'The Time Is Finally Right' For Black Artists To Capitalize On Opportunities
Back in middle school and high school, the Charlotte artist known as Dammit Wesley learned all about Vincent Van Gogh. He learned about the French Impressionist’s tortured life and his style of painting.
It was completely uninspiring.
“I can’t relate to (him),” Wesley said. “He didn't look like me. I ain't never been to Europe. I wasn't from France. I don't care anything about the movement. I just knew he could paint. And I really didn't like his style of painting because it didn't speak to me having a background in African American studies or just being Black, being urban, being surrounded by graffiti and stuff.
“It didn't speak to me. And so I was taught to appreciate values and aesthetics that were not natural to the person that I was.”
Wesley and his business partner, photographer Will Jenkins (also known as SimplisticPhobia), are embracing the opportunity they now have to show the Charlotte art world that creators can look just like them: Black men who are successful entrepreneurs and see the world differently than their white counterparts.
Wesley and Jenkins own BLKMRKTCLT, an art studio and event space in Camp North End that they’ve labeled “a collective of BLK culture.”
They were instrumental in organizing the Black Lives Matter mural painted on Tryon Street in uptown, and recently concluded “UNTITLED,” a street exhibition displaying works from local artists of color. They just started work on “We Are Hip Hop,” a Blumenthal Arts project that celebrates hip-hop culture and artists.
“I've done several interviews and said the pandemic and all of this, the racial tension has been a bit of a blessing to us,” Wesley said. “Like, it's kinda (messed) up that we had to wait for the end of the world for white people to start listening to us and allowing us to tell our stories, unfiltered and uncensored.
“But the time is finally right. And I think people have gotten over the fact that there are uncomfortable truths that they have to deal with.”
They create art that is vibrant and provocative and unlike what mainstream, white Americans might see anywhere else.
But they know that it’s important for them to continue creating right now, despite a pandemic that has limited visitors to BLKMRKTCLT.
“Art and creativity is what's getting people through the coronavirus right now, honestly,” Jenkins said. “Whether it's watching DJs live on Instagram or just TV, itself, in general. People need to see us creating just so that way they don't sit back and feel like they're going to fall into a rut because they can't go out of the house. You can still do stuff now. It's just you just have to be different and strategic about the way you move.”
They’ve shifted to a lot of outdoor exhibits and displays amid the coronavirus, but Wesley and Jenkins haven’t stopped creating because they know it’s important for others to see their work now more than ever.
“There are so many people out here that are desperately trying to pursue their dreams. And we don't know a lot of things are possible until we see people that look like us doing those things,” Wesley said.
“So, for me and Will, we like to create set patterns of behavior that can be emulated. We don't work in a vacuum. By no means are we trying to be out here operating on our own. It doesn't profit us to be the only Black-owned art gallery in Charlotte. We don't need to be the only brothers of color out here creating art and curating art. In order to cultivate a community, it needs to be other leaders, other participants doing those type of things.”
In the wake of a summer of protests against systemic racism in Charlotte and across the country, people have been supporting Black-owned businesses like BLKMRKTCLT more and more.
Wesley isn’t afraid to say it’s about time.
“It is what it is,” he said. “It's just now that finally our white counterparts are able to actually see the things that we are suffering from. And there has been a bit of a fire lit under their (butts) to change some of these circumstances in which we have to live and operate in.”
This story originally appeared in WFAE's weekly arts and entertainment email newsletter, Tapestry. Subscribe here.