Gerard Gaskin explains how ethics, rejection and transsexuals,

influenced his 20-year photo essay about intuitive performance artists

Three months before Gerard Gaskin’s first photography book rolls off the press, we linked up via Skype to touch base amidst the flurry of activity around his monumental moment.  He was in Syracuse, New York, his new home.  I was at a juice bar in North Miami.  In the twenty years we’ve known each other, we’re more familiar with chatting long distance than in person.  Before the book launches I wanted to tour his mental journal for insights to his process while developing his documentary project into the book, Legendary: Inside the House Ballroom Scene (Duke University Press; U$45).

A book symbolizes the pinnacle of a photographer’s career.  Gaskin, originally from Trinidad and a graduate of Hunter College in New York, has been devoted to honing his craft and shaping his legacy.  He won a New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship, exhibited at the Brooklyn Museum, and his work is in the permanent collection of the Museum of the City of New York.  He began documenting the House Ballroom scene in 1993, it’s now a book because he won the 2012 Center for Documentary Studies/Honickman First Book Prize.

We’re both at that station in life where paying forward our knowledge is a priority.  In that spirit, Gaskin, 45, shares insights from his experience creating this work to serve aspiring documentary photographers in and beyond the Caribbean.

First, here’s an indoctrination to the culture Gaskin embraced to record ‘Legendary’:  The House Ballroom scene dates to the 1970s and was born in Harlem, New York.  The vogue dance style branded by this subculture, started as the Pop Dip anmy book 5119710a28a copyd Spin performed by gay inmates at Rikers Island.  Today, House Balls are where gay black and Latino city kids, who are often high school educated intuitive artists, stage theatrical battles in the wee hours of the morning to earn street creds for having an incomparable avante garde aesthetic.

House Balls borrow the choreographed storytelling of Broadway to present the gratuitous exhibitionism of Miami Beach and the narcissism of Paris Couture Week, in order to elicit the spirited frenzy of Rio Carnival.  House Balls start at midnight and require seven hours to allow contenders from various Houses in four categories: Butch Queens, Femme Queens, Butches and Women, to work the judges for the coveted ‘10’ scorecards.  There aren’t any deep-pocket sponsors of the arts invested in validating the dramatic portrayals and dance battles that unfold on makeshift runways as performance art.  Yet, House Balls have spread across the U.S. like kudzu and have over 30,000 followers.  Gaskin has photographed Balls in Los Angeles, Boston, New York, Chicago, Atlanta, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C.  Here are his shoot notes, each packed with a useful take-away:

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Follow as Inspiration Shifts: “I would hang out on 42nd Street (in NYC), near a peep show on 8th Avenue; it’s a place where the ‘girls’ of the Ball scene worked.  The Ballroom project started with me wanting to do portraits of femme queens (transsexuals).  At that point the hottest photographer in the US was Annie Leibowitz, she was doing amazing Amex ads and work for Vanity Fair.  I wanted to do Vanity Fair portraits of femme queens—very stylized.  It wasn’t supposed to be very documentary driven.”

Establish Mental Focus: “I always think that access was the thing every photographer tries to get.”  (It took Gaskin six years to attain full access in this community.)  “Going to the Balls, I try not to think about too much.  When I started photographing the Balls all I did was shoot as much as I can.  When I started laying out pictures, I started to figure out what I don’t have. That became a routine.  What iconic image do I want to create.  Then I would get one, but if I didn’t like it.  I would go back and ask where do I need to be to make the image better.  Those were things I thought about before I got to a Ball.  I like to get to the Ball early, when the doors open I want to be there.  Sometimes I just photograph trophies on the stage or [folks] getting ready.  Being there for the duration was what I was there to do.”

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Define Your Motivation: “The thing that drove me to the Ballroom scene is my exploration around sexuality.  I have a cousin who was born on the same day, he lives in Toronto and he came out.  He was shunned by my family.  It’s interesting how my family dealt with sexuality.  My family is a really religious catholic family.  Homosexuality is a really strange thing.  In turn, I wanted to deal with that idea.  That was the beginning of me seeking out the project.”

Rejection Isn’t Defeat: “There are 30,000 ‘kids’ in this scene, one ‘kid’ saying no doesn’t cancel a project.  I just turn my camera away, and walk away.  I have photographs of people who allowed me to take their picture, but when the book was coming around and I was [seeking] permission to use their picture in the book—they flatly told me no!  Balls are still a scene where people are afraid to be seen.  Though many are much more comfortable with having their picture taken [than ten years ago].”

Identify Ethical Boundaries: “The idea of the photo essay has changed Imagebecause of how scripted reality TV is, it’s more structured to tell a point.  [Editors] are not interested in allowing people to do what they want to do.  When clients call me, a magazine is not going to send you to shoot somebody for two weeks.  They have structured ideas that they ultimately want from that person.  [They might] say, we want them getting ready in the morning, so we literally stage that idea.  Or they want them interacting with children, we stage that idea, too.  If someone is putting on makeup and they’re done and ready to go, but I wanted that image, I ask them to re-do it.  They don’t need to take off their makeup and put it back on.  But I want them to act like they’re putting on makeup again.  In the ’90s I wouldn’t do that.”

