In early summer, 15 of the African American Artists Collective’s nearly three dozen members gathered at the Arts Tech center for youth enterprise at 1522 Holmes St. Pictured (from top left to right) Michael Brantley, J. LeRoy Beasley, Michael Tombs, Michelle Beasley, Michael Patton, Jason Piggie and Arthur Newton III. (Front row left to right) Damron Russel Armstrong, Joseph T. Newton, Diallo Javonne French, Eddie Moore, Tyrone Aiken, Clarissa Knighten, Taylor Brown and Sonié Joi Thompson-Ruffin. (photo by Jim Barcus)
Advocating for Black Art in Exhibits and Commissions, Group Members are Making Their Mark on KC Arts Scene
Two years ago, a group of Black artists calling themselves the African American Artists Collective began meeting in Kansas City with the goal of supporting KC’s African American and Black artists on the local, regional and national levels.
Joining Blackspace/Black Art, started by poet Natasha Ria El-Scari, and The Black Arts Network, founded in 2015 by Ramona Davis, the AAAC started in 2014 after an interdisciplinary group of artists met with Congressman Emanuel Cleaver to talk about “the arts as it pertained to the African American arts movement in the city and what we were doing as artists with our practices in the community.”
This founding group included textile artist Nedra Bonds, musician Gerald Dunn, photographer and filmmaker Diallo Javonne French, poet Glenn North, photographer and filmmaker Jason Piggie, textile artist, author and curator Sonié Joi Thompson-Ruffin, and painter and arts educator Michael Toombs.
The organization’s immediate goals include increasing visibility for African American and Black artists within and beyond Kansas City, creating member exhibits and performances, and developing an artist mentoring program.
In the future, they hope to establish a collective endowment and a digital resource library. The group has already launched a website, www.aaac-kc.com, which features a gallery of member portraits and works, as well as video interviews with members Michael Toombs and Jason Piggie.
Since the group was founded, nine of its member artists exhibited in a show curated by Sonié Joi Thompson-Ruffin and Ramona Davis at the Tomahawk Community Center in Overland Park. Opening Sept. 7, an exhibit at the Leedy-Voulkos Art Center curated by Thompson-Ruffin and titled “Cultural Legacy; What’s Going On?” will feature the work of numerous AAAC members.
The visual artists in the group represent a wide variety of artistic interests, from the masterfully representational works of Frank Norfleet, to textiles imbued with history by Thompson-Ruffin, to colorfully abstracted figures by Harold Smith, to mention just a few.
Much of the organization’s energy seems directed toward sharing experiences and professional development and networking opportunities.
According to Thompson-Ruffin, “The goal is to lift each other up.”
Nedra Bonds adds, “Somebody else believing in you can give you so much confidence to do what you want to do.”
Clarissa Knighten has been designing jewelry for 10 years, while continuing to work in the corporate world. Four months ago, she gave up her corporate job to focus on making jewelry full time.
“I learned of the collective in November 2017,” she states. “I wanted to meet other African American artists and learn. This is a very supportive group. They ask, ‘How can we be of assistance?’”
Knighten credits networking done by group members on her behalf for the success of her last home show, where she sold 17 works ahead of time. She also praised AAAC member Ramona Davis for recommending her to serve on the Friends of Art Council, the leadership body of The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art’s Friends of Art membership group.
For many AAAC members, art-making and social activism intertwine closely. In the case of Bonds, her involvement in her community seems more important than treating art as a business to generate income.
“I have difficulty with the concept of art as business. It removes my source of inspiration — what’s going on in the community. How can you make a business out of that?”
She adds, “For example, somebody contacts me because they have fabric to donate, and because they know that I work with fabric. I’ll go pick up the fabric and give it to a community organization, but I can’t deduct mileage for that as a business expense, because the fabric isn’t going into my work.”
AAAC’s advocacy for more opportunities for artists of color is not just about economics. The group also shares a strong commitment to social change.
At an April membership meeting, AAAC members raised questions about the KCMO Municipal Art Commission’s One Percent for Art program and the underrepresentation of artists of color in the program’s commissions.
But members point to some projects that seem to be steps in the right direction. In 2016, Thompson-Ruffin dedicated two glazed-brick public art works at the Kansas City Police Department’s East Patrol Division Station and Crime Lab, a partnership with Helix Architecture + Design. The horizontals, verticals and block-like forms of “Community Dignity” suggest a map or an aerial view of a neighborhood and bring to mind police and community relations. The second piece, “Ineema,” was inspired by the Swahili word for “grace” and features geometric forms that recall textile patterns.
At the same location, poet and AAAC founding member Glenn North contributed a poem as part of his collaborative work with Des Moines-based artist David Dahlquist’s Municipal Art Commission One Percent for Art project. An excerpt of North’s poem appears at the site, and as part of the work’s title, “We are a Bowl: Empty Earthen Vessels Waiting to be Filled.” The poem utilizes bowls as a cross-cultural symbol of community togetherness and relates to the ceramic bowls made at the site by neighborhood participants, reflecting Dahlquist’s training as a ceramic artist. He included many of the bowls as part of the final art work.
The artistic practice of Michael Toombs further highlights the intertwining of art-making and social change in the work of many AAAC artists. For his recent mural in Topeka next to the Brown v. Topeka Board of Education National Historic Site, Toombs made it a priority to hire Topeka-based artists to help him execute the work (see page 108), which offered valuable public art experience to some of the artists for the first time. The mural incorporates drawings by youths, highlighting another of his regular working practices: mentoring the next generation of artists.
AAAC member Tyrone Aiken was involved in the KCMO One Percent for Art selection process during his four-year tenure on the KCMO Board of Parks and Recreation Commissioners. At the AAAC’s April membership meeting, Aiken, now chief artistic officer of Kansas City Friends of Alvin Ailey, offered a key insight about how African American artists are raising the consciousness of Kansas City and the surrounding region: “We’re not asking the same questions that white artists are asking.”