Black artists have always been important in America, yet they’ve also been underappreciated, appropriated, and disrespected. The Black Arts Movement — which began in the 1960s — created momentum and raised the status of a few generations of Black artists. But for the most part, many weren’t getting the payday or esteem they deserved.
Today, all major galleries and museums are showing Black artists with their works sometimes selling out before shows even open. Exhibits like Soul of A Nation in 2018 drew thousands (and was even turned into a TV series). Over the past few decades, Chicago has become a hotbed of the Black arts scene for incubation, production and experimentation. Leading artists like Dawoud Bey, Theaster Gates, Kerry James Marshall, and Najee Dorsey center their work and lives around surfacing the unseen beauty and stories of Black art.
In Indianapolis, Mali Jeffers and Alan Bacon of GangGang, are helping to advance an understanding of Black art as American art. Through BUTTER, the multi-day art fair they’re organizing Sept. 3-5 in Indianapolis, GangGang is boosting and celebrating Black artists—who will receive 100% of art sale profits. $25 tickets are still available and give access to the exhibition space along with all the activities and performances all weekend long.
Thanks to BUTTER, Indianapolis will be visited by several art world titans. One of them is Najee Dorsey, artist and founder of the publication Black Art In America. Since 2010, the publication has been a go-to promotional platform, a supportive resource for Black artists, and a key info source for curators and collectors.
Shauta Marsh for PATTERN, in partnership with WQRT and Big Car Collaborative, spoke with Dorsey in advance of BUTTER. Listen to the interview here.
Shauta Marsh: Tell us a bit about what is Black Art in America and why you started it?
Najee Dorsey: Black Art in America started around a dinner table in Chicago with a group of collectors and artists. We were having a number of conversations we generally have about representation and needing a wider audience of supporters of African American art and not having a central place. And that’s when I had this bright idea to be the change that you’re looking for and to take on this responsibility to start this platform to document, preserve, and promote African American visual culture. And we’ve grown organically over the course of 11 years now and we’ve expanded what we do as a company. We started purely online and sharing the works of artists, people in the field. Within two years we started to produce events around the country. We established an e-commerce space.
We’ve been very active and forward-thinking in promoting African American presence in Miami, doing Art Basel back in 2012 with the Do You Basel? campaign, doing work workshops around the country, patronizing arts and arts organizations. And this year, we started something brand new for us that I’ve been wanting to do for years. And that’s actually coming out with a print version of BAIA that we distribute nationally free of charge in multiple cities around the country.
My wife, Seteria, of 27 years, we’re both artists. We love our culture and we want more people to know about some of the great works that many artists of color have been doing for generations. Today’s artists are continuing in that tradition. So that’s a mission that we’ve taken up: we enjoy the practice of promoting the works of African American artists, acquiring those works, and building relationships and inviting others to do the same.
Shauta Marsh: I read that there is a focus on the [U.S.] South in your work and the artists you support, and over recent years, there has been a return of a lot of Black artists and African Americans to the South.
Najee Dorsey: I think there’s an overlap because of my personal practice as an artist; I’m a long-time artist, museum exhibit and collector. You have a ton of collectors around the country. And I always say to people Black Art in America wouldn’t exist if not for me being a successful artist and having startup funds to take on this endeavor. So that relates to my personal practice because I grew up in a small town in Arkansas, an hour from the big city of Memphis, and my work is definitely centered in South and Southern culture also, in traditional African American folklore and history. But as a company, Black Art in America covers it all from the blue chip to the grassroots, self-taught, trained, academic, you name it. So there’s not a singular focus on artists of the South as relates to Black Art in America. That’s just what my personal practice is.
Shauta Marsh: So what do you think it is about “place” that is so important in your personal practice? Is it fair to say your place is the South or is it as specific as places like Louisiana or Texas or Arkansas?
Najee Dorsey: I think my work resonates with people nationally, and there are some aspects of my work that you really couldn’t put a place on. For me, I grew up in Arkansas, Mississippi County Delta. My dad is from New Orleans. So I feel like some of the stories that I tackle, when I think about [musician] Robert Johnson and the Blues and the crossroads, that’s definitely specific to the South. He’s been a muse of my work for over a decade now.
I grew up an hour and a half from the crossroads [of Highways 49 and 61 in Clarksdale, Mississippi] where Johnson supposedly sold his soul to be the baddest guitar player ever. But also when I think about a number of the historical narratives that I’ve tackled, when you take look at Gullah Jack who was the right-hand of Denmark Vesey in the 1820 slave revolt.
When you think about Robert Charles, who fought all three officers in New Orleans because he felt that he was being mistreated and abused and wanted to fight for his own civil rights, or when you think about Claudette Colvin, who preceded Rosa Parks by nine months in refusing to give up her seat, a lot of my narratives are centered around that history that is taking place primarily in the South.
I guess maybe because the South has just a little bit more history that really resonates with me, even when I think about my interior scenes that don’t necessarily have anything to do with the historical narrative, but just how we live. I’m not sure when you think about iconography like the pot belly stove that was prevalent in the North. I know from where my parents and grandparents grew up, that was a part of their childhood.
