Black Creative Circle
Article by STARLA GATSON | Photography by JERON STRICKLAND | STRICKLY US
Black female politician and author Shirley Chisholm once declared, “If they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair.” The Congresswoman’s guidance has been echoed and shared countless times over the decades, encouraging many to show up in spaces they or others like them have not previously occupied. But what is one to do when the table for which he is looking doesn’t yet exist? Why, he takes a cue from the Black Creative Circle of North Louisiana (BCCNL) and builds it himself!
The BCCNL was created to give local black creators a place to show up and show their work, be empowered, and inspire one another, filling a need the organization’s vice president, K’Shana Hall-Davis, noticed fairly quickly. “When I went to certain events in the area, I never really saw anyone that looked like me as the artist,” she explained before adding, “I’m not saying it didn’t exist; I’m just saying that wasn’t my experience.”
That was not just her experience, though. Vitus Shell, BCCNL president and a visiting assistant professor at Louisiana Tech University, remembers returning to Monroe after having spent a few years heavily involved in the Memphis art scene. The presence of black creatives, he recalls, seemed to be few and far between. “Monroe is 65 percent black, Bastrop is 70 percent black, Grambling is 90 percent black; most of these towns have a large percentage of black people, but not seeing a lot of black folks at these art events was a little troubling to me,” he says. “I wanted to see more people who look like me.”
Hall-Davis and Shell’s observations and experiences led to a desire for a space for black creatives to meet and share ideas — a table at which they could comfortably sit. This desire, paired with their connections to other local creators like Erin Davenport, led to a gathering of black artists at the African American Museum, marking the beginning of what is now the Black Creative Circle. “Vitus pitched the idea, and I was like, ‘Cool, let’s roll with it!’” Davenport, a local radio personality and BCCNL public relations coordinator, says of the first meet-up. “We talked to other black creatives we knew, and we were like, ‘This is something that we’re trying to do. Let’s just meet up and talk about some things.’”
hough the first gathering at the museum occurred in 2018, the Black Creative Circle of North Louisiana wouldn’t make its formal introduction to the public until January 2020, when the organization established a social media presence and launched projects, initiatives, and events. Since its debut, the BCCNL has completed a Black Lives Matter mural and provided The Shop, a series of virtual workshops that allow attendees to explore new concepts and learn skills of their trades from expert creators.
The organization even hosts bi-weekly Creative Convos to make space for the area’s creators to have curated and themed discussions of topics relevant to the black artist. “It’s all supposed to bring forth opinions,” Davenport says of Creative Convos. “Anybody can join in the conversations, from expert to novice artists.”
When Davenport says anyone is welcome, she means it. In fact, all three BCCNL board members do. Despite having the word “black” in the name, people from all backgrounds are invited to attend its events. The emphasis, however, will be on showcasing the talents of black creatives, teaching and appreciating elements of black culture, and amplifying black voices. “Don’t just come to us during Black History Month,” Davenport encourages. “We are black 365. We have things to say 365. We can teach and educate.”
Of course, the teaching and educating to which the University of Louisiana Monroe graduate refers come in the form of conversations and workshops, but these aren’t the only ways the Black Creative Circle is speaking to the community. The organization’s group exhibitions, like the “Many Rooms: The South Got Something to Say” at the Masur Museum of Art, for example, also manage to show the public what the Circle is all about.
The exhibition, which is on view until November 6th, features work from four BCCNL members, including Shell, Hall-Davis, Rodrecas “Drék” Davis, and Benicia King. It gets its name from a New Testament scripture, John 14:2, that says, “My Father’s house has many rooms,” and an award acceptance speech given by André 3000 during which the rapper triumphantly declared, “The South got something to say.”
Each artist used their work to take a closer look at the lives of black people in the South. Shell’s work, for instance, depicts black bodies as subjects that are worthy of both honor and respect, while Hall-Davis used her art to address the need for black women to make time to rest and be taken care of. Drék Davis’s work speaks to survival as a black person in America and the perils that often make their way into black communities, from displacement to oppression, and Benicia King’s photography pays tribute to “the veneration and regality that she ascribes to her fellow churchgoers” and the self-expression that often occurs within the walls of a place of worship.
The four artists’ pieces come together to create a show that makes a larger point: black creators are very much a part of the North Louisiana art scene, and they’ve got plenty to say. Since the Black Creative Circle’s “Many Rooms” show drew the largest reception crowd the Masur has seen in over a decade, it seems the community is receiving the message loud and clear.
