture.”
“Every other culture owns their art, except for cultures that have been conquered or looted by others,” explains N’Namdi, noting how African American art had been ignored or separated from museums and collections in the past. African American art “has now become a hot commodity. It is important that the galleries have collectors that appreciate the art rather than just trade it as a commodity. So, when we say that Black artists have a responsibility, they actually do. They have the responsibility of making sure that their art is being preserved by people who are collecting and preserving their culture.”
In characterizing the contemporary reach of this culture, Boothe clarifies the stakes at hand. “I believe we are in a second Black art renaissance, but it’s not the Harlem Renaissance,” says Boothe, promoting it instead as a “global renaissance of the Black aesthetic” that “the digital realm has made possible. Anything you put up can be absorbed and appropriated in every fashion” in real time. Given this increased access, “the reduced influence of the white gaze at our Black lives,” and our “higher metabolism for Black creativity,” Boothe feels “we don’t have to adhere to the previous paths to artistic prominence. We can keep writing and making art” and determining the language we use to do so, and “that will get transcribed and culturally exchanged as new scholarship.”
“It doesn’t matter what ‘white’ folks want to say 50 years from now,” notes Boothe, given we will have generated our own body of work on our own terms. “We will have taken control of the mechanisms to tell our story.”
The quest to do so is far from new. Like so many African American institutions, the Black gallery was, in part, forged by fire. Two years removed from the Watts rebellion, amidst the long hot summer of 1967, Brockman Gallery—commonly regarded the first major gallery run by and focused on Black artists in the country—was launched by brothers Alonzo Davis and Dale Brockman Davis in Los Angeles’ Leimert Park neighborhood. Setting up their storefront at 4334 Degnan Boulevard in the center of a shopping district, the artistic siblings sought to provide a vehicle for their community and their own works while selling art as a commercial venture. The times were particularly ripe for such cultural expression given mainstream marginalization of Black visual art, heightened demands for Black self-representation, and racial rebellions in American cities from Newark to Detroit. Amidst it all, Brockman Gallery provided early exposure to the likes of emerging artists Betye Saar, John Outterbridge, and David Hammons while also showcasing established artists and works by Romare Bearden, Elizabeth Catlett, and Noah Purifoy.
Those alienated by the primacy of Brockman Gallery’s commercial motives soon welcomed the opening of Suzanne Jackson’s Gallery 32 at her painting studio on North Lafayette Park Place near downtown Los Angeles. Influenced by increasing demands for “Black Power” and politicized artistic mentors like Charles White, Jackson ran Gallery 32 as a communal space for gathering, artistic expression, and activism. In 1969, it hosted a solo show by artist and Black Panther, Emory Douglas, to raise funds for the party’s Los Angeles chapter in support of free breakfast for children, free health clinics, and political prisoners. Not long after, the gallery presented Sapphire Show: You’ve come a long way, baby, regarded the first Los Angeles survey of Black women artists and featuring, among others, the works of Jackson, Saar, and Senga Nengudi (formerly Sue Irons).
Fast forward a few years and exhibitions to 1973, and switch coasts to New York, as did Hammons, to pursue his substantial artistic talents in the Black cultural mecca of Harlem. Twenty-three-year-old Linda Goode Bryant—a Spelman grad, former fellow at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and new director of education at the Studio Museum in Harlem—was enchanted with Hammons’ work and, upon being introduced to him, asked if he’d ever show in a New York gallery. The exchange is recounted by Bryant in an April 11, 2019 interview for BOMB Magazine’s Oral History Project.
Hammons’ response was legendary. “I don’t show in white galleries.”
So was Bryant’s. “Well, I guess I have to start a gallery.”
She did. In 1974, in a building on 57th Street, Bryant opened Just Above Midtown (JAM), a nonprofit interdisciplinary artists’ space highlighting and promoting new work by African American artists and artists of color. Like Hammons, numerous artists who’d exhibited at Brockman Gallery and Gallery 32 began showing at JAM alongside the works of established artists like Catlett and Norman Lewis, and those holding first shows like Howardena Pindell, Fred Wilson, Dawoud Bey, and Lorraine O’Grady.
Clearly, Bryant was influenced in a significant way by what preceded her. Despite their ideological differences, in the late ‘60s, Brockman Gallery and Gallery 32 provided early, viable, and visible platforms for hundreds of Black visual artists including Hammons, White, Nengudi, Saar, Outterbridge, Ruth Waddy, Timothy Washington, Samella Lewis, Dan Concholar, and Bernie Casey. And yet, within these differences lay the twin seeds of the contemporary dynamics now shaping the choices of many Black artists, issues of money and access. Consistently, if the question is less ‘by who’ given these artists now have numerous platforms both Black and white to showcase their work, then it remains, ‘for who?’ And few would dispute that galleries play an important role in providing the answer.
“Artists think they can get more money in non-African American galleries, and that is not always the case by no means,” acknowledges N’Namdi, stressing that money should not be the only end goal. People are collecting African American art now because it’s hot and there’s a great resale market. “So let’s say five, ten years from now, everybody’s collecting Chinese contemporary art,” he hypothesizes, before prodding, “What happens to all those African American artists and their work then?” Artists commonly want people to collect their work because it connects with or means something to them personally, continues N’Namdi. “And many times, it doesn’t because those collectors don’t have accessibility to the work, and the collectors that have access to the work can certainly love the piece, but is it different? Is it a different connection?”
In a recent visual arts webinar on “The Black Experience” hosted by Artsy, such a communal connection was invoked by panelist and industry veteran, Myrtis Bedolla, founding director of Galerie Myrtis in Baltimore. “Thirty years in, I still see that Black galleries come and go very quickly,” stated Bedolla, insisting that “we really need to embrace and collaborate with one another” to get past “the years of denial” from mainstream institutions and “help to elevate and sustain the careers of Black artists who are denied access, not only to institutions, but galleries.” She clarified these artists were denied access to the history books as well, noting “the books that I was assigned to read scarcely mentioned African American artists and their contributions to the arts and culture in this society.”
After citing additional benefits of the relationship between Black galleries and Black artists including the construction of a self-reliant Black visual art industry and the preservation of value in the community, N’Namdi drives his point home by relaying how his father, a developmental psychologist and professor, opened a gallery upon recognizing the African Americans he engaged “didn’t have a foundation in their culture. So they had nothing to go back on except enslavement, and that’s not their foundation. You were somebody before you were kidnapped, you came here, and you are still that person you were before you were kidnapped.”
“Imagine you go through a museum that deals with African American history and the first thing you see are shackles to show your enslavement, your start in America per se, right? And then you go on and see pictures of Lebron James and other images of other Black success,” says N’Namdi. “If somebody owned those shackles they’re showing, I guarantee they also owned the jewels the person had on” when kidnapped. “They couldn’t have kept the shackles and not kept the necklace.”
“So now imagine if in that museum you were shown the jewels first and then the shackles, and then everything else,” continues N’Namdi. “Now, we would see people like Lebron James as returning to their true selves, the story would then be not how far they have escaped the shackles but how close we are to returning to a culture full of kings and queens,” returning “back to the jewels that were before the shackles. They now will look at Lebron James and say, ‘Oh wow, you made it back,’ not he got away. So when you own your art and culture, you have the power to display what represents you.” If you don’t have that, “you will always be controlled by somebody else because they can decide, do I show the jewels or the shackles?”
“And that difference between the two,” adds N’Namdi, “changes a whole culture’s perspective of themselves.”
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