When I think about my pieces referencing Baldwin, like Listening Room, those pieces, for me, have a certain aesthetic that lends itself more akin to being in New Orleans, the rusted ceilings, the tin ceilings or roofs, and a lot of the fixtures that are within the home. For me, that’s just a place that’s familiar. I think my spirit is just naturally drawn to it. I’ve never really done a piece of an urban landscape. I can’t relate or I’m not inspired to do work of the cityscape, say like New York with the water towers on top. That’s not my environment. I didn’t grow up in it. I mean, at 12 years old, I was picking cotton to make some extra money in the summertime. So I’m just speaking to things that were part of how I grew up and the things that were familiar to me and what I saw.
Shauta Marsh: Yes. I noticed, especially in your recent works, there’s a lot of portraiture. What are some works that you’re excited about that you’re working on right now? Maybe one that will be in BUTTER … or not!
Najee Dorsey: Yeah, thank you. There are two series I just came out of. One was the Poor People’s Campaign. I would definitely love for people to take a look at that. That’s not work that will be showing at BUTTER and neither will the work that came after that, which is Return to Eden. The Poor People’s Campaign was a jumping off point to have a conversation about the environmental injustice and racism that takes place and a lot of the images that I’ve taken and use within the piece are people that lived in the South, our homes and facilities, power plants, landfills. And so, that’s a body of work that really speaks to my spirit in terms of tackling social issues.
Recently, I took my favorite piece from that series, which is Ice Cream Melting and took out a billboard in Memphis across the street from Valero oil refinery and it got written up in Forbes and a number of different publications in Memphis. Valero was part of this activity to try to use eminent domain to take the land of people that live in the surrounding area, which was predominantly Black. And the community rose up and fought against it. There was a documentary, a mini-doc on Vice about it and it inspired me to take out this billboard to highlight this piece, to be in solidarity with this community that was fighting for their land and fighting to keep this refinery from putting in another pipeline that was going to cross their aquifer.
But that body of work was so heavy that right after that, I wanted to do something a little bit different, a little bit more uplifting and just kind of in this imaginative space, which is this body of work that I call Return to Eden or return to love, showing couples and imagining ourselves in a safe space, a space where we can enjoy each other and live in peace and harmony. So those are recent bodies of work.
During during the pandemic lockdown last year, I focused on a number of interior scenes, the two that I referenced earlier, like Listening Room. So those are some recent works. I also do some sculptures and some other things. I’m in the process of thinking through my next series at this point.
Shauta Marsh: Listening to you talk about your work and thinking about just what you’re doing with Black Art in America, it seems to me you really see art as a tool for transformation to both uplift and question where we are and how we got here. Have you been happy with the outcomes? Because I know a lot of times in this industry, we work hard and we have ideas, but can’t always get where we want with it. Are there some examples where you see your work and art has been a tool for transformation?
Najee Dorsey: Yeah, absolutely. I would say there are countless examples. One that comes to mind, I remember early on, we had posted a work, Princess of the Moors by Leonard Freeman and it was an image of this really dark-skinned woman wearing this white garb and there was a comment that really struck me. And I’ve kept that comment in our archive for a long time. This woman said, “This is why I visit this site and sites like it, Essence and Ebony and Black Art in America, because I grew up not knowing that I was beautiful.” And so when you think about the power of the image and the role that it plays, you just never know who you’re touching. I mean, I’ve got countless examples of artists getting shows, being acquired by museums. I mean, there are artists that, as recently as last year, were featured in TIME magazine. The coordinator for the arts cover found him through Black Art in America.
Through the site, artists are getting commissions and people are attending shows. I think about Kimberly Jacobs at the time she was working in New Orleans and we had shared a post about the Bearden Fellowship at the Saint Louis Art Museum. And so she applied and ended up becoming a Bearden Fellow, and now she’s curated internationally. And I think she’s in Memphis curating for one of the institutions there. So we played a pivotal role. And again, I go back to Art Basel, when I first went to Art Basel, the biggest art fair that takes place in the Americas in Miami, the first week of December, I mean, you would rarely find people of color at that time, in 2010, when I went. And so in 2012, when we did a campaign [to encourage artists of color to get involved in the fair]. It was so strong online that the organizers of the main fair reached out and said, “Hey, we see what you’re doing. We love it. Just keep it up.”
And so, subsequently years later, and not only did we have a marketing campaign to get people there, but we were instrumental in having space where people can come and not only take in the main fair, but also see works that would be familiar to them, works by artists of color. We had three venues, exhibition space and programming space in Miami that first year, 2012. And so we’ve done that in different cities around the country. I think about one story I’ll share with you, when you think about the power of media or just the power of people just being present and making change. So I’m in Kansas City, and Seteria and I, we’re doing a little pop-up show. And prior to going in on the last day, we go to one of the museums there, the Kemper Museum, and we see this little boy. He couldn’t have been no more than 9 or 10 years old. And we engaged with him. He’s this bright, beautiful kid, really engaged in art.
