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CREATIVE ARTS: Black Arts in Atlanta

From Benny Andrews to Miya Bailey, the city’s Black creatives continue to innovate in a variety of ways

ACTIVISM THROUGH ART: Mural of John Lewis in Downtown Atlanta. Photo Credit: Lynsey Weatherspoon
Photo credit: Lynsey Weatherspoon
ACTIVISM THROUGH ART: Mural of John Lewis in Downtown Atlanta.

When Creative Loafing published its first issue June 3, 1972, Debby and Elton “Chick” Eason’s goal was to give its readers an insider’s guide to Atlanta, different from that of other publications found in the city. Originally, the paper came out weekly, offering listings of events, happenings, the city’s restaurants, job listings, homes for sale, dating opportunities, and bowling. The paper also provided where to go to find new and original music and comedy shows, along with the best galleries and boutiques around town.

Atlanta’s art scene has grown substantially in the fifty years since CL’s inception. For example, Buckhead’s Miami Circle at one point was known primarily for its novelty design shops; now, it’s one of the city’s epicenters for art, and a meeting place for creativity. In terms of Black art however, in a place where it was once considered non-existent, is now one of the best locations in the country to view, collect and distribute the work of African American artists.

During the publication’s formative years, the city elected its first Black mayor — Maynard Jackson — who established the Bureau of Cultural Affairs, and they selected the artwork showcased at the Atlanta airport. Much of the work highlighted the talent of African American artists, but the city still experienced a lack of representation in regard to painters, sculptors, and photographers of color. Establishments such as Gallerie Illien, Golden Easel, the Poor Man’s Frame Shop and the short-lived Kraskin Gallery were some of the galleries that held work pertaining to the African diaspora.

“There weren’t a lot of Black artists that were reviewed during that time at all,” said Karen Wantuck, former arts writer for Creative Loafing. “There were a few, but it was rare. In terms of a vibrant African American art presence — it just wasn’t there. I don’t know if it is because of prejudice, or if it was strictly just a matter of activity.”

Benny Andrews, Evelyn Mitchell, and Claudia Widdiss were some of the prominent Black creators featured in CL’s paper in the ‘70s, while the Steffen Thomas Museum of Art also contained several pieces by African American painters. But it was with William Arnett’s contributions that would soon bring a worldwide scope to the city’s Black art community. His father’s dry-goods company sparked his early interest in art, which was compounded by his studies on ancient civilizations while in college. After traveling Europe serving in the Air Force, Arnett made a home of Atlanta in 1964. He became a serious collector a few years after, ultimately placing on African art, along with artists born and raised in the nation’s Southern region.

“In the early days of my life, and Creative Loafing’s life, there was not a lot of African American art being presented in the South in general, and specifically in Atlanta,” said Matt Arnett, William’s son, and the director of Grocery on Home. “The little bit that was being presented was being presented at institutions where African Americans were the target audience. There wasn’t a lot of inclusion, to say the least.”

IT’S A CELEBRATION: The NBAF celebrated its 30th anniversary in 2018. Photo Credit: National Black Arts

“Growing up in rural Georgia, my father wanted to expose the next generation of people in Atlanta to a more expansive world than he did,” he added. “It wasn’t really about collecting, it was about broadening the minds and perspectives of people throughout the South, and the world.”

With his expansive art collection, the elder Arnett was able to bring several “vernacular artists,” as he called them, into the mainstream. The artists included in this massive flow of exposure were people such as Leroy Almon, Betty Avery, Thornton Dial, Luster Willis, and Ronald Lockett. In addition to obtaining and distributing some of the premiere works of African and African American creators in the country, William developed a working relationship and long-lasting friendship with the uniquely talented Lonnie Holley.

In connecting with Holley, William was able to further empathize with the struggle of not only Black artists, but Black people in general. Holley’s experiences with prejudice, along with William’s understanding of his philosophy and why he created the art his created, led William on a journey to document and preserve the work of similar artists, and to examine why African American art wasn’t being showcased in a world that relied so much on its culture.

HE(ART) APPRECIATION: William Arnett, 1991. Photo Credit: Bard Wrisley

As in other areas, the 1980s were a time of transition for Creative Loafing, as well as for Atlanta’s burgeoning art scene. The publication’s readership continued to grow, as did the representation of Black artists in the city. This increase in interest, exposure, and activity can also be attributed in part to the creation of the National Black Arts (NBAF) in 1986. Two years later, this nonprofit organization produced the first annual NBAF festival, which throughout its nine days brought in audiences from all over the country, eventually becoming an international draw for art enthusiasts from all walks of life. The NBAF also helped to develop the Celebrate Africa festival in 1994.

The heightened media coverage focusing on Atlanta under went a cataclysmic shift from local to global in 1996 with Atlanta the host city for the 1996 Summer Olympic Games. Atlanta wanted to present the South to the the world, and, in the months preceding the Centennial Olympic Games, artists were commissioned to create works to be displayed throughout the city in over 20 exhibitions in establishments, museums, and galleries, and thereby seen by the world. Yet even with a large spotlight aimed at Georgia’s capital, there was still the belief that creative Black voices still were not being heard, and that the beauty of their art needed to be displayed on a larger scale.

