North Nashville

North Nashville “Parlour” Recalls When the Harlem Renaissance Came South

At October nips at our heels, Nashville art lovers may be hard pressed to choose between a plethora of events featuring artists, performers, and creative leaders this month. Saturday evening will be all about North Nashville as galleries, restaurants, and shops open their doors for the Jefferson Street Art Crawl, followed by Art History Class Lifestyle Lounge and Gallery’s first in a series of interactive talks dubbed “The Parlour.”  

Modeled after those of the Harlem Renaissance, the salon will include readings, discussion, entertainment, and cuisine. It’s no secret that the Harlem Renaissance brought the voices, stories, and artistic expressions of Black Americans to the forefront of cultural exchange in the 1920s, but few know the history of its migration to the South. According to the gallery’s invite:

Unfortunately, the Great Depression (1929-1939) dried up the financial wellspring of support it so need to thrive. Many of those MONUMENTAL figures of that period moved back to the South for the accommodating cost of living. North Nashville became the home of such notables such as James Weldon Johnson, Aaron Douglas, and Arna Bontemps.

The discussion will center around photographer Carl Van Vechten, the namesake of Fisk University’s art gallery, and the invitation suggests visiting the gallery to see an exhibition of Van Vechten’s work prior to the event as a “pre-study.” (Let’s pause to appreciate thoughtful study and dialogue right now.) Van Vechten was a patron of the Harlem Renaissance, and it’s likely that the iconic images you conjure of Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston or Jacob Lawrence were shot by his camera. While you’re there, check out another event, Creatives’ Day.

Founding director and curator of Art History Class, Thaxton Waters, has become somewhat of an institution in North Nashville, especially since his gallery lost its brick and mortar location at the start of summer. Waters opened the salon in 2014 to provide what he calls a “Re-presentation of North Nashville” that’s dedicated to preserving the cultural and artistic history of Jefferson Street and the surrounding HBCUs while helping it thrive. After two years, the building couldn’t contain the gallery’s growth, and the landlord was unwilling to make necessary repairs. But fans soon realized that Art History Class is not one gallery or building but a spirit that has long existed in North Nashville; Waters just gave it a place to thrive.

It has been recognized with a Community Award by Spread Luv 615 and Jefferson Street Urban Merchant Partnerships with a New Business Award in 2014. Thaxton and the gallery have been written about in Native, BURNAWAY and Nashville Scene. In fact, I named it Best Culture Club in this year’s Best of Nashville, just released October 5.

Local activist groups have also taken notice. The group Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ) got out the word for an Art History Class pop-up event last month and sold tickets, raising a total of $750 to go toward the fund for a new gallery. The group says it works “to mobilize white communities to support black-led liberation work.” To that end, it encourages its members to support Waters’ project “as a way to fight gentrification and contribute to the funding of black futures.”

SURJ steering committee member Marie Campbell says, “We recognize that current policies and practices in Nashville’s development projects and tourism industry are promoting gentrification in predominately black neighborhoods, displacing long time residents, while also minimizing black contributions to Nashville’s art, music, and culture both historically and currently.”

When I met Thaxton last year for a Nashville Public Radio story about North Nashville artists, he made his optimism clear: “It’s interesting at the time we’re living in now that the social awareness has risen so our voices are becoming more important. I think it’s a beautiful time right now…It’s a very fertile time for artists…we have a lot to say, a lot to speak about, and to do it through the arts is much more impactful in my opinion.”

As Nashville tunes in to the intersection of art and activism, Metro Arts Commission has been encouraging dialogue about the role of the arts in community building. They just opened up applications for the second Racial Equity in Arts Leadership cadre. The mission of REAL is to “cultivate a shared learning space for Nashville arts leaders to learn and practice new language about race, and to think through larger issues of systematic and institutional racism.”

Since Waters moved out of the Jefferson Street space, it’s been easy to make Art History Class an example of the real-world erasure of communities by gentrification — too easy, in fact. Instead, the salon could be viewed as an example of self-preservation and resistance to gentrification.

Saturday’s Parlour will be a pop-up in McJimsey Center at 2506 Jefferson Street. Get your ticket the “The Parlour” here, and check out how you can support plans for Art History Class’ expansion.

 

Dyin’ by tha Gun! by Marlos E’van Hosts Closing Reception Friday

Marlos E’van’s “Dyin by the Gun!” received such a warm reception that the artist has arranged for a closing reception this Friday, June 24 at 1808 Buchanan Street from 4 p.m. – 6 p.m.

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Photo by Courtney Adair Johnson. 

I interviewed E’van a year ago for NYCnash, and this current work is a full evolution of sketches he showed me last June. “Dyin’ by tha Gun!” includes dozens of large scale paintings and sculptures that reflect our society in the wake of the police killings of Black children, men, and women. He comments on issues within Black communities, the militarization of police, and the epidemic of gun violence in America. Many of the works portray black men as monstrous beings, as savages with cartoonishly enlarged facial features meant to invoke fear.

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“Black Myth#2/wanted” by Marlos E’van

It reminded me immediately of the way Darren Wilson described Michael Brown: as a demon, a Hulk Hogan, who “made like a grunting, like aggravated sound.” In a pair of particularly evocatively paintings, a white cop squares his shoulders, his hands on his gun like a cowboy at a shootout. Just feet away on the floor sits a twisted canvas showing a brown monster-like figure with a broad, vacant smile, moving alongside a camp fire. The “noble savage” beside the defensive cop makes for a juxtaposition difficult to ignore. DSC04666

While I usually argue for subtlety of message, E’van’s work is anything but. And I love it for exactly that reason. His big bold paintings hang from vices strung to pipes that are mounted on the walls. The space is in total disrepair. Open electrical sockets and wiring erupt from the dingy, gray walls. The tile floor shows footprints in dust. I think it speaks to the climate of our art scene that a show willing to take on social issues of immediate poignancy be held in a previously-shuttered industrial space. In many, the canvases are not stretched, but hang against the walls with frayed edges and misshapen angles, as if they can’t be contained.

For white people like myself, it may not feel like a joyride, and if you’re looking for an uplifting message, you won’t find it here. Instead, you’ll find a call to personal responsibility. E’van’s work conveys the immediacy of the racism epidemic that has only grown more volatile over time. He insists that we confront our role in racial injustice and police violence. How are we complicit? How are we affected? How are protected by our privilege?