While Shell says he doesn’t know exactly what is pulling the public to his and his colleagues’ work, he believes the fact that each showcased artist is an established North Louisiana resident plays a huge role in the exhibition’s popularity. “I’m from Monroe; K’Shana is from Chicago originally, but she went to high school here and has built a good following; Mr. Davis is a professor at Grambling; and Benicia King is from Grambling and went to high school in Ruston,” he explains. “I think it was just the fact that all of us are local people, and it was the first time for them to have an all-black show at the museum.”
Though Hall-Davis says she didn’t expect the record-breaking reception, she isn’t surprised so many have shown up for “Many Rooms.” Like Shell, she agrees that each artist being a local has made it more impactful to some. She explains, “If you show the community, especially our community, that this is out there — yes, we do this; black people who look like you and went to the same school as you do these things, and you can, too — they will come and support.”
Now, as the exhibition at the Masur Museum comes to an end, members of the BCCNL are looking ahead, eagerly anticipating what will come next for the organization. The group already has a few things penciled into the 2022 calendar, including a group exhibition at the African American Museum in February, and beyond that, each of the Black Creative Circle’s board members has their sights set high.
“I’m hoping we continue to move out to different parishes and get more artists from different areas,” Shell says. “Eventually, I would love for us to have a building, a space where artists can meet, we can have community projects, we can have exhibitions, and we can invite other artists from other places. That’s my vision.”
Hall-Davis’s vision for the BCCNL is similar, as she’s also got dreams of a brick-and-mortar location for the group. She also says that she hopes the organization begins working more closely with North Louisiana’s youth.
“We’ve gone to several community events, and we’ll pass out art kits to kids because we want to encourage them to keep going,” she says. “Some of those kids’ parents might not be able to buy them art supplies or might not see it as something that’s important. And it is important.” Ultimately, she hopes the BCCNL can help let each member of the community, from the youngest to the oldest, know just how significant all forms of artistry truly are. She gestures around the coffee shop in which she sits before adding, “We would be nothing without the creators. From the music that’s in here to the masonry to the woodworking of the table to the paintings on the wall, somebody creative had to design all of this.”
Davenport believes the work the organization has done and will do has the potential to change the narrative about North Louisiana. “I don’t know where the group will go, but I know we have the potential to do so much,” she says. “We want to bring so much flavor to this area. So many people talk down about Monroe specifically and northeast Louisiana saying everything good is down south, in Memphis, or Atlanta and asking why we can’t have that stuff here. It does take a certain group of people to bring that type of stuff here. We can do so much. We can help so many people.”
The people the Black Creative Circle helps are, of course, the creators of all kinds — painters, musicians, dancers, fashion designers, culinary artists, and more — who attend the events and the patrons who get to experience the art. But Shell, Hall-Davis, and Davenport each agree that, even as organizers for the group, they benefit from the work of the BCCNL for different reasons, too.
For Hall-Davis, the BCCNL is an opportunity to serve others, and that’s something she’s been passionate about for as long as she can remember. “It’s not just about exposure,” she says of the group. “We want to create a safe space and a community for us to get together and talk about our processes or the struggles we’ve been having or maybe some of the roadblocks we’ve faced that only come specific to us as black creatives.”
Davenport says the Circle’s members often affirm her and her abilities, giving her confidence in her creative and professional pursuits. “I have plenty of ideas, and plenty of times, I have talked myself out of them,” she admits. “But I have people like K’Shana, Rodrecas, and Vitus who can easily be like, ‘Erin, you’re tripping. You got this, and you know what you’re doing.’”
Shell’s sentiment is similar to Davenport’s, saying the support of this community of creatives helps push him forward. “Just know I have a support group helps me continue to do what I like doing. It pushes me, it motivates me, and some of the conversations we have spark other ideas for work. One of the things I really believe is that, in order for this area to move forward, it’s going to have to be creative folks that think about what that looks like.”
To find out more about the Black Creative Circle of North Louisiana, see when you can next join in on the Creative Convos or The Shop, or to discover how you can be a part of what the organization is doing in the area, be sure to check out the group’s social media profiles. Find the BCCNL on Instagram at @blackcreativecirclenl and like the “Black Creatives Circle of North Louisiana” page on Facebook!