Learn Guerrilla Marketing: “When I started shopping this book I had a box of photographs, an artist statement, a book proposal answering certain questions: who’s going to buy the book, who’s my target audience.  People would say, we’re interested but what does it look like.  Around 2006, I made the dummy, [it] was 6” x 8” with 50 pages.  Almost everything in the dummy is in the final book.  You need to create a dummy digitally.  Publishers want you to have an audience, they want pre-sale.  You have to have a timeline and raise money yourself.  It’s easier to do guerrilla marketing yourself than to have some marketing firm think they know your audience.  I was about to launch a video [to post on] Kickstarter.  They told me not to launch between Christmas and February because no one gives money then.  I was waiting to launch my Kickstarter project, and Duke called and said I won.”

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Photography courtesy Gerard Gaskin.

Sculpted for Eternity

Nijel Binns Sculpted Creative Encounters with

Jackie Chan, Michael Jackson and Stevie Wonder

She’s the only cornrow-wearing Black woman in the world who stands 16-feet-tall and embodies aesthetic attributes of Asian, African, Native American and European people.  She’s part mythical goddess, part urban princess whose presence in the south-central district of Watts was intended as a symbol to urge community healing after the infamous Los Angeles riots of 1992.  Every enduring gesture of The Mother of Humanity™, as she’s called by her creator Nijel Binns, offers thoughtful symbolism: She holds “a feather of peace found not only in Native American culture but it was used by the Egyptian goddess Maat,” shared Binns, “her left breast is concealed while the other is exposed, not for pornographic nature […] in the Amazon women warriors used bow and arrows and amputated their left breast to make it easier to draw their bow—the breast is symbolic of the source of mineral resources for all humanity, and her form is modeled on the continent of Africa that is sublimely established in her shape.”  This graceful two-ton monument, valued at U$200,000, would be followed by six reproductions to be placed in Africa, Australia, Brazil, China, India and Spain if this portrait sculptor’s vision is ever realized.

For Binns, The Mother of Humanity™ is a testimony that the art of figurative sculpting isn’t confined to creating portrayals of living or deceased heroes.  Binns, a native of Battersea, England, spent four years in Mandeville, Jamaica before migrating to Newark, New Jersey in 1963.  “My first exposure to sculpting was at St Benedict’s Preparatory [in 1971], I fashioned a hand flashing a peace sign that I finished in antique gold.”  Being highlighted for his talent in a Newark newspaper inspired Binns to explore his artistic ability.  But his first professional sculpture wasn’t executed until 1990.

“I’m an anomaly in many ways: I’m self-taught as a sculptor and as a writer,” shared Binns, who tutored himself in ancient Egyptian history, Greek sculpture and the Renaissance period.  “I did one semester at Montclair State College in New Jersey, I learned to draw lines and squiggly circles and felt that was not for me.”  Binns traded college for four years in the U.S. Air Force, with the intent of entering the film industry.  “I became a stuntman in Jackie Chan’s first American film The Big Brawl.  Being a stuntman and fight coordinator was his priority until he decided to create a 3/4 life-size bust of Michael Jackson.

“It was clay with a ceramic gold finish,” he recalls, “I gave it as a gift to Joseph Jackson [Michael’s dad].”  A photo of that statue and a thank you note from Joseph Jackson that read: “In acknowledgement of the gold statue of Michael that you sculpted for my family, I express sincerest appreciation.  Your work is a pleasure to own.  I find the statue is beautifully detailed and well crafted.  It captures the likeness of Michael very well.”  That note was in Binns’ folio during a chance meeting in 1990 with Stan Hilas of The Fitzgerald Hartley Company, who was searching for a sculptor to create a bronze figure of Michael Jackson.

That note and photograph, coupled with being prepared for the opportunity, secured the commission to create the Artist of the Decade Award that was presented to Michael Jackson by CBS/Epic executives Tommy Motolla and Dave Glew.  That year, Binns was retained by Motown to create the Maasai Princess, a 18K gold-plated bronze statue valued at $75,000, that was presented to Stevie Wonder on the occasion of his 40th birthday.  Among Binns’ other illustrious commissions is a bronze bust of John W. Mack, former president of the LA Urban League, and the first bronze monument of actress Shirley Temple for a daycare center that bears her name at Fox Studios in Century City, California.

From a piece of clay to a silicon mold to a wax form for a ceramic shell in which molten metal is poured, the process of crafting a bronze bust can consume four months and requires painstaking attention to details.  Binns scours photographs of his subjects taken from all angles in search of the expression that “captures the soul of the person.”  He passes on his ‘love of beauty’ through sculpting classes at his Los Angeles studio.

In spite of his impressive commissions, the creative life for Binns is peppered with struggle and angst.  “I manufacture for eternity,” he said, “most people don’t see the value in that.  I usually have to initiate projects for people to say, ‘Oh, yeah I need that.’  If there’s a Nate Holden Performing Arts Center there should be a statue of Nate Holden not just a name on a building.”  One can say the same for the Martin Luther King Jr. memorial site.  Songwriter and music producer Joshua Thompson of Tallest Tree Music attests, “[Nijel’s] a living master who has trained with masters, he’s nearing his peak and is someone the world ought to notice.  When you see how people react [with amazement] to the accuracy of his work that impact is what art is supposed to do.”

