In Washington DC, Black-owned galleries redefine spaces of belonging in a switching city

About the program of the past century, Washington, DC has positioned itself as a leader in arts and culture. The nation’s capital is home to a community of quite a few dozen museums and galleries, such as additional than 20 devoted primarily to exhibiting visible artwork. Only a handful of galleries are Black-owned.
Mehari Sequar, owner of the eponymous gallery in Northeast Washington, DC, operates one particular of the couple of galleries in the town that focuses on highlighting the lots of levels of Black everyday living. In partnership with head curator Chioma Agbaraji, Sequar is devoted to “articulating global narratives by examining the planet as a result of artwork.” The DC-primarily based true estate developer and artwork enthusiast experienced lengthy dreamed of opening a place that prioritized and celebrated Black artists. The curatorial staff, artists and subjectivity are all of the African diaspora.

“In the typical institution, there are extremely handful of of us that are represented,” Sequar tells CNN. “And I imagine that is a barrier to entry, consciously or subconsciously.”

The Northeast Washington DC Mehari Sequar Gallery opened in 2019. It is situated in the historic H St. Corridor in Ward 6.

The Northeast Washington DC Mehari Sequar Gallery opened in 2019. It is located in the historic H St. Corridor in Ward 6. Credit score: Courtesy High definition Bros

The Mehari Sequar Gallery occupies a dually significant function: possessing area in a traditionally Black metropolis, and preserving Black substance society irrespective of gentrification. Property possession fees among Black citizens have fluctuated, generally trending downward, considering that the late 1990s, when DC — recovering from a monetary disaster — commenced incentivizing hundreds of 1000’s of new inhabitants to buy in the district.
Mounting house taxes and intensifying stress to promote has put White homeownership in the District at a charge about 20% higher than that of the ordinary Black Washingtonian household. The city’s Black populace — when the greater part — fell to an believed 46% by 2019, according to US Census figures.

The job of a gallery

In the frequently opaque planet of art valuation, galleries deliver a immediate route from the artist’s studio to the client. An rising artist staying prominently highlighted in a gallery’s collection often leads to extra visibility in the business.

Because its 2019 inaugural exhibition, “Ain’t heading to explain to you no tale, Ain’t likely to tell you no lie,” showcasing the combined media will work of Jamilla Okubo, the Mehari Sequar Gallery is significantly geared up to back its artists, connecting them to collectors and publicizing their operate. Nowadays, Okubo is represented by the gallery and speaks remarkably of its aid, especially as she grew to become much more selective in her inventive projects.

Okubo tells CNN: “It assisted me start off to be a lot more intentional with my follow as an artist, recognizing that I’m at the stage in my occupation the place I can say no to selected projects and say of course to sure tasks that ended up a lot more in the path of what I want for my career as an artist.”

Providing institutional guidance to rising artists was 1 of Sequar’s primary motivations in opening the gallery. “We hope to be a area in which artists of color can truly feel snug, represented, heard and welcomed. No a person can improved represent us than us.”

Holding and producing space

Far more than 80% of museum management positions are occupied by white people, according to a demographics study done in 2018. Irrespective of initiatives toward diversifying collections, the boards, trustees and directors of lots of of the nation’s most significant artwork institutions nonetheless do not mirror several of their patrons.

The dearth of various voices in executive and conservation roles can make a familiar imbalance of electric power where Black artists exert their imaginative labor for the scrutiny of predominantly White stakeholders. Black purveyors of the arts can challenge this by setting up spaces the place underrepresented resourceful perform is offered to bigger audiences, relatively than placed in competition for places in elusive, a lot less-numerous establishments.

The Art of Noize, a further Washington D.C.-primarily based gallery, implements this mission by lending its space to creating artists across visible and musical mediums. Spouse-and-wife co-homeowners and directors, Tamara and Adrian Ferguson opened the studio after noticing a diminishing presence of reasonably priced, intimate spaces for artists in just the DC region. As lifelong residents of the region, the Fergusons observed the approaches the town was transforming, and required to make certain that the legacy of African-American artistry was accessible to all.

In forming a local community of other Black arts benefactors, Adrian Ferguston tells CNN, he identified a shared priority. “Our popular ground is that we are elevating artists who occur to be Black.”

“We’re not just restricting ourselves to furnishing artwork just for Black persons,” he adds, referring each to his gallery, as very well as Mehari Sequar and 11:Eleven Gallery. “This is beautiful art produced by attractive Black folks, for the globe.”
In the wake of the Black Lives Make any difference movement, some of the country’s largest institutions have tried to cut down white supremacy in the art planet with distinctive exhibitions and range initiatives. Despite the fact that well intentioned, this strategy can outcome in Black artists staying tokenized by reducing their get the job done to thematic collections. Galleries like Sequar’s and Ferguson’s problem the marginalization of Black and brown artists by elevating their creative labor year-round, not just during moments of racial accountability.
Westminister (2020) by SHAN Wallace. 
Wallace's solo exhibition, "derivatives, memory, & the mundane" was on view at Mehari Sequar from May 29 to June 30, 2021.

Westminister (2020) by SHAN Wallace.
Wallace’s solo exhibition, “derivatives, memory, & the mundane” was on perspective at Mehari Sequar from May well 29 to June 30, 2021. Credit rating: Courtesy SHAN Wallace

Photographer and installation artist SHAN Wallace, the most recently showcased artist at Mehari Sequar, files Black everyday living in Baltimore. Her perform is intimately joined to and recognized by fellow users of the Black community.

“I’ve had persons inquire, you know, ‘are you attempting to eradicate the myths of Black people’ or ‘are you creating these photographs to humanize Black people’s ordeals.’ I am not undertaking any of that. Which is not my language,” Wallace tells CNN.

“I’m not contemplating about White persons or the White gaze in my work. I am thinking about Black persons. I’m wondering about communicating with us. I am pondering about supplying balance in a entire world in which we are so imbalanced, in particular when it will come to the photographs, due to the fact of that historical past of White persons coming in and documenting our communities, with no working experience of getting Black, with no comprehension of the cultures and the subcultures.”

Managing this function with care and integrity is a shared duty concerning artist and gallery that Sequar is very considerate about. “I was moved to create this gallery as I felt we necessary to have a little bit far more ownership in the system,” he tells CNN. “If you might be talented, you need to experience relaxed asserting that your function warrants to be in a put these kinds of as this.”

Making a much better artwork earth

The exclusivity and competitiveness that has managed the art environment in excess of the several years, particularly in the large-benefit offering market place, has also held certain communities at a disadvantage. While methods are currently being designed at institutional levels to open up seats at the table, there is some thing to be claimed for the generation of one’s have table. In the metropolis formerly acknowledged as “Chocolate City” for its sturdy African-American populace, the Mehari Sequar Gallery is a person these types of space.

Lending themselves to audiences of shade who have historically been denied entry, this and galleries like it occupy the house concerning imaginative exhibition and social affect. In their ethos, collections, and group developing do the job, they talk to the requirement for Black persons to determine the world in their very own phrases.