September Gray is the brain behind the eponymous gallery September Gray Fine Art in Atlanta. Her credential as one to reflect on art and the Black art presence started at The Art School at DePaul University, then with an art consultancy business and eventually her own space in Atlanta, where she fills the current void representing African American artists and African Diaspora art. The lack of visibility for Black artists, in Ms. Gray’s opinion, is the most pressing issue she sees in the art space.
Ms. Gray in her Gallery September Gray Fine Art in Atlanta.
How do you see the current field for Black artists? Are things substantially different from a decade ago? How have things evolved?
Things have evolved. There’s always room for growth and opportunities to grow, but they’ve evolved. I think people are trying to diversify their holdings. The institutions, the museums and the art galleries are recognizing more African American artists and giving them opportunities to show their work. Black artists have been around since the beginning of time, but not the visibility.
What are the biggest roadblocks when it comes to visibility?
Opportunities. I think there’s just not enough opportunities. I guess when I think
“roadblocks,” I think about the institutions. You have to have the museums show the works for more emerging and mid-career artists—you can’t keep showing the same artists—you have to open the door and look at other artists outside of the typical European standard. You have to look at who’s collecting the work, who sits on the boards of these institutions and why they’re not acknowledging work outside of the typical Picassos, Matisses or Renoirs. There are emerging Black Masters that just haven’t had the opportunity or the visibility. As a gallerist, it’s your responsibility to ask, “How can I help this emerging or mid-career artist get out in the art world, what are we doing or not doing?”
I think everybody has to take the responsibility, and we can complain about not having the opportunities, but what are we doing? Are we reaching out to the institutions and knocking on the doors and saying, “We really need you to start looking at other artists in the community, in your hometown, in your state, in your city. Why are you not acknowledging these artists and what do we need to do to give them that credibility?”
You mean the work needs to be at the institutional level?
Yes, and often, it’s an individual thing. Because certain museums and certain galleries dictate what’s important in the marketplace, and they often will decide who is an important artist you should collect or pay attention to. There’s more work to be done in widening that scope, like the art fairs—that’s another example where it’s cost prohibitive for some artists to participate—if you have the same galleries participating, showing the same artists, it creates this huge divide. There could be some amazing artists who can’t participate because the cost is too high. They don’t get the exposure and people don’t have more ideas of who these artists are. I think the dynamics of that are changing, but there’s still room to do more, there is still room to grow and give them exposure.
What about having more representation on boards or high-ranking positions within institutions?
Depending on who sits on the board, if the board is not diverse, they don’t want to mix it up too much. They would say, “Well, we’re fine with our holdings and what we’re showing.” But they have to remember you live in a larger world and a larger community, and you want people—I don’t care about your background—you want them to feel welcome to your institutions and feel like they matter, and their stories and their histories matter as well. And obviously, when you don’t show them, you’re saying they don’t matter and are not as important.
Some artists are working through the hurts and pains in the past, but there’s always this feeling of hope and resistance and understanding that generations have gone through so much.
What do you find missing from the current conversation around art?
I think it’s an ongoing conversation. There is not really much missing, we just need to see it, we need to be exposed more to it. Through their art, artists are talking about what’s going on with society, they’re showing our complexities, who we are, our strengths, our weaknesses, our families, our future, our pasts. And that’s that continual conversation, but we’re not so engaged often. We’re not engaged with the work.
Often, people walk into my gallery and they see an abstract piece. They get attracted by the colors, the fabric, the texture, but when I finish telling them the story behind the work and why the artist created it and what each segment or part of that work means, they say “Oh my god”—and that’s the greatness of art. You have an amazing conversation that you would never probably ever have. It brings people together. Even if you differ, it’s a very intellectual way to differ because you respect each other. People aren’t as agitated when you talk through the art—they walk away with knowledge. That’s what’s missing—we don’t walk away with the knowledge. We go in and run through, we look at it, but we’re not really staying there and getting the expert word, spending more time and getting to understand what the artist is saying.
How do you curate and work with different artists and their expression of the Black experience?
There’s the common theme of spirituality and humanity, and harkening back to their ancestors and remembering and not forgetting, trying not to forget where they came from or where they’re going.
And the tribulations and the joy of being Black in this country, the beauty of family, understanding one and other’s humanity of being together. Just like anything else, it’s the beauty of life, the triumphs, the rituals, the hopes and dreams, it’s all of those things enveloped, and being an African American in this world, and navigating it beautifully and coming out more hopeful.