© SEANDRAKES

Previously published.

[ 404.654.0859  |  SEANDRAKESPHOTO@gmail.com ]

Savvy Sailor

Frugal comrades discover how teamwork

can get you more boat for less money

Anchoring a boat for seven months adds up to a tidy sum of money down the drain, so Jerome Abernathy didn’t idle on the idea to enter a co-ownership arrangement for his second boat.  At the 2001 Annapolis Boat Show, Abernathy, a hedge fund manager with Stonebrook Structured Products, and his friend Arnold Mintz, executive vice president of Asset Alliance Corporation, found a new Beneteau 473 worthy of their $300,000 investment.  “Arnold used to own a sail boat, one day while sailing my old yacht we hatched the idea of buying a larger vessel together,” recalled Abernathy.  “It is less expensive to own a larger boat in a partnership than to own a smaller one by yourself.”  Abernathy’s first boat [“Noe”] was a Beneteau 36cc that swallowed $9,000 per year for maintenance, insurance, and dockage fees.  In contrast, he drops $6,000 into “Victory” every six months.

BEFORE YOU BUY.  The type of waters and distances you intend to sail informs the type of boat you buy.  “Sailboats are the original hybrid vehicles,” said Abernathy.  “You have sails and (usually) a diesel engine for propulsion and electricity generation.  When sailing you rely on a bank of batteries for electricity, often, a sailboat will have solar cells or a windmill to recharge its batteries.  Sailboats are very stable, it is not unusual for a 25-foot sailboat to cross the ocean.  Power boats, [however] rely solely on an engine for propulsion and usually are not stable enough for sailing open seas, and are much more expensive to operate.”  Abernathy added, “to go cruising or to sea, you should consider a boat greater than 30-feet with a proper galley (kitchen) and head (bathroom).”

Jerome Abernathy on Victory in New York.

SAILOR 101.  Abernathy has raced from Charleston, South Carolina to Bermuda and does monthly day-sails from his homeport in Mamaroneck, New York to Newport, Rhode Island and Essex, Connecticut.  Before boarding to sail any distance it’s imperative to acquire sailor 101 knowledge.  Although Abernathy and Mintz were seasoned sailors, he said, “our dealer spent many hours teaching us the boat’s systems.”  “I highly recommend courses that follow the American Sailing Association’s curriculum [which teaches] basic sailing, navigation, weather forecasting, and emergency rescue procedures.”  Abernathy advises, “Take an ASA Basic Keelboat course, join a local sailing club to gain experience on smaller boats like the J24, and volunteer to crew on a race boat return delivery.”  He also advocates attending boat shows, vacationing on a chartered yacht with a group, and subscribing to Sail and Cruising World magazines and Practical Sailor newsletter.   As you consider upgrading your boat, Abernathy suggests keeping current on “sailing techniques, technology changes and new equipment offerings.”

ADDED VALUE.  Camaraderie and spending less time on upkeep are benefits of co-ownership to Abernathy who says having “compatible uses for the boat” was important in his decision, as was having a written agreement that clearly articulates the terms of the partnership.  “A new boat will depreciate, but not as fast as cars,” said Abernathy, “and electronic systems such as radar and GPS will likely need maintenance early on.”  After initial depreciation—depending on how well you maintain your craft, the manufacturer and model—a boat actually increases in value.  According to Abernathy, “If your boat has a galley and head, your boat loan can qualify for second-home tax treatment, which considerably lowers the cost of ownership.”   For even more savings, consider mooring your boat (tethering to an offshore anchor) for roughly $100 per month, compared to paying $300 – $690 to dock it.

© SEAN DRAKES
all reproduction rights reserved

Previously published.

[ 404.654.0859  |  seandrakesphoto@gmail.com ]

Master of the Game

Chess whiz offers the right

moves to get you in the game


Long before Maurice Ashley attained the illustrious rank of International  Grandmaster of Chess in 1999 from the World Chess Federation (FIDE), he was impassioned about attracting young minds to one of the world’s most popular games of strategy.  “I want people to think of chess the way they think about tennis and golf,” offers Ashley, “with big tournaments and big prizes, so those who want to pursue chess as a career can do so without worrying about making a living.”

Ashley’s organization, Generation Chess, nurtures the skills of specially talented kids, and hosted the HB Global Chess Challenge at the Minneapolis Convention Center in Minnesota which offered the largest cash prize ever for an Open chess tournament.  After years of deferring his dream, Ashley, a Jamaican national based in Queens, New York, siphoned inspiration from Tiger Woods‘ historic impact on the game of golf, and renewed his devotion to the sport of chess.  As a Grandmaster, Ashley is in an elite league shared by roughly 800 other players in the world.  He made history again in January 2003 as the first African American to qualify for the U.S. Chess Championship since the tournament’s inception in 1861.

