Spectrum' brings ZuCot Gallery"s mission to life

Castleberry Hill art house offers space to learn about and invest in African-American art

If you're not an art enthusiast, the idea of hanging out in a gallery can be a little intimidating. But the owners of ZuCot Gallery are hoping to put an end to the unfounded fears.

"People think you have to be an expert [to enjoy an art gallery]," says Onaje Henderson, co-founder of ZuCot. "We're trying to do away with that idea."

Now heading into its fifth year in the Castleberry Hills area, ZuCot is owned by brothers Omari and Onaje Henderson and friend Troy Taylor. Their presence in Atlanta's art scene has been both welcome and enlightening because their take on art is a little different than average.

First off, none of the owners are artists; all three are engineers by trade, specializing in mechanical, chemical, and aerospace engineering, respectively. The Hendersons' father, however, was a painter, so they both fell in love with art at an early age. In fact, Onaje says they were "submerged in art," and after college, the brothers wanted to help their dad with the business side of things.

"We'd take our corporate dollars and rent out galleries for the weekend," Onaje remembers.

From there, the list of talented artists they encountered grew and their weekend forays into the art world expanded so much that they realized they'd have to do it full time. Not long after, the Hendersons met Taylor, who already owned a gallery, and the three formed a partnership that eventually led to the opening of ZuCot in 2010.

One of their main concerns as gallery owners is ensuring everyone, including novice art buyers, feel welcome in their space. More importantly, the Hendersons hope people can understand that loving art isn't a pretentious past time, nor does it require a degree in art history.

"We wanted to make sure our generation becomes art collectors," Onaje says. "We made sure we offered education components to the gallery as well. We talk about how to collect, what to collect, and why."

The other key factor in ZuCot Gallery's educational component is providing a backdrop for black artists to have their work recognized and honored.

"We want African-American works to be respected and seen on the same level of other artists," Onaje says, insisting that thus far, ZuCot's efforts have been well-received.

"We see the value of collecting their work and its relevancy. We use artwork to determine how past generations lived, to discover who they were as a people," Onaje says. "Art speaks to who we are as human beings in a sense, especially with African-American artists. We have a story to tell, a different story than anyone else's and it's grossly under-told in America. That's a niche that we found to be very important and one we wanted to concentrate on."

To that end, their latest exhibition, Spectrum, aims to explore two varying narratives coming from very different artists. Specifically, the 30-piece collection, which runs through mid-August, refers to the spectrum of colors artists use for expression. Featuring the work of Julio Mejia and Steve A. Prince, the connecting element, Onaje says, is all of the art comes from the heart. Prince's work draws mainly from the relationship he has with his wife, while Mejia's work explores the emotions he was left with after surviving the embassy bombings in Peru.

"Everything we have in the gallery has a meaning behind it," Onaje maintains. "We communicate what the artist was thinking with our exhibitions."

Onaje adds that ZuCot is interested in more than simply displaying worthy art, but wants to share what the artists think about their pieces as well, so that potential buyers always have a point of reference. It's all part of the relaxed learning experience offered by the gallery.

"Art is currency," the 36-year-old Onaje stresses, adding that he wants the black community in particular to appreciate the value in art investment. "Specifically, with young people, we don't understand that side of investing," he says. "We have people in the world right now fighting over artwork from World War II. There's an intrinsic value and financial value. We don't collect our own culture. But as human beings we don't collect enough culture in general. That's something we're hoping to help address."

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