Discovering A New Harlem Underground - Part I
written by Dion Warrick
Social media makes finding new artists easier than ever, which is how I stumbled upon Njideka Akunyili Crosby. Some curator posted her work on Instagram and I was so blown away I hit up my boy Michael. Despite being friends for years, I'd just learned how big into art he was. But that still didn't prepare me for his response. "Oh yeah. We held a show for her...at my place." As it turned out, he and his friends Larry and Ayesha, take turns hosting underground shows that bring together emerging artists of color and a new-school generation of degreed, monied, Black art collectors.
They call them salons, in the same vein as the Harlem Renaissance tradition that supported Black artists, writers and musicians. Each one starts months in advance, beginning with trips to MFA programs in area to scout new talent. There, they befriend their favorite artists, eventually inviting them hold individual showcases in Harlem. If all works out, a dude like me, who believes only the rich can afford master works, might buy one at a price within his budget. And then that painting or sculpture goes on to be worth millions when the artist blows up. Like Njideka did this March.
I caught up with salon founders Michael, Larry and Ayesha to find out more...
INTERVIEW PART 1 (edited for clarity)
D: What inspired you guys to launch art-focused salons out of your homes?
LARRY: It came from a conversation between Michael, Ayesha and myself about how can we create intentional space where we can engage with artists in ways that were thoughtful; where we can introduce things we do on a day to day and talk about all the time to a larger audience that might not know that [engaging with artists] is an option for them. And really just thinking about sanctuary space and/or safe space, where authentic conversations can be had, where you’re not worried if your question is stupid or your response is stupid. It’s like we’re just trying to learn. I learn through talking, and from experiencing things, not just reading.
MICHAEL: A lot of people would come up to me and ask how do you choose what you collect, how did you even get into it. Salons were a way for me to share the artists I was into with more friends, clients and associates that could possibly be interested.
Photography by Rayon RIchards
D: When did you get into art?
MICHAEL: It started through a client. He collected only Black art of all the masters of Charles White, Robert Colescott, Elizabeth Catlett. He had so much and explained all of it to me. It was so fascinating.
Before that, I didn’t really think about Black artists, just the Picassos and the bigger names you expect to see in museums.
Then an art advisor friend at the Studio Museum of Harlem told me to find what I like from Frequency Flow and another book, then let those types of artists shape what I wanted on my walls.
LARRY: It started for me when I was in grad school in Switzerland. On weekends I’d go to museums because it was free. Then I started doing photography in NY as a way to document what I was seeing.
Then I had a friend from undergrad who was doing the Christie’s program, and we just started going to shows together, because I didn’t really know much about artists and he had just immersed himself.
Before grad school, I feel [my interest in art] came from working in the music and advertising industries, which involved culture and visual culture. So [my interest] just shifted from music to ads to visual arts.
I credit [Titus Kaphar], Rashid Johnson and Mickalene Thomas as that turning point in terms of my interest in contemporary artists of color. They were in a group show for House of Campari in Soho in 2008.
[When I saw] artists of color closer to my age expressing themselves, I was like “oh I need to be a part of this, this is cool.” Over time I befriended a lot them and learned a lot. Now I’m trying to provide platforms so other people can engage with artists.
MICHAEL: And I think in our salon series that’s where you get that full picture, where you can talk to them. Njideka Akunyili Crosby brought unfinished work to talk about and what she was doing. So I think our salons break down that wall, allow that conversation to occur and let you feed off what they’re thinking and where you see that artist going.
LARRY: When I think about it now, [Njideka bringing unfinished work] was kinda bold. Artists normally don’t show you unfinished shit, [unless] they turn it around. So that was a very generous space she gave us.
D: Would you say you’re creating a sort of safe space for art?
AYESHA: It’s more we’re creating a safe space for people to have dialogue about stuff that’s important to us that just happens to be explored through art as a conduit. It’s about issues that we deal with because we’re common people. When we hosted Njideka Akunyili Crosby, she was talking about colonialism, and African diasporic experiences, and the way that she expressed those ideas was through her artwork. We were having a conversation not necessarily about the art, but about her experience, and how that related to our experience, too.
D: But why hold salons if you could go somewhere like Studio Museum of Harlem for the same kind of discussion?
LARRY: It’s different. [A Salon] feeds me. To just be amongst people I know, trust, and enjoy, or people that I want to get to know better. Or people that I know need this space in this time because they’re totally immersed in spaces that aren’t nourishing them—which is the reality of living in the city.