Chess is a descendant of the Indian board game Chaturanga, which was altered as it migrated across Western Europe near the 10th century.  The game as we know it today was born near 1475.  The “complexity and never-ending freshness” of chess keeps Ashley, 38, amped as he commentates on tournaments for ESPN and grooms future Grandmasters through his work in schools.  There are over 500 million amateur and pro chess players worldwide, the popularity of this sport is rivaled only by soccer, and you can get in the game at any age.

“The best way to get started is to crack open a book,” advises Ashley.  His reading recommendations include Logical Chess: Move by Move by Irving Chernev (B.T. Batsford; $21.95), Bobby Fischer Teaches Chess by Bobby Fischer (Bantam; $7.19), and My System by Aron Nimzowitsch (Hays Publishing; $14.87).  “It [helps] to have a practice partner you can play against frequently,” adds Ashley, who authored Chess for Success.  Traditional chess clubs are a dying species being replaced by online chess playing websites like Internet Chess Club.  Once you’ve been reading and practicing six months, you should venture into the tournament scene where player registration ranges from U$15 – U$280.  Visit the U.S. Chess Federation’s website for tournament listings.

To achieve growth in the game, players must perfect a skills set comprised of “patience, determination, and the willingness to treat failure and loss as motivation to learn,” guides Ashley.  The benefits for avid players are as rewarding as the cash prize incentives.  “Studies show that [chess] helps kids read better and boosts their self-esteem,” adds Ashley.  “Chess helps you become a better problem solver, improves concentration and critical thinking skills, and sharpens your mental focus.”

© SEAN DRAKES

Previously published.

[ 404.654.0859  |  SEANDRAKESPHOTO@gmail.com ]

The Polished Canvas

Shalini is one of the luckiest underexposed artists I have met.  She has a work studio larger than the average one-bedroom Brooklyn apartment, and it’s set on sprawling acreage behind her family’s house in the Central plains on the island of Trinidad.  The spicy, curry aroma that greets us on this Friday afternoon, signals the savory feast her housekeeper has prepared for grateful guests.

Few know that Shalini Seereram, 36, is relentless about being recognized as an original.  To safeguard that objective she fervently budgets how much art by other artists she consumes.  “I don’t mingle much with similar artists.  I would go to [their] show, but I’d rather get to know the people rather than the art.  I don’t really like to hobnob at certain shows.  I would go the day [after opening night].  I don’t want their style to entirely influence me,” she reasons.

The subjects in the paintings she dreams up to illustrate magazine editorials and to realize her imagination, bear three trademarks: intense colors, bold, crisp lines, and yoga-like contortions.  Shalini considers herself “mostly self-taught,” though she studied jewelry design with precious metals and graphic design at John Donaldson Technical Institute in Port of Spain.  She explored “everything from sketching to photography” during her enrollment.  “I got exposed to so much that it was overwhelming.”  She adds, “The commercial art program encouraged me to be adventurous.  I was influenced by Christopher Cozier; he was my tutor for two years at John D.”  Shalini was 20 when she graduated to pursue a career.  “I had this passion for art without [a] specific direction.  I just knew art would be a part of my life.”

Studying jewelry design grew from wanting to create three-dimensional work, but she was unwilling to subject her creativity to the compromise that comes with making bangles and chains based on someone else’s vision.  “[The] perception [that] we are still people who are toting water all over the place, living in old chattel houses, hanging up washed clothes while looking at barren cane fields … I am not into that (she smirks).  We are more than that.”  You won’t find humble wooden homes and sun-kissed clotheslines in a Shalini original.  “I am not going to sell myself that short.”

Two years ago Shalini noticed her work started to reflect her East Indian heritage.  “My subjects are not entirely distinguished as Indian or African, at first.  I started to paint people not regarding ethnicity as much  All of a sudden the fine detailing that I like started to creep out of me; and I [became] more exposed to fabrics and colors of the Indian culture,”  She explains.  “That’s where I am in 2007 with my process.”

Among Shalini’s 19 exhibitions, her 2006 “Rite of Passage” show that was installed in Trinidad then Washington, D.C. is a stand-out because with that collection she “explored a sensual side of Indian culture.”  That show also offered her the most memorable exhibition experience:  “A guy came up to me and told me he sold his Jackie Hinkson to buy my piece [for about U$1,500].”  Shalini admires Gustav Klimt‘s use of gold in his work, and Modigliani; she discovered both artists after receiving compliments that likened her style to those icons.  She also admires how Carlisle Harris uses color and Glasgow’s application technique.  Shalini defends her approach to abstract painting as original, and questions why she should “feel proud” that her work invokes Matisse or Picasso for some.

Ashraph, a fellow artist, Renelle, Shalini’s confidante, and I browse unframed early works as Shalini opens shutters as gentle rains drift from Chandernagore Village.  Some of her 12 adopted dogs stretch near the door.  She says they each strolled onto her yard, one after another.  And claimed a piece of her warm heart.  A work-in-progress awaits on a tabletop easel near dozens of bottles of vivid nail lacquer.  Larger works hang near a shiny, black boxing bag.