Out of the dozens of exhibits on display that summer during the Olympics, one of the most notable was the exhibition Souls Grown Deep: African American Vernacular Art of the South exhibition. Originally set to be held at the High Museum of Art, it was instead replaced there by Rings: Five Passions in World Art in a move that many saw as another instance of African American art in Atlanta being suppressed. Instead of being shown at The High, Souls Grown Deep opened at City Hall East — the building once known as the southeast distribution center for the Sears, Roebuck and Co. and now the multi-use Ponce City Market — and was lauded by audiences and critics.

“The exhibit was widely praised in articles by Newsweek, The Boston Globe, and The Los Angeles Times, but it was in an ‘out of the way’ location,” Matt Arnett told Creative Loafing. “It was not easily accessible (from the epicenter of the Olympics), and the white art establishment in Atlanta really tried to monopolize the visitation during the Olympics. When dignitaries and the like came to the city, they were all ushered to the High Museum.”

The Souls Grown Deep exhibition brought together a collection of African American artists from rural and urban neighborhoods in the deep South to the capital of the New South Through their pieces, these artists conveyed messages of tradition, struggle, and resilience, all from the Black perspective. This groundbreaking show was also the first time the work of vernacular artists of color were displayed in an organized exhibition. About four years after the departure of the Olympics in Atlanta, a book of the same name was released as both an appreciation for Black creativity below the Mason-Dixon line, as well as a testament to the undeniable influence of the Southern art community.

Souls Grown Deep: African American Vernacular Art, Vol. 1 was published in 2000. The book further examines the cultural impact of African American art, as well as how vehicles such as music are also used to tell stories — and just like art — serve as a representation of how many Black people create largely beautiful things out of nothing at all.

Of course, the power of art is that it can be expressed in many different ways. In the mid-‘90s when Atlanta was establishing itself as the hub for many creative scenes, the art form of tattooing started to bleed into Black culture. I say it like that not because it was something that African Americans had only recently discovered, but because Black tattoo artists were becoming more accepted in the predominantly white craft.

BUY BACK THE BLOCK: Miya Bailey’s Peters Street Station has become the epicenter for Black creativity in Atlanta. Photo Credit: Mary Claire Stewart, 2019

Similar to painting and sketching, tattooing falls into the same realm of visual art, just on a different canvas. The skin’s pliability and the movement of the muscle below the permanent ink makes the complicated piece of art almost seem alive, as if it had a heartbeat. The pain that comes with getting a tattoo is almost symbolic of the Black struggle in America — if you can endure it, something truly special may come of it.

Julia Alphonso’s West End Tattoo was an important piece in the movement of Black tattooing in Atlanta. Out of that establishment came a wave of young, immensely talented Black tattooists — most notably Miya Bailey, who has been featured in Creative Loafing on several occasions. After moving from West End, Bailey founded City of Ink with Tuki Carter, as well as Notch8 Gallery, and the creative behemoth Peters Street Station. PSS is an art and design community center in the Castleberry Hill section of Atlanta. In addition to highlighting tattooists and exposing painters, poets and musicians to a wider audience, the North Carolina-born entrepreneur places a focus on not himself, but others.

“My whole goal is to create new styles of art and to let these younger artists shine,” Bailey states. “I want our culture to be expressed in as many different ways as possible, and I feel that the next generation is fully capable of continuing that.”

That’s the key for any art form to survive, passing on of knowledge, providing resources, and being able to adapt with the times while reflecting the culture. The emergence of the digital age is perhaps the biggest and most important change in the past fifty years. The convenience of seemingly having anything and everything available at your fingertips makes it an amazing time to be alive. If you don’t know something — Google it. Looking for an autographed baseball from your favorite player? Get it on Amazon or eBay. Want to revisit an introspective art piece in Creative Loafing from 2003? Find it online.

As with many great things, balancing out the positives are the negatives. Just as digital mediums and platforms have become integral parts of our lives, print publications have become damn-near obsolete, taking a toll on many newspapers, including Creative Loafing. Like the rest of print media, CL has had to pivot and highlight the art of Atlanta online in ways that may be attractive to a new generation that has never gotten their fingers dirty from newsprint ink. Black art has also expanded from canvases and city walls to a much more interactive experience.

Traveling exhibitions such as Arts, Beats + Lyrics, Pancakes & Booze, and the Black Boy Art Show, have allowed aspiring Black curators the opportunity to construct comprehensive shows without having to go through the traditional route. While Atlanta has been the symbol of progression in many instances, there are still some sectors of the art world unwilling to fully embrace the artists and gallerists of color. But this new generation of DIYers caused disruption in the system and provided further evidence that even in the face of extreme adversity, the intelligence and ingenuity of the Black creative will always forge a path towards tomorrow.

As Creative Loafing celebrates 50 years of publication, one can appreciate its growth from a small publication to becoming a staple in Atlanta, and, one of the country’s most thorough roadmaps of all things cool. This city’s Black arts community has experienced a similar journey, rising from the depths of obscurity to the forefront of cultural innovation. While no one knows what the future holds for the direction of African American art in this city, CL will continue to cover the creatives that push the boundaries of the status quo, whatever that may be. —CL—