Imagine, for a moment, that you are a young, enthusiastic (albeit inexperienced) art buyer looking to purchase your first contemporary piece. Intimidated by your lack of knowledge, you hesitantly enter yet another muted, white-walled gallery; and are surprised to find that the owner is present, eager to help, and an awful lot like yourself.
Such a gallery exists, and it is located in Castleberry Hill, Atlanta’s historic creative district. It is owned by brothers Onaje and Omari Henderson and business partner Troy Taylor. Though the former Engineers may seem like an unlikely trio for owning and operating ZuCot – Atlanta’s premier African American art gallery – it is precisely their unique perspective that endears them to novice and seasoned art collectors alike. “A lot of people aren’t used to seeing young Black men in this field, so the pretentiousness you sometimes feel at other art galleries isn’t there,” said Onaje.
As it turns out, the Henderson brothers aren’t exactly strangers to the abstract world of art; their father, a painter, exposed them to the arts early on. According to Onaje – who completed his first oil painting at age twelve – given their background, the transition from a corporate environment to one rooted in art development was a natural one.
Prior to collaborating with Taylor, they used their corporate dollars to rent gallery spaces for weekend exhibitions. “We’d have artists come in, and at times we were making more money than the galleries themselves,” said Onaje. “We really worked on grabbing our generation, since no one was really talking to us at the time. We were in our early 20’s, getting people under 30 to collect original works of art.”
The brothers met Taylor at one of their events, and in 2010 the three formed a partnership called H&T (Henderson And Taylor) Art Partners. With ZuCot, they hope to create a comfortable space for fledgling art buyers. “We want you to feel comfortable. From the moment people walk into the gallery, they feel welcome,” said Onaje. During private consultations, for example, clients are encouraged to choose the music played throughout the gallery. “If you want to listen to Nas while you look around, that’s fine. [The gallery] is yours for that time.”
They believe adding an educational component also helps with relieving the intimidation factor involved in browsing galleries as a novice buyer. To that end, they created Art Tastings, a hands-on way for clients to learn the ins and outs of art collecting in a casual, open forum environment. “We’ve had people bring back their friends. They’ll tour their friends around the gallery and show them what they’ve learned. And guess what happens? Their friends become collectors, too.”
The gallery specializes in displaying the original work of living African American artists. In this area, culturally, Onaje feels a void. “If I asked you to name five European artists, you could do it,” he explains. “If I asked you to name five African American artists, most people can’t. We can’t name the people who look like us. People who are great, people who have works in museums. We have no idea who they are. At some point we have to take responsibility for that. We have to correct that.”
He believes it is our responsibility, specifically, to support the works of contemporary African American artists. As made evident by the recent “Oscars So White” controversy (the backlash directed at the Academy Awards after they revealed, once again, an overwhelmingly white list of Oscar nominees), if we leave it up to others to acknowledge Black artistic achievement, we may never be formally recognized. “We’re waiting on someone else to do our bidding for us,” Onaji reflects. “That doesn’t make sense. And that’s a position we don’t need to be in; shouldn’t be in.”
Onaje’s background in Consulting and Engineering both prove valuable to him as a gallery owner. “Consulting allows you to become very good at understanding people in general; also, we’re not stuck in the same rules other galleries are stuck in. We can look at something and say ‘hey, I know it’s been done like this for years, but – lets change it,’” he explains. “Also, as Engineers, we’re trained to be problem solvers; in consulting I used [problem solving]. My brother used it in his corporate career; Troy used it. Now we’re just trying to figure out how to use it to [help us] collect our own culture. That’s the piece we’re really trying to solve, we really need to become custodians of our culture.”
Onaji goes on to explain that supporting Black art is more than physically showing up--it is an action. “Support in commerce is dollars. Support is actually being involved. If I go into a place and I can’t afford it, I tell someone else [about it]. That’s an action. Too many times we want to show up, and that’s it. It’s bigger than that.”
ZuCot’s current exhibition, Double Consciousness: A History of Unhealed Wounds, explores the African American’s multi-faceted conception of self, from slavery to present day. The exhibit features works by Aaron F. Henderson, Charlotte Riley-Webb, and Alfred A. Conteh, and is available for viewing through March 19.