Shalini believes she has crossed  the starting line during the 15 years she’s been in the marketplace, yet she is restrained.  “I could be holding myself back not knowing the next step.”  She wants to be a serious player in the fine art world, but is yet to refine and train her strategy on a prize.  “I get up in the morning and I sketch.  If I leave home I carry a sketchbook; I sketch, I sketch, I sketch.”  Few sketches reach completion without delay or the catalyst of an exhibition deadline.   Ashraph confronts her anguish: “You need to step out of your comfort zone.”  “I don’t know how to,” retorts Shalini.

The creative chi that fuels Shalini’s work usually emerges in the dark, lonely night.  She is eccentric, modest, and Hindu.  “I pray for the higher power…the electricity going through our body, and peace and sustenance,” she offers.  “There are others who do deity celebrations.  I don’t, though I would reference the stories and background that deities represent.”  That odd boxing bag is another agent in Shalini’s cleansing and spiritual regimen.

“My dad used to get into fights with me,” she recounts.  “We always butt heads and I would get angry and hit a wall, which is not good for somebody who should insure their hands instead of damage them.”  She found the bag in a mall two years ago and also gets a good cardio workout with it.

Shalini envisions exhibiting across the Caribbean region and beyond, but what her work evolves into and how that work translates are the first evaluations she’ll need.  She notices, “People see my pieces being broken down into stained glass.”  Her urge to explore her creative potential and find durable canvasses for her nail polish paintings, led her to toy with glass panes then old chattel windows.  She found a good fit for what she calls “fusion pieces.”  “I started using $3 nail polish because it was more affordable than paying $46 for a tube of acrylic.”  When working on paper she employs oil and iridescent acrylics, and reserves nail polish for accent areas to satisfy any concern about durability.

Shalini trusts her go-with-the-flow spirit will continue to serve her imagination and career as it did one slow afternoon:  “I was [a graphic artist] at McCann-Erickson Advertising.  One day, I went downstairs to a drugstore and noticed the beautiful colors of nail polish. I bought some polish and started to [paint with] it on matte board.  One polish led to two; before the end of the week I bought 15 colors,” recalls Shalini.  During a later purchase the sales clerk asked: “I am noticing that you come in every day, buy two or three bottles of polish, and you don’t have any on your nails?”  Shalini replied, “Yeah, because I have them on my toes.”

© SEAN DRAKES

Previously published.

[ 404.654.0859  |  seandrakesphoto@gmail.com  ]

In the Mas Camp with K2K

Trinidad Carnival attracts thousands of spectators and has offered inspiration to creative teams at Disney and Cirque du Soleil.  This year, a couture-centric masquerade band presentation by a pair of newcomers sparked hopeful dialogue around the return of innovation to the festival.  Before unleashing their inaugural band onto the streets of Port of Spain, bandleader Karen Norman, one-half of the K2K Alliance creative force, shares a few insights.

Karen Norman at K2K mas camp.

WHAT WAS YOUR BIGGEST FEAR AT THE START OF THE BAND DESIGN PROCESS, WHAT IS YOUR BIGGEST FEAR NOW, THREE WEEKS BEFORE SHOWTIME?

One of the most compelling parts of the design process is stretching our imagination to create a palatable and exciting concept.  Putting pen to paper was the easiest part of the journey.  Exposing the mas and the story to the public was the hard part and one of our greatest fears.  Such thoughts like: ‘Would the concept of fusing mas with fashion be accepted?  Would the onlooker appreciate the story?’ were some of the concerns we shared.  One of the greatest challenges we face today is getting the mas community to sign up for change.  Even though change is one of the things that is constant, it is not always the easiest thing to accept nor, is it the easiest thing to sign up for.  Thus, even three weeks before showtime we are asking those masqueraders who have put away their “mas-shoes” since the dilution of [Wayne] Berkeley and [Peter] Minshall to pick-up their dancing shoes and to revel with K2K.

Masquerader in The Waters on Carnival Tuesday in Port of Spain.WHAT WOULD YOU NOT DO AGAIN?

I was once told that all experiences whether good or bad, leads us to this point in time; to this moment; to the present. Thus, while we would not like to relive any of the challenges that have presented itself over the past 5 years, we would not change anything.

WHAT DOES THIS BAND HOPE TO ACCOMPLISH, OR WHAT MESSAGE WOULD YOU LIKE MOST TO RECEIVE FROM YOUR ENDEAVOR? 

The band hopes to return mas to traditional splendor.  We would like to take our brand to the international runway – open both national and international fashion shows.  We would like to showcase our designs in musicals on Broadway and even in concerts. Maybe one day, when you see Machel [Montano] in concert you will see his team dressed by K2K.  On the international arena, maybe one day we will be the opener for Lady Gaga.  The possibilities are endless.  Minshall showed the world who was Minshall through exposing his talents on several Olympic platforms, we hope to be those Trinidadian twins / women who expose Trinidad mas design to a new arena.

Runway-ready costume prototype at K2K mas camp reception weeks before Carnival.

HOW WAS THE BAND’S NARRATIVE BORN?

