Black creatives find surging demand for a new Black aesthetic in Baltimore’s businesses and homes – Baltimore Sun

Black creatives find surging demand for a new Black aesthetic in Baltimore’s businesses and homes – Baltimore Sun

Chris Simon knew he wanted to showcase Black excellence at Blk Swan, a hip new restaurant and bar in Harbor East.

The only way the restaurant owner could imagine doing that was by decorating the space with art made by Black interior designers, artists and other creatives.

“It serves as a bridge for the Black community, as far as seeing faces and representation. People who are non-Black can come into an establishment that is run in a high-end, professional way,” Simon said. “This destigmatizes the misconceptions that they have about Black businesses. They can develop a level of empathy and can eventually develop an alliance.”

In this time of racial reckoning, a renewed emphasis has been placed on the Black aesthetic — whether in the form of Black art and designs or the talents brought to a project by Black creatives who are colored by Black culture. The range of expressions is vast, from ancient African design, tribal nods and animal prints, to contemporary pieces that include photographs, abstract art and every imaginable creation in between.

Just 8% of working U.S. artists are Black, according to a 2014 report by BFAMFAPhD, a collective that advocates for cultural equity. Black artists contribute to a U.S. market that had sales of $21.3 billion in 2020, according to a report commissioned by Art Basel, which stages shows for modern and contemporary art.

The revived interest is similar to the original Black aesthetic movement of the late 1960s, which affected everything from hairstyles and music to art and decor, according to Kaye Whitehead, associate professor of communication and African and African American studies at Loyola University Maryland.

Following the death of George Floyd at the hands of police in 2020 and the resulting racial reckoning nationwide, Whitehead looked for a resurgence in appreciation for Black culture.

“We’re moving away from seeing ourselves through the white gaze,” explained Whitehead, referring to the practice of assuming the viewer is white.

Still, she worries that the wrong people could benefit. She notes that corporations such as Amazon and Target capitalize on Black History Month to attract Black dollars.

“A number of Black folks are benefiting. Will they be able to leverage that for more?” Whitehead asked. “What does justice and equality look like on the other side of the celebration of the Black aesthetic. Is it a moment or a movement?”

Christopher Bedford, who is leaving as director of the Baltimore Museum of Art to become the director of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, has noted the recent growth in attention paid to Black artists. The museum will re-open an installation next month, “Mickalene Thomas: A Moment’s Pleasure,” which honors the Black aesthetics of the 1970s and 1980s.

”We are witnessing a creative renaissance in this country led by a golden generation of Black American artists. Figures like Mark Bradford, Amy Sherald, Mickalene Thomas and Theaster Gates are not only producing the most challenging and relevant art being made today, they are fundamentally changing the definition of what art is and what it can do in and for society,” Bedford said. “Histories formally erased or ignored are being brought to the fore by their efforts.”

Bedford said that as “art exists as part of our shared social fabric, not in a space separate and apart from the world, so it comes as no surprise that the world is paying close attention to what they have to say about race and race relations during such an intense and necessary period of reckoning.”

Cami Walker, a design consultant at the Harbor East location of Arhaus, a national chain of high-end furniture stores, noticed a boom in business during the coronavirus pandemic, particularly among customers requesting African art or art created by Black people.

She also sees a correlation between her Blackness and an increase in customers requesting her interior design services.

“I definitely have interior designers coming in asking for textures and patterns — more tribal patterns,” Walker said. “There’s an invigoration and an energy to it that propels the space and makes it feel like there is movement and energy.”

Walker added that the store can’t keep merchandise by Black artists such as David Ballam in stock due to their popularity.

Christel Curtis of Clarksville said she used Black-inspired decor in her home of 24 years.

“For me, it is the pride and beauty of it. I want [my children] to understand the value in our heritage and culture. I went to an [historically black college or university]. I grew up in South Philadelphia. We always had a strong African American presence in my home.”

Tiffanni Reidy, an interior architect and designer in Northeast Baltimore’s Hamilton Hills, credits several online lists of Black designers circulated by blogs and organizations during the pandemic for driving customers to her business, Reidy Creative. She has helped design spaces at Crust By Mack and the Urban Burger, both eateries, and Layers The Loft, an event space, all in Whitehall Mill near Hampden.

“I have actually gotten emails where people say they want a Black designer,” she said. “It’s very intentional. There are plenty of Black people who have said that. But there are also people who are not Black saying that.”

Most of the projects that Reidy has done as a result of referrals from the lists were positive experiences. One exception, she said, was someone who simply seemed to be trying to hire a designer who was Black or a person of color.

Because a majority of Reidy’s work is focused on renovation and remodeling, she believes customers hire for her expertise, as opposed to her being a Black woman.

For commercial design, where there is “a fuller process and there is furniture involved,” customers use her eye. Past projects have included the use of African prints like mud cloth, a handmade, traditional Malian fabric that is dyed with fermented mud and plants.

Raina Smallwood, a resident of Edmondson Village in Southwest Baltimore, has noticed an increase in the public’s support of Black businesses during the pandemic.

“Folks have been very intentional in getting their goods and what they use. I’ve noticed that it has been trending for a while now,” said Smallwood, who owns Adorn Vintage Furniture in Mount Vernon.

Smallwood also has seen an increase in the use of African prints such as kente cloth and mud cloth, as well as with African masks and other art. Smallwood uses African print fabrics to reupholster furniture.

“It’s not something that has gone off trend,” she said of the continuing support of Black businesses. “There are not a lot of Black-owned furniture stores in Baltimore, so when they come across one, they are really excited.”

Blk Swan opened in May with nods to Black culture throughout. The space is peppered with pieces — mostly in a moody, sleek black-and-white palette. The square pillars in the main dining room feature a slew of photographs that represent a mix of recognizable Black personalities, from the young Venus and Serena Williams to images from the Baltimore uprising following the death of Freddie Gray while in police custody.

Simon, who is also an abstract painter, said the space offers something for everyone.

“They see the pictures of Kamala Harris, Michelle and Barack. It’s a reminder that Black families can be successful,” Simon said. “You see people from Baltimore recognize the picture of one of the basketball team from Dunbar High School.”

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Even the aesthetic of the food plating has been a consideration at the restaurant. Black matte plates and sleek black-colored silverware on a white marble table allow the culinary creations of Chef Saon Brice, who is Black, to stand out.

“We took Black things and presented them in a high-end, sophisticated way. We are going to shape the way that you see Blackness,” Simon said.

Aaron Maybin, a former NFL player turned artist and educator, curated the art offerings at Blk Swan. He said it’s imperative that Black people control how the Black narrative is depicted.

“An emphasis is being made on our narrative for ownership and authenticity. [Simon] was able to do that through the visual aesthetic and partnerships,” Maybin said. “I think that the visual and cultural aesthetic that is present in the space contributes to that experience.

“A lot of the time our people are left out of the historical interpretation of our history. This time we were in the driver’s seat,” he said.

The space will change as new work by Black creatives rotates in, according to Maybin. This month, he will unveil a dozen pieces of artwork from youth at the Hilton Recreation Center in West Baltimore and about 15 new photographs from a variety of Baltimore-based photographers, including Devin Allen.

“These different theme perspectives will add a more well-rounded perspective of our story as a whole,” he explained. “Art has always been the visual, musical and literal expression of our struggle.”