Some artists are working through the hurts and pains in the past, but there’s always this feeling of hope and resistance and understanding that generations have gone through so much, I think they come through like a diamond—you’re shining brightly and you understand your past, you understand that journey, and that’s what makes it so beautiful, to understand your journey. And when you understand your journey, it might give you certain feelings and will pull at you—and you might be, like, oh, this was so hard, it tore at me—but you feel good understanding that and knowing it. I just think that artists can create beauty out of that. Beauty out of circumstances.
About the artists:
Jamele Wright Sr. I’m in love with right now—he’s a textile artist—he’s just incredible. He’s talked about the Great Migration, and a lot of his pieces are about how things in life are in transit. How things come from somewhere else—like this Dutch wax cloth came from the Netherlands, it was sold in the African continent, they wore it, and then you think about the transatlantic slave trade, they came over to the United States. His work also speaks to his parents migrating from the South to the North, again in transit.
And then he paints on top of it, so it’s this connection of life and how we’re always moving, and he paints them organically and lets them take their own shape—and that’s because we’re all unfinished, we’re still a work in progress. And I love that he inserts the Georgia red clay on top of it which, depending on your background, is filled with personal effects to ward off evil spirits and bring good luck—and again, that was something that was transferred over during the transatlantic slave trade to the New World. He’s sharing how we’re always moving in life, and some things come from somewhere else.
JAMELE WRIGHT SR.’S “REBORN #2”, MIXED MEDIA AND GEORGIA RED CLAY ON DUTCH
Kevin Cole is incredible in his sculptural pieces. If you look closely, those are men’s ties. If you’re familiar with the story, he had gone to visit his grandfather and said he didn’t want to vote. His grandfather had him walk out to this oak tree and said, “This is where they hung Black men from their neckties who tried to vote.” Kevin Cole takes the symbolism of that necktie and he creates all these beautiful sculptural pieces, but he’s helping you to remember to vote, don’t forget why we vote, because people died.
The titles of his works are beautiful: Faith, Hope, Moving Forward, True Things. He takes something that was very ugly in history, and makes these sculptures that say, “don’t forget where you came from, don’t forget why you have the freedom to vote because people died giving up that freedom,” and they are absolutely gorgeous. It’s a teachable moment when you have this beautiful piece hanging in your home and people automatically think it has beautiful colors and shapes, and when you share the story, it has more meaning, so they’re very teachable moments.
KEVIN COLE’S “UNSUNG FOR BOB” 2016, MIXED MEDIA ON CANVAS AND WOOD
Frank Schroeder who is in France is a Black artist whose mother was French, his father was West African. He’s inspired by Matisse, Picasso, Basquiat—you can see the strong resemblance in colors and the classic European aesthetic. A lot of his work deals with relationships and love and life and that dynamic of being in a relationship. He also has a body of work that started while seeing the Black Lives Matter episode. He asked, “September, that’s crazy, what’s going on in America?” And he created this work called Black Politics. I said, “Well, I’m sure in France you have similar situations,” and he said, “Yeah, but we just view things so differently, we don’t kill Black people,” and so he couldn’t understand that. He created this big mask—and you know, sometimes we wear this “big mask” in society, we don’t look at what’s behind the mask, and the essence of the person behind that mask is who we are—so he was just really moved by that and it really bothered him, and he wanted to talk about that through his work. But a lot of his work deals with relationships and understanding the human dynamic of relationships.
FRANK SCHROEDER’S “1001 NIGHTS” 2016, ACRYLIC AND OIL STICK ON CANVAS
Danny Simmons is another artist I truly respect. He’s a self-taught artist, his work involves code and aboriginal artists and the African aesthetic—he is incredible as well. I have a lot of respect for him. He’s a philanthropist, a writer who writes poetry. He was in New York and now he’s in Philadelphia, but he has a heart for the community and he’s a huge philanthropist and very giving. He probably doesn’t know this, but I look at him as a mentor because he gives so much back to the community and his work is incredible. And he’s in a lot of shows right now, but I’m very honored to work with him and be a part of his art world, if you will, and have the privilege—his work is just incredible, so that’s another artist I love and respect.
DANNY SIMMONS’S “THE GOLDEN PATH”2016, OIL AND TEXTILE ON CANVAS
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