In 2012 “water” is used as a metaphor to describe the psychological journey of man.  Life is not just dependent on water, but life is water.  The same way the oceans and seas yield and change, man, too, must adapt as the social and political environment changes.  The same way that water has different temperaments similarly, man is not always even-keeled (e.g., sometimes water is rough and choppy).  Similarly, sometimes we are driven to anger.  Interestingly, while the storyline for “The Waters – Seas of Consciousness”, starts with River Jordan (Birth)–which means when man comes into the world, he is naive.  He is unaware of the social environment and even the political landscape.  On a more personal level, the storyline, our story for 2012 started at the Dead Sea (Ruin).  Ruin is a state-of-mind and can be defined as “the deepest darkest place that man knows”.  And for Kathy and I, ruin was real; it was lonely and dark.  The last two years in New York City has been extremely challenging professionally and emotionally.  In 2010 we each felt like we hit rock bottom.  Creating the band was therapeutic.  It was our redemption.  It helped us to re-assess who we each were.  It also made us realize that while we are shattered, we are not unrepairable.  The band is our re-discovery; our re-invention of self, which is coined as The Saraswati River.

Masqueraders present the band at Queen’s Park Savannah on Carnival Tuesday.

WHAT TRADITIONS(S) IN CARNIVAL DOES YOUR BAND REFERENCE OR USE AS A GUIDELINE/FOUNDATION?

We look toward the great masters such as Minshall and Berkeley for a constant reminder, that you are never too old to dream, and mas design is built by exploring your imagination and not being afraid to dream.

WILL POLITICS OR CURRENT AFFAIRS EVER FUEL YOUR BAND’S NARRATIVE?  

Over the next three years the storyline does not reflect the political environment.  In terms of storytelling we hope to constantly bring a relatable, yet interesting storyline to the table.

Model displays costume and makeup for section of The Waters Carnival band.

WHICH ELEMENTS OF YOUR BAND ARE MANUFACTURED IN T&T, AND HOW MANY ELEMENTS WERE MANUFACTURED IN CHINA?

Much of the costumes are being produced locally.  The goal is to encourage greater use of our locals and employ the talents on the island.

UPON FIRST SIGHT OF YOUR MAS, IT’S IMPOSSIBLE TO IGNORE THE HIGH-FASHION POINT OF VIEW IN YOUR DESIGNS.  WILL THIS APPROACH BE A STAPLE OR WILL THAT SENSIBILITY SHIFT?

Mas, like art, is contemporary.  It should reflect the time.  With that said, the goal of our brand is to keep the designs forward-thinking, fashion-forward and chic.  The fashion arena is not static.  It is constantly evolving and similarly, our brand will morph / evolve as we grow in the arts.

Details of the The Waters mas band by K2K Alliance & Partners.

Band presentation: The Waters – Seas of Consciousness

Bandleaders: Kathy & Karen Norman (K2K Alliance & Partners)

Band size: Medium with 8 sections  |  Membership: U$416 – U$900

Mas camp: 51 Cornelio St., Woodbrook, PoS  |  868-767-9655

© SEAN DRAKES

[ 404.654.0859  |  SEANDRAKESPHOTO@gmail.com ]

Inside the Fine Art Game

The market for fine art by African-Americans reached an exciting and pivotal moment in February 2007.  Swann Auction Galleries in New York City, noted for vintage photographs, prints and drawings, hosted the first sale by a major auction house devoted exclusively to African-American fine art.  Auction sales exceeded Swann’s predictions raking in $2.7 million, seventeen sales records were set, and participation was the largest seen by the auction house, with over 200 attendees.  African-American fine art is being included in major museum exhibitions, documented and discussed, and has emerged as the most actively collected art in the marketplace.  Wangechi Mutu, 39, maintains a waiting list of pre-screened buyers for her next works, and recently sold out before opening night.  Investing in fine art is an enriching pursuit, this primer can help demystify the valuation process, develop your approach to collecting, and dispel the perception that collecting fine art is for the wealthy.

Before Punk Came Funk, 2010, mixed media ink, collage, by Wangenchi Mutu.

Growing awareness grows demand.  “Black art speaks to the black experience and that is what sets it apart,” explains Eric Hanks, art instructor and owner of M. Hanks Gallery in Santa Monica, California.  “The work has to have meaning that doesn’t have to be that deep.  “Bearden [for instance] references his childhood in Pittsburgh and his grandparents who are black.”  According to Hanks, 53, “the early part of the 20th century and the latter part of the 19th century are the eras collectors and museums clamor for” because there is no more of it being made and those works fill historic and aesthetic gaps in American art collections.

“Contemporary art today is about investigation, not accepting boundaries,” says Nigel Freeman, 39, director of Swann’s African-American fine art department.  “Emma Thomas was the first African-American woman to have a retrospective at the Whitney Museum.  She was [a retired teacher] in her 60s when she achieved great fame,” he says.  “I had a 5”x8” paper piece that sold for $16,000, her large canvases command six figures.  “Recently there has been growing awareness through touring museum shows; museums are active in elevating and acquiring works,” shares Freeman.”

