Cultivating a Purpose with Black Spirituals’ Asa Jackson

In Asa Jackson’s art, there is a sense of togetherness and harmony that reflects the creator’s innate vision and ability to cultivate something whole out of nothing. The elements in many of his paintings act like puzzle pieces waiting to be perfectly (or imperfectly) aligned…carefully curated to fulfill the prospect of creating a bigger picture…for a bigger purpose.

But Jackson’s holistic approach isn’t limited to just his art. After developing his art career in New York, the artist returned to Virginia to start doing what he does best…cultivating. Gathering his fellow artist peers, Jackson has given life to the blank canvases of Hampton and Newport News with the opening of the 670 Gallery and, newly established, Contemporary Arts Network. Jackson has also served as a member of the Newport News Arts Commission, The Hermitage Education and Public Planning Committee, the Peninsula Fine Arts Center, and currently serves as a state commission with the Virginia Arts Commission.

Featured image (Sacred Heart, 2017) courtesy of Asa Jackson

Black Spirituals is officially SOLD OUT…but you can still support by listening to the Black Spirituals album here and the Break Bread podcast. Stay tuned for the Black Spirituals original film…coming soon!


A Colorful Paradox with Black Spirituals’ Hampton Boyer

As I was ushered through the chaotic Slawstrips Kalb this past weekend, it became more and more imminently clear that the high-strung, neurotic environment of sights, sounds, and smells was designed with a purpose in mind. To intently expose the guest with a sensory overload was to give them just a taste of what it’s like to be black in America.

As exaggerative as it was, the alternative dimension of Slawstrips Kalb is the reality of every black American. Hampton Boyer’s art playfully encapsulates that atmosphere to showcase a kaleidoscopic world colored in both suffering and beauty. And that’s the crux of Black Spirituals…there is both significant pain and an inheritable amount of pride and greatness that comes with being black.

Boyer’s vibrant paintings have been featured in galleries and exhibitions such as There’s No Place Like Here at the Virginia MOCA, FADED BY THE SUN at Norfolk’s popblossom, and Primordial Emanations at the Richmond 1708 Gallery. Boyer also serves as the co-founder, curator, advisor, and business developer of The Contemporary Arts Network and member of the avant-garde, hip-hop group the Tunny Crew. You can listen to their newly released concept album, Black Spirituals, here.

Featured image (Catastrophe) is courtesy of Hampton Boyer.

There are still tickets left for the FINAL showing of the Black Spirituals installation, get your tickets here.

The Essence of Reclamation with Black Spirituals’ Nastassja Swift

Reclamation is the essence of artist Nastassja Swift‘s work. Through her trademark wool sculptures, Swift works to honor the body of the black woman—both in the past and present. Historically, the black woman has been seen as a sexual object…existing only (in the world’s eyes) for the gawking gaze of Eurocentric culture. As one of the many products of colonialism, stereotypes drenched in racism, sexism, and misogyny have plagued black women for centuries. From being carted around like a zoo animal (e.g., Saartjie Baartman) to being publicly shamed and blacklisted (e.g., Janet Jackson), black women have dealt the brunt of society’s hand.

And anytime a black woman celebrates who she is and the body she was born with, you can guarantee that there will be backlash because that black woman is establishing autonomy over her body…and that ultimately disrupts the power that the world thinks they have over her.

Swift recognizes this and uses her art to redefine the black woman and her body as is with poignant pieces (e.g., “I Wanted to Give You the Ocean,” “A Party for Sojourner,” and “Passage”), collaborative works (e.g., “Remembering Her Homecoming”), and exhibitions/residencies at national and international institutions (e.g., The Urban Institute of Contemporary Art in Michigan, The Colored Girls Musuem in Philadelphia, MASS MoCA, and the VCUQATAR Gallery in Doha, Qatar).

Featured image courtesy of Marlon Turner

You can see more of Nastassja Swift’s art at one of the last two showings of Black Spirituals, get your tickets here!

Restoration Through Art with Black Spirituals’ Mahari Chabwera

The word “black” has been colonized

Deprived of its original beauty, potential, and very existence, the word “black” has been crafted and molded to fit the assumptions so eagerly manufactured by society. As a result, many black individuals throughout history have worked to reclaim the term by actively going against the deep-rooted, hegemonic mindset by way of embracing who they are as a black individual in its most purest definition. VA artist, Mahari Chabwera vigorously contributes in this journey towards reclamation that is as evergreen as time itself.

