The roots of the US black art renaissance: ‘It wouldn’t have been OK in any other city’

When rapper and activist Michael Render, aka Killer Mike, joined the board of the High Museum of Art – the leading art museum of the US south – it became clear that a new cultural movement was making its presence felt in Atlanta. In the past, critics sizing up the talent of Atlanta’s contemporary black artists could probably have named the painter and sculptor Radcliffe Bailey and the visual artist Fahamu Pecou, but might have struggled to describe the wider creative scene. Today, however, the city is being hailed as undergoing what has been dubbed a “New Atlanta Renaissance” .

Render describes the city’s culture as a convergence of art and entertainment fuelled by hip-hop in an era influenced by the legacy of the civil rights movement. “Artists and entertainers hang together the same way they did at Studio 54 in New York in the 1980s,” he says. “I think culturally we’ve been doing that on Auburn Avenue and Edgewood Avenue – that’s where creativity lives here.”

Auburn Avenue was once known as “the richest Negro street in the world” or “black Wall Street”. Home to some of the first major black-owned companies in the US, as well as Martin Luther King Jr’s birthplace and the church at which his father was pastor, it is located in the Sweet Auburn Historic District, an area closely associated with the civil rights movement.

In 2016 Pecou was commissioned to paint a mural on the King Memorial light transit station in Sweet Auburn. The mural, titled Rise Above, portrays a black man flying – Pecou’s interpretation of the African American tradition of overcoming. “Atlanta is magical,” he says. “You can’t be a black person here who has vision and not feed off the ancestral legacy of black people who have done great things and impacted the world.”

This legacy is strongly felt throughout Atlanta’s art scene, with artists and gallery owners actively promoting black history and culture. The black-owned September Gray Fine Art and ZuCot galleries host a roster of black artists, while the Arnika Dawkins Gallery is known for presenting fine art photography by and of African Americans. Spelman College Museum of Fine Art is the only museum in the US dedicated to the works of women in the African diaspora.

Many of Atlanta’s black artists attribute their success to this willingness of black gallery owners to show and promote their work. “As artists we had to put each other on before there were people willing to put us on,” says Dwayne “Dubelyoo” Wright, co-founder with Jabari Graham of Art, Beats + Lyrics, a travelling urban art and music exhibition that recently sold out the city’s Mercedes-Benz stadium.

EuGene Byrd, owner of Future Gallery says black-owned galleries gave him the confidence to continue working. He singles out the ArtsXchange and the African American Panoramic Experience (Apex) Museum, which is dedicated to presenting history from a black perspective. “These are historic black places that embraced me,” he says. “These places kept me painting, and now I have to pay it forward.”

‘It’s important, so we’re doing it’

It was local artists’ enterprising and supportive spirit that caught the attention of the High Museum. As the museum’s curator of modern and contemporary art, Michael Rooks works to reflect Atlanta’s thriving art scene on the museum’s walls – and increase the diversity of its visitors.

“I was brought on because I’m known for bridging the institution with the community, because in my opinion artists are on the frontlines,” Rooks says. “My goal is for the museum collection and contemporary programme to reflect the community – so that, first and foremost, included African American artists here and outside of Atlanta.”

Recently Rooks acquired artist Kara Walker’s 60ft-wide paper-cut piece The Jubilant Martyrs of Obsolescence and Ruin, which portrays the dangers of black stereotypes in the white imagination through imagery of orgies and rape, police brutality and protest. He funded it by tapping into the star power of R&B singer Usher, who hosted a private dinner for donors. “It may have been difficult to acquire a work that’s so provocative in the past,” Rooks says, “but it’s important, so we’re doing it.”

The powerful work of Atlanta photographer Sheila Pree Bright is also part of the High’s permanent collection. Figures from her series Young Americans were reproduced as murals across the city and are slated to be restored for the 2020 reopening of the historic David T. Howard building as a middle school in Sweet Auburn.

“I wheatpasted those Young Americans on buildings in Atlanta in 2013 when Trayvon Martin was killed,” says Bright. “I started thinking young people are going to make the change and that got me thinking about the young people in the civil rights movement that started in Atlanta.”