Art in black and white.  The Swann sale ignites a new dialogue that explores the implication that these artists’ works cannot stand on the same merit as their European counterparts.  “[Auctions] put [the work] into the marketplace,” says Franklin Sirmans, curator at The Menil Collection in Houston, Texas, “but [the work] can’t be limited to only showing in a racial construct.  What’s the point?!   I don’t think any of those artists created the work for it to only be valued next to other black artists.”  “Swann has taken a very bold and significant step that other auction houses have not,” opines appraiser and art adviser Halima Taha author of Collecting African American Fine Art: Works on Paper and Canvas (Verve Editions; $50.00).

Art appraiser and author Halima Taha at NBAF.

“Sotheby’s and Christies would traditionally include African-American artists, but sporadically.  Not annually, not the same artist.  So there would be sporadic values.  Sales were lower than what the work was actually selling for, in that case auctions were doing a disservice.”  Taha, 46, asserts, “It is extremely important that these artists be included in auctions because the auction is the international marketplace, it’s not a black marketplace, not a white marketplace, not an American marketplace, it’s international.”

Gallery owner Bill Hodges highlights another conundrum when he said a Norman Lewis abstract he has priced at $135,000 would sell for $10 million if it were by Jackson Pollock.  While demand for African American fine art grows, prices are yet to catch an uptick momentum.

The Yellow Hat, oil on canvas, 1936, by Norman Lewis.

The off-the-record whisper from art aficionados is that an African-American artist with white representation stands to attain greater access and exposure, and command higher prices and fatter paychecks as a result.  But Hanks insists, “talent, connections, luck, perseverance and a thick skin” are what artists need to be able to seize the coveted attention of the Whitney, MoMa and Guggenheim.

Fine art game.  To seize an edge, seasoned collectors train an eye on portals for emerging talents such as the Kenkeleba Gallery and Museum of Contemporary Diasporan Arts in New York City, The Hammonds House Museum in Atlanta, The Southside Community Art Center in Chicago, as well as incubators such as the artist-in-residence program at The Studio Museum in Harlem.  Understanding how an emerging artist is transformed to a celebrated voice may influence your approach to buying work by an aspiring talent.  “It’s the collective activity of the artist, the dealers, the collectors, the curators, the critics and the auction houses.  Their interaction with one another enables them to become the cultural and economic arbiters of taste, together that is what propels an artist into the marketplace,” explains Taha.  “One by itself isn’t going to work.  You need dealers to contact the critics and to have relationships with auction houses and major collectors.  That’s the real art game.  [There are] a lot of incredibly talented [artists] but they’re not interacting with curators who are part of that collective activity.”  Collector Brenda Taggart Thompson remarks, “People miss [out on] some important art because [those works] are not supported by the game.” 

Morthyn Brito, 2011, oil on linen by Kehinde Wiley at Art Basel Miami 2011.


History affects value.  A well-rounded collection gives a sense of the various approaches to a particular style.  “Provenance (history of ownership) supports and can increase the value of a piece,” offers Hanks, an art adviser for distinguished actors, doctors and athletes, this document establishes authenticity and identifies previous owners, “if they are famous it will positively impact the value.”  Recently Eldzier Cortor’s Portrait of a Woman, once owned by author Ralph Ellison, fetched $110,000 at auction, it was estimated to sell for $30,000.

You Do, 1993-1994, cut paper on canvas, by Kara Walker.

“When provenance doesn’t pan out and the work seems suspicious it makes the piece seem stolen or fabricated,” shares Hanks.  Appraisers gather provenance but are not obligated to authenticate art.  They are expected to check the Art Loss Registry and the FBI’s registry of stolen works.  “The burden of duty is much greater on the person authenticating the piece than the appraiser.”

Get the right appraisal.  Yolanda and Greg Head of Stone Mountain, Georgia, have been collecting African-American abstraction since 1999, “I have my collection insured,” offers Greg, 49.  “I look at the value over time [by] looking at auctions and auction records.  He also attends the art mart at The Fine Art Fair of the National Black Arts Festival in Atlanta to see what sold.  “It gives me a sense of how my art has escalated; every three to four years I have it appraised.”  Collectors must be clear about their use for an appraisal and disclose that to the appraiser, offers Taha.  Appraisals can be for insurance against loss, inventory or tax benefit when donating art to museums.  Researching the comparable economic analysis is the same for all appraisals, but the approach to mathematical calculations vary, hence, specifying intended use is essential.  An appraiser’s fee schedule ranges $150—$500 per hour depending on their expertise and resources.

Collectors on collecting.  Enthusiasts say ‘buy what you love’ because there is no fault-proof formula for what to buy and when to sell.  Yet most everyone has a faithful strategy for collecting:

Former NBA player Elliot Perry, 38, of Memphis, Tennessee invested 11 years to grow his collection by contemporary and master artists, he investigates a dealer’s reputation and cultivates a relationship with dealers intent on “helping build a collection not just move inventory.”  A good dealer “should have a feel for what you like.”  Another attractive quality is “when a dealer is willing to lose a deal [by advising] you to go elsewhere because another gallery has a better quality piece.”

Rooftops on Wabash, 1938, oil on canvas, by Eldzier Cortor.

