The House That BAIA Built
Black Art in America Moves into its Historic Next Chapter
By D. Amari Jackson
Morning light, silken dream take flight
As the darkness gives way to the dawn
You’ve survived, now your moment has arrived
Now your dream has finally been born—Black Butterfly, Barry Mann / Cynthia Weil
A few times in life, if so blessed, you are present at those rare and special moments when history is being made. Unlike comparable occasions where you didn’t realize an event was historic until viewing in retrospect, you are fully aware of these moments, their rich significance, their sobering magnitude, and your own presence within. Such moments are as memorable as they are electric, as exhilarating as they are compelling, ultimately serving as a marker in time, segregating all that occurred prior from all that follows. They bear a strong sense of novelty and optimism while reflecting a tangible progress, a temporal acknowledgment that, despite a global setback, our human experience marches onward, that our living experience will never be the same.
On a beautiful ATL morning in early November, I gathered with at least a dozen others near the intersection of Semmes Street and Connally Drive, a short jog from downtown East Point, to witness a historic signing between Black Art In America (BAIA) and the Black contractor, Star Construction. The event marked the commencement of the much-anticipated establishment of BAIA’s new headquarters on a near-acre of land, a veritable island for art triangulated by three adjacent streets. At its nucleus sits a two-floor, 4000 square-foot structure, most recently used as a church, surrounded by its own sizable, fenced-in parking lot. Within the coming months, the building will be renovated into a multi-use complex for art and related programming with sizable office, gallery, and programming spaces fronted by an art garden.
Among the excited attendees were BAIA CEO and founder, Najee Dorsey; BAIA co-owner, Seteria Dorsey; longtime collector and patron of the arts, Don Roman; architectural project manager, Sam Battle; and a handful of Atlanta area artists and supporters.
The ancestors were in attendance as well—one in particular, given Dorsey’s wall posting of the image of late friend and longtime art consultant and dealer, Eugene Foney. An early supporter of BAIA, Dorsey acknowledged Foney as a one-of-a-kind, cultural steward whose vision of the company was largely consistent with its current expansion and direction. Like Dorsey, the late art industry veteran knew that Black folk needed and would benefit from a vehicle like BAIA, one devoted to the documentation, preservation, and promotion of the contributions of the African-American arts community.
Poignantly, Foney’s photo was the sole image in a place soon to be basking in imagery. Alone on a large, stark wall, his profile was a stirring reminder of how spirit trumps death, how life perpetually takes new form, and how we, as a community, ultimately challenge prevailing Western constructs of dying with our defiant tradition to leave no ancestor behind because, nah, we’re bringing ‘em with us.
Black butterfly, sail across the waters
Tell your sons and daughters
What the struggle brings
Black Butterfly, set the skies on fire
Rise up even higher
So the ageless winds of time can catch your wings
Recognizing the weight of the moment, someone asked that we open with a prayer as we stood in an impromptu circle, that timeless geometry of our communal connection, that representative form sustaining us through our tribulation, ever stretching to remain unbroken. Heeding the call, and with Foney’s piercing eyes watching over, Roman encouraged us to recognize the gravity of the moment, to bless our mission and our presence along with all who would enter the space from that moment forward.
After revealing the scope of the three-month project, Battle took the group on a tour of the complex, at each step describing its imminent transformation. Inside, walls will disappear as ceilings will be raised; outside, curb appeal will soar as art-filled gardens spring to life. Facing the group in the parking lot, Dorsey acknowledged the ongoing local initiative by the city of East Point to increase public art and, consistently, how timely the early 2022 opening of the complex will be.
While welcoming and wholly inclusive, BAIA the Headquarters will be Black in more ways than one given its ownership, the hue of its current contractors, the primary community it serves, and the literal color of its soon-to-be-painted facade. For the past 12 years, the popular company has represented and championed the works of African-American artists while providing provocative writing, profiles, commentary, art news, and programming for a national audience. In doing so, BAIA has brought our artistic community together in a creative and culturally affirming space where rich images set the skies on fire, and where silken dreams take flight. And now that same space will have a centralized physical component, one specifically designed to reflect and preserve our ageless culture while further facilitating our collective self-realization through art.
Let the current lift your heart and send it soaring
Write your timeless message clear across the sky
So that all of us can read it and remember when we need it
That a dream conceived in truth can never die
After the tour, the buzzing group socialized for a time before going their own ways and leaving me with the two individuals most responsible for turning the BAIA vision into a stunning, material reality, Najee and Seteria Dorsey. Upon shutting off the lights and closing the place down, an inspired Najee told us to wait a minute before running to their van and retrieving a power drill and a six-foot, aluminum Garden Art profile of legendary bluesman, Robert Johnson that he’d crafted. A minute later, the three of us stood in quiet awe as the sun shone down on the iconic guitar-toting Johnson standing guard on the corner post of a raised deck fronting the complex. His undeniable swag and cool demeanor seemingly marked the spot, letting all who pass know that something is happening here, something artistic, something magical, something big.
Wanting to give the couple their moment, I got in the car and left Najee and Seteria behind with Johnson to contemplate all they have envisioned and accomplished, to reflect upon all they have built. Once a mere dream in Najee’s brilliant, artistic mind, Black Art In America, for years, has been the top resource and platform in the nation for African-American art. And while extraordinarily successful as a business, BAIA has never been just about the Dorseys, but about us—our community, our culture, our expression, our collective image of self.
For, again, they knew from the jump, like Foney, that Black folk needed and would benefit from a vehicle like BAIA, that we of African descent in a country that continues to devalue our humanity needed to ever be reminded of our extraordinary beauty and our unprecedented resilience.
‘Cause now you’re free and the world has come to see
Just how proud and beautiful you are
And now, after our long and challenging sojourn, we have survived, our moment has arrived, and our dream has finally been born.
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AMARI JACKSONis a creator, author, TV/web/film producer, and award-winning journalist. He is author of the 2011 novel, The Savion Sequence; creator/writer/coproducer of the 2012-2014 web series The Book Look; writer/coproducer of the 2016 film Edge of the Pier; and current writer/coproducer of Listen Up! on HBCU GO/Roku TV. He is a former Chief of Staff for a NJ State Senator; a former VP of Communications & Development for the Jamestown Project at Harvard University; and a recipient of several writing fellowships including the George Washington Williams Fellowship from the Independent Press Association. An active ghost writer, song writer, martial artist, and journalist, his writings have appeared in a wide variety of national and regional publications.
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