I didn’t even have a chance to be impressed by the home. Its double height ceilings, multiple sofas, and marble columns; the little dog protesting from inside its cage, the grams of weed in Ziplock bags, handles of Tito's set absentmindedly on an end table; Versace ashtrays and plastic cups stained by too many cycles in the dishwasher: Details that might have been significant had I not first seen the Crosby hanging on the wall. And then I saw Toyin. Then Deana. Then Derrick. And Kehinde. This is Black Art, with a capital “A.” Art that I had never in my life expected to see, let alone be surrounded by, and all in one room!
“Do you recognize how significant this is?” my friend asked me. “Black Art hanging on the walls of a house owned by a Black man? This is our art, owned by our people. I’d even call it radical.” He was right.
Only a few people in the world can afford to spend tens, sometimes hundreds, of thousands of dollars on a painting, and most of those people are White. Sure, they’ll occasionally pop up at a museum, but for now the works of these Black artists—whom I love, though have never met—are owned almost exclusively by White people. It’s not a bad thing, but it does make this moment unique, and thus significant. Had my friend not raised my awareness I would have missed it, which would have been to my detriment.
“I do now,” I replied.
We sat diagonally to each other in the living room. He, esconcend in the mid-century cobalt blue couch, and I on the broad, leather armchair that was sturdy and low to the ground. I had no choice but to sit like royalty.
“So tell me about yourself,” He said casually. “It’s a hard question for me to answer.” I replied, my eyes wandering to the walls again. “There’s so much art” he said after a pause, “and it’s constantly changing. They’re all dear friends.”
My friend, whom I’m still getting to know, is a writer who moved here from Louisiana in the 90s. He said that surviving the South as a Black, gay man is enough fighting for a few lifetimes. Not that living in New York City is easy, but by the time he moved here as a young man, he had cultivated a certain amount of tenacity that served him well professionally. He published a few novels, and with their success was able to phone magazine editors around the city. He chose to advocate for these Black artists, his friends.
“I would call up some of these people and say, ‘You know? Your last issue looked awfully white… I can help you with that. And then I’d write about my friends. Sometimes it was their first little bits of press. This is one way I’m holding the doors open for others… getting us into those rooms.”
Our conversation ticked forward pleasantly through the evening, but we eventually decided it was getting late and that we should leave. Before we made our way out, I asked to take in the art once more— knowing, without an ounce of irony, that I might never see these works again.
While shifting my weight from side to side, admiring how Tyoin Ojih Odutola manipulated ink to form a figure that danced in the light, I said quietly, “Can you imagine having this, ALL OF THIS, inside of you and not being able to let it out because of something as stupid as race?!”
I looked at him for an answer, and he was already looking at me. He nodded. “Yes,” he said, “It’s an injustice. And we need to correct that injustice. And that work starts with knowing what other people are doing, and then figuring out what you can do to help them.”
We left the house and stepped into the humid silence of New York City. As we walked, I rolled his comment around in my head. When we reached the corner after which we’d go our separate ways, I asked him how he came to understand that injustice is corrected by making the personal decision to help others.
He said he lived his way into the understanding, and that now he strives to use his time with people “to show them-- sometimes subtly, sometimes explicitly-- the many ways that they have power.” I realized in that moment, that that’s exactly what he’d done for me.
I thanked him for the evening and for the conversation. We hugged goodnight, and he held me until I let go.
New York City, NY, USA
Visit the links below to learn more about the extraordinary artists mentioned in this piece, as well as a few others you should know about.
Njideka Akunyili Crosby: http://www.njidekaakunyilicrosby.com/
Tyoin Ojih Odutola: http://www.jackshainman.com/artists/toyin-odutola/
Derrick Adams: http://www.derrickadams.com/
Kehinde Wiley: https://kehindewiley.com/works/
Lynette Yiadom-Boakye: https://www.jackshainman.com/artists/lynette-yiadom-boakye/
Hugo McCloud: https://www.skny.com/artists/hugo-mccloud
Simphiwe Ndzube: https://www.simphiwendzube.com/
Simone Yvette Leigh: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/08/29/arts/design/simone-leigh-sculpture-high-line.html
Robert Pruitt: http://koplindelrio.com/robert-pruitt/