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CRENSHAW : Gallery Captures Spirit of Black Life

November 13, 1994|ERIN J. AUBRY

It is an unlikely spot for a fine art gallery, the far end of a sprawling horseshoe-shaped shopping center that is populated mostly by beauty salons, cleaners and small markets.

Yet the Black Gallery, founded to showcase rarely seen talent, is used to being something of an oddity.

Now in its 10th year at the Santa Barbara Plaza, the gallery prides itself on providing a haven for photographers who strive to capture aspects of black life largely absent from the gritty pages of daily newspapers.

"L.A. is very rich visually, but most images that are supposed to represent it are not done by people in the community," said gallery co-founder and director Roland Charles. "We've got to go beyond that, bring out the best in people."

Beyond the Black Gallery's neat storefront is a spare, airy interior frequently filled with the mellow, piped-in strains of jazz.

The stark white walls are lined with works by Cameroonian photographer Angele Etoundi Essamba. Her dramatic and sensual images of African women, wrought in black and white, are selected originals from her book "Passion."

It is aesthetics such as these, says Charles, that are too rarely displayed in mainstream galleries but find a home at Black Gallery.

"Some people have a limited idea of what art is, who don't even accept photography as an art form, particularly among African Americans," said the soft-spoken Charles, a Louisiana native and photojournalist.

"With black photography, we're used to seeing social statements, reflecting on crisis situations. But the comments photographers are making now are a lot more subtle, a long ways from the civil rights era."

Charles co-founded the Black Gallery with three other photographers who, in the wake of a successful group show at the California Afro American Museum, decided that the city needed a permanent spot for black fine-art photography. The gallery relies largely on the nonprofit Black Photographers of California and corporate sponsorships for funding.

Over the years, the gallery has offered a wealth of photo technique and development workshops, photo contests, round-table discussions and programs for youth. It also houses photographic archives, a slide registry of portfolios and a resource bank of photographers and photographic services.

The Black Gallery also has opened and curated several exhibits that have toured the world, including the comprehensive "Life in the Day of Black L.A.," a 10-photographer exhibit that premiered at the California Afro American Museum and traveled to Europe.

"People were amazed," said Charles of reactions to the show in countries such as Germany and England.

"The only images they had of blacks in Los Angeles came over the news--boys with their hands up against a wall, wearing rollers in their hair, gangbangers."

Which isn't to say that the gallery doesn't have its share of works depicting social strife.

Scenes from civil uprisings nearly 30 years apart--1965 and 1992--adorn the walls of the back room, images of National Guardsmen and smoldering buildings looming eerily similar.

But far more dominant are fine-art images by artists such as Essamba and local jazz photographer Bob Douglas, ethereal moments like the one Charles himself captures in an uncharacteristically still moment at First A.M.E. Church.

Yet Charles said he believes that reflecting black life accurately also entails showing interaction with other people. To that end, he has gathered 14 black and Korean photographers, painters and sculptors for "Collaborations," a series of jointly created works scheduled to open next year at Black Gallery as well as the Sabina Lee gallery in Koreatown.

"The idea for this show is really working together," said Charles, leaning forward excitedly.

"There's so much energy, so much harmony. It's going to be great."

And how did he turn up so many artists willing to commit to the project over several months?

"Oh," he said, smiling, "that was easy."

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