Bright drew national attention for her transformative photos of the Black Lives Matter movement, capturing protests in Baltimore and Ferguson as well as Atlanta. More recently, her #1960Now series of portraits of modern-day activists followed the line of history she established with 1960 Who, portraits of lesser-known civil rights leaders.

‘It was really about saving their lives’

But not all artists can access galleries or museums. If young creatives did not have dedicated spaces, “the world would use them and their creativity up,” says entrepreneur and artist Miya Bailey, who co-founded the City of Ink tattoo shop and art gallery on Edgewood in 2007. Now known as a driving cultural force in the city it is also a haven for up-and-coming artists. Through the gallery Bailey mentored Paper Frank and Corey Davis, now both well-regarded artists and tattooists in their own rights.

“We wanted to get people off the streets and give them opportunities,” says Bailey. “We’ve created jobs … It was really about saving their lives.” Recently Bailey launched Peters Street Station, a multi-use community arts centre in the predominantly black Castleberry Hill neighbourhood, hoping to give young creatives a place to learn and practise their craft.

Notch8 Gallery, which Bailey opened with partner Sharon Dennehey on Atlanta’s south side in 2015, is already a staple of the Atlanta arts community. His friend Fabian “The Occasional Superstar” Williams showed his thought-provoking exhibition Contraption there in 2016, exploring police brutality through a series of 20 colourful large-scale pieces that evoked political cartoons. Intended to convey a radical message through a non-threatening medium, The show received rave reviews, at a time when the murders of unarmed black men polarised America.

Williams says his form of truth-telling is a privilege that comes with living in Atlanta: a city where artists have the freedom to be unapologetically black. His mural The Paragraphalizer on Edgewood Avenue, for example, explores the miseducation of black children in the US school system. It reflects a growing sentiment in the black community in Atlanta, but Williams says it may not have been welcomed elsewhere.

“I don’t think me doing The Paragraphalizer, confronting education disparities, race and facts about black contributions, would have been OK in any other city,” says Williams. “But Atlanta was like, ‘cool’.”

‘We see something that makes Atlanta magical’

But the legacy that made Atlanta home to the civil rights movement is under threat as developers buy up property in predominantly black neighbourhoods. Sweet Auburn Works is a preservation nonprofit dedicated to the redevelopment, promotion and revitalization of Sweet Auburn by investing in arts, culture and local businesses.

“My role is to support and nurture new leadership, and to ensure we have what we need to revitalize the corridor in way that is reflective and respectful of its legacy,” says board chair Mtamanika Youngblood. “We need to make sure we have consecutive generations of folks to stand up, push the envelope and acknowledge who we are as a people through their work.”

In this way, the New Atlanta Renaissance is also buffering the city against gentrification, stimulating the city’s economy through investment in local art and artists. Such “creative placemaking” serves to preserve Atlanta culture, says Toni Williams, programming director at the Underground Atlanta redevelopment. Before the revamp, Underground Atlanta was a largely abandoned mall downtown, home to small black-owned shops and eateries and a gathering place for young African Americans.

However, by the time it was acquired by developer WRS, it had evolved into a destination for drug dealers and the homeless. The 12-acre property is now being transformed into a six-tower housing development with mid-level retailers and restaurants. Many feel the project is an attempt to gentrify the neighbourhood and drive black people out.

Williams says she understands the concern over the $34.6m sale of the property. Originally from Wichita, Kansas, she believes Atlanta is a powerful influence. “Before I took this job I didn’t know that’s where they held slave auctions,” she says, pointing out of the window of her office to Peachtree Street.

Williams’ primary focus is to keep some semblance of African American culture alive at Underground Atlanta, for the sake of both its sense of place and its history. She partnered with Art, Beats + Lyrics’ Jabari Graham for the Pillars Project, commissioning four local artists to paint pillars of the development. “You can’t stop gentrification, but you can bring culture,” she says. “We are visionaries and we see something that makes Atlanta magical. There’s an overarching culture that Atlanta brings and I want to preserve it.”

Guardian Cities is live in Atlanta for a special series of in-depth reporting. Share your experiences of the city in the comments below, on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram using #GuardianATL, or via email to [email protected]

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