And I get to talking to him and come to find out he’s an artist and he comes to the museum on a regular basis. And he offered to sell me this bouncy ball. I said, “What are you selling the balls for?” He said, “Oh, I’m just trying to help my mom and make a little money to help her out. It’s just me and my mom,” kind of thing. And he told me his name was Darius. I said, “Darius, you say you’re an artist, right?” He said, “Yeah, I’m an artist.” I said, “Well, man, you need to show me your artwork.” I said, “That’s what you need to be showing me.” So he said okay. So he left and he said, “Well, I’ll be back.” So he came back and he had this little sculpture and I said, “Man, did you do this?” And he said yeah. For me, it didn’t matter whether he did it or not. I wanted to at least support his effort, but it wasn’t signed. And so I said, “Darius, you got to sign it, man.”
So I say, “Come on, let’s go into the gift shop and see if they got a Sharpie.” So, no sooner than we walk in, the guy working behind the counter is like, “What are you doing here? You know you’re not supposed to be here by yourself.” This and that. And ran little Darius off. And the guy looks at me as if I’m going to be in agreement with him and he says, “Man, that kid’s destined for nothing but trouble.” I say, “How is he destined for nothing but trouble?” I said, “He’s in a museum. I mean, this is the kind of space we want him in, right?” And so I was so furious and I left and it just kept burning inside of me, just this experience that I had just had, and I’m not a writer. Listen, I run Black Art in America, I publish, I have great concepts. I sign all the stories and stuff like that, but I graduated English on the curve. So I know my strength.
But afterwards, I had to write a letter. I wrote a letter and I published it. It’s still on Black Art in America. You could read this. Titled, “We Speak for Darius.” And I gave an account of this experience and what happened and it went viral. I’m telling you, it was a talk of the city. People around the country were calling the museums. Next thing you know, the board was called in for a special meeting and they made a change. They actually changed their policy as it relates to kids being in a museum by themselves. They reassigned the guy that was working at the counter and they reached out and gave Darius a scholarship for the summer.
Shauta Marsh: That’s awesome. So you didn’t get Darius’ number, but somebody was able to connect? That’s amazing. I just love that. It’s always something I think we struggle with in the arts is this idea that art is for the rich, for the elite, and I’m so excited that your work works against that.
Najee Dorsey: Absolutely.
Shauta Marsh: How did you become involved with BUTTER?
Najee Dorsey: I was introduced to Mali and Alan by Dr. Kelli Morgan, who used to be at Newfields. They reached out to her, saying they could use some help getting the word out. And she said, “Listen, I know just the guy.” And once they told me what the objective was, and some of the things that they had in place, and I said, you know what? Yeah, I’d be happy to support and kind of see this thrive and do what small part I could do to support it on a national basis.
Shauta Marsh: Well, thank you so much for that. And what is some advice you have for people who just are going to go there to appreciate the art, or for artists in general? Do you have any?
Najee Dorsey: Yeah, I would say, man, just bring some friends. Oftentimes, we have our core base that love and appreciate and support the arts. And it really takes an effort to grow our audience and expand our audience and the easiest way to do that is going to bring somebody who is not a regular. There’s going to be an energy. There’s going to be a buzz. It’s the inaugural fair. You got artists from around the country. I’m sure there’s going to be a lot of work that they’re going to connect to, and they’ll have an opportunity to talk to an artist and also have the opportunity to get out into the mix. So that’s what I would say. Just bring somebody, participate. If you want to advocate and support the arts, use your social media to let people know, take your pictures.
Also, promote it beforehand. Let people in your circles know that you’re going to this fair and why you think it’s important. They could share some experiences that they’ve had at previous art shows and invite their friends to come, post while they’re there, talk about the artists’ work, and tag the artists in any additional posts. And just understand that these artists are creating, they’re sharing their life’s work, the way they view the world, the things that are important to them. And oftentimes, that’s what we want to do. We want to share. We want to connect with people who can relate and respond to the work. Ultimately, the art thrives when people make a decision to live with the work and support through purchase. And we want to encourage people to do that. Live with the art you love. So that’s the advice that I would give to those interested in coming.
Now, for the artists, I would just say: you’ve put in the work, you’re showing your best work, enjoy this moment, but just understand that this is just one moment in time. And there are many people around the country who are interested in finding great work and meeting artists. But I would also say: challenge yourself to continue to commit to your craft and know that you’re not relegated to just being and existing in your immediate space, that this is a big country and it’s a big world out there. What I had to do was basically find my audience. I mean, there was a point in time where I was a much younger artist and didn’t have success with catching the attention of galleries. And so I had to get out there and do shows just like this one, do some street art festivals around the country, do some art fairs to grow my audience. And the best way to do that is to present the work and see who the work speaks to. It’s for someone.
A sample of some of the artwork that you can view at the Black Art in America’s booth during BUTTER.