“There is a misnomer [that] collectors are plunking down thousands of dollars all at once,” shares Head, “galleries understand they have to ‘work with you,’ the code phrase for payment plan.”  Head reads periodicals like Art in America and the International Review of African-American Art, and suggests shows like Art Basel, Art Off the Main, and Art Chicago to keep abreast of trends.

Brenda Taggart Thompson and husband Larry, of Greenwich, Connecticut, have collected since 1977.  “Books help refine your eye to see beauty in lots of places,” says Brenda, “not just where some gallery has decided it is.”  Thompson’s reference library contains African American Art and Artists by Samella Lewis (University of California Press; $70.00), St. James Guide to Black Artists by Schomburg Center for Research, Afro-American Artists: A Bio-bibliographical Directory by Theresa Cederholm, Two Centuries of Black American Art by David C. Driskell, and history books on American art and photography.

Knowing the history adds value to works and allows collectors to have cross-references when they work with art dealers.  “Attending lectures, going to museums, listening to curators talk about how [shows] are put together,” says Thompson, “are instrumental to a collector’s growth.”  Hanks adds, “look at art wherever it may be, your understanding will improve and your collection will reflect it.”

© SEAN DRAKES

Previously published, edited version in Black Enterprise.

[ 404.654.0859  |  SEANDRAKESPHOTO@gmail.com ]

 

LA Confidential: Brad Johnson fuels a Downtown revival

An appetite for dining out is integral to life in Los Angeles.  It’s pretty common for movie scripts and record deals to get the greenlight over a four-course meal.  For restauranteur Brad Johnson, success in the fine dining sector of the food service industry affords prized access to the pulse of Hollywood.

Brad Johnson atop Windows in Downtown Los Angeles.

Johnson, a native New Yorker, migrated west in 1989 and opened the Roxbury, an immensely popular restaurant and dance club that was immortalized in the movie A Night at the Roxbury.”  His follow-up contributions to LA’s nightlife, Georgia (co-owned by Denzel Washington) then The Sunset Room (both now closed),  helped spark the revival of the Hollywood business district.  These days his passion for dining is invested in Downtown Los Angeles where he manages an impressive net income turnaround for Windows restaurant, which is part of Earvin ‘Magic’ Johnson’s portfolio.

Table at Windows with a drop dead gorgeous view.

When Johnson entertains visitors he avoids the beaten-track.  “I’ve taken friends to classes at Power Yoga, to dine along the Malibu coast, and to The Ivy or the Newsroom where you might find a fair number of [film] industry networkers.”  “I love exploring Chinatown and The Farmer’s Market on Main St. in Santa Monica on Sundays,” adds Johnson, who frequents the nine-mile bike path that starts in Manhattan Beach and snakes along the vibrant Venice Beach boardwalk.  Major boxing events and the uninhibited nightlife in Las Vegas provide an alternative weekend experience for Johnson who manages V Bar at The Venetian resort.  “Jobs and people are always turning over so there’s a constant search for what the next thing is,” he says, “since people [in LA] define themselves by where they go and who they’re sitting next to it’s important to know what place that is at any given time.”

Walt Disney Concert Hall.

Restaurant sales in California in 2005 tipped the $50 billion mark, in 2004 visitors to LA spent $12 billion, and LA ports handled $235 billion in trading activity.  “Obviously the entertainment industry is the hub of the wheel,” shares Johnson, “as for emerging opportunities, LA’s gone through its cycle there are a lot of Downtown developments going up [and fueling the construction industry], but we’re at the tail end of that boom.”  The Staples Center, Museum of Contemporary Art Los Angeles, and Los Angeles Music Center have principal roles in casting Downtown as a hip destination for sports and performing arts attractions.  The 2007 arrival of LA Live, a sports and nightlife venue that houses the Grammy Museum, an ESPN studio, bars and bistros, should confirm LA’s new ‘It’ address.

“LA’s an easy place to live though it’s getting more expensive and congested,” admits Johnson, “it’s still a forward thinking city.  If you’re not in New York the only other place to be is Los Angeles.”  Learn more, visit the official site of the LA Convention and Visitors Bureau.

STAYThe Sunset Tower Hotel “Is low-key, a little more exclusive and a bit more expensive,” offers Johnson.  Its art deco architecture hints at the elegance of its suites that offer views of Beverly Hills and Hollywood Hills.

Petit Filet with Lobster Tail.

DINE: The unobstructed 360-degree penthouse view from Windows is as luscious as the Petit Filet with Australian Lobster Tail or Bone in Rib Eye, both specialties of this steak house and martini bar situated near Staples Center.

CHILL:  After lunch Johnson designs a relaxing afternoon in West Hollywood by perusing “spiritual, meditation and New Age releases” at Bodhi Tree Bookstore before drifting to Elixr for a mind-clearing herbal tonic.  Here a tranquil garden offers “a place to sit and read.”

ENJOY:  Downtown’s cultural jewel, Walt Disney Concert Hall, offers self-guided audio tours of this spectacular structure and year-round performances by touring choirs and orchestras.  Catch a free exhibit at California African American Museum, which preserves the legacy of African American culture in the western states.

© SEAN DRAKES

Previously published.

[ 404.654.0859  |  seandrakesphoto@gmail.com ]

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