Working within a black feminist and cosmology lens, Chabwera takes inspiration from esteemed and pivotal artists and writers like Alice Coltrane, Octavia Butler, Ntozake Shange, Audre Lorde, and Jill Scott to serve as a vessel for all of the black women in the past, present, and future. Chabwera has curated exhibitions at Richmond galleries (e.g., 1708 Gallery – Primordial Emanations, Sediment Gallery – In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens, and Iridian Gallery – Evolution of The Sacred Self), been the recipient of the 2019-20 Virginia Musuem of Fine Arts Professional Fellowship and 2020 Visual Arts Center Emerging Artist Award, and currently resides as a member of the CAN Foundation‘s First Patron Initiative program.

Featured image courtesy of Nalan Smartt

See Mahari Chabwera in action as she plays “The Shaman” in Black Spirituals. Tickets are still available for the last two weekends of February!

Celebrating Love and Life in Its Most Natural Form with Black Spirituals’ ALXMCHL

If you really think about it, everything we see is a shape. Without a second thought, we go about our lives seeing, analyzing, and accepting shapes as they are in their natural form, taking their very existence for granted. Cubist artist, Alex Michael—better known as ALXMCHL—possesses an acute awareness of this and works to highlight and honor the love and life that lives in every shape we come across.

With compositions like his “MTHRNSON” series, ALXMCHL shows that the love and bond he had, and still has, with his late mother has never been taken for granted. From the Norfolk NEON Arts District to the Virginia Beach ViBe Creative District, the memory and energy of his mother’s love and life is honored in the most organic way he knows how—through shapes.

Get to know the CAN artist a little bit more in our conversation below.

What led you to becoming an artist?

Art had been a passion of mine since I could remember. I would draw and color alongside my mother as she would sketch out and decorate beautiful cakes for her clientele. There was a creative lane we shared love for. Her passing led me to where I am today as an artist.

What medium do you find yourself working with most? Is there a medium that you would like to incorporate more into your future works?

I find myself exploring with oils the most! In the studio, I mix my own medium from stand oil and turps. This comes in handy if I need a little extra flow for details or to loosen up some of the stiffer oils. If I’m building up a painting in layers in the studio, I will use a little glaze medium together with my solvent. I keep it messy for the earlier stages with dried, overused brushes and miscellaneous tools, coming back to flirt with details later on in the painting’s phases.

How does your creative process begin?

I sit in front of a blank canvas that I painted over years ago or a freshly purchased cloth from the day of and hold a conversation with my mother. Normally the conversation plays in my mind vivid memories that stir up a positive push. That emotion normally leads into the shape [the] painting takes minutes later.

“Who” or “What” is inspiring you the most these days?

The “Who” and “What” inspiring me these days is family–my nieces and nephews as of late, to be specific. I have a beautiful and smart niece steadily advancing and discovering herself and interests daily. It’s amazing. Then, arriving later this year is her brother and cousin. New life. New energy. New discovery. New space. New perspective. Growth has been inspiring.

Many of your pieces are continuations of what you have titled, “MTHRNSON” followed by a Roman numeral. Can you explain a little more on what those pieces mean to you?

The MTHRNSON series, followed by the Roman numeral, is a series that finishes this year. I began this series five years ago with the hopes of reaching 10 murals by the ten year anniversary of my mother’s passing date, which is September 2021. During this long mural series, I have had the privileges of travel and new memory created in celebration of our connection. A new light of Mother and son time I can continue to appreciate and polish in my career.

Do you have a favorite set from the installation?

My favorite set from Black Spirituals would have to be “The Funeral” and “The Ghost Bar.”

“The Funeral” holds an array of depth between passionate red artwork executed by the First Patron artists in residence at the CAN and the soulful expressions of emotional performance poured to the public by the Tunny Crew. The work ethic and mentality these individuals birth are unmatchable.

“The Ghost Bar” shares that social atmosphere that I am very familiar with and comfortable in. I do not get to play a role in this set, but if I wasn’t busy walking on stilts as the “gatekeeper” in “The Funeral” room, “The Ghost Bar” is where you could find me taking a sip.

I had fun putting this set together. The fabric wall is a wall of cool-toned textiles stapled together, a process I will introduce this summer through my most recent MTHRNSON works in a two-man show with Hampton Boyer.

What is the biggest thing you hope for viewers to take out of Black Spirituals?

I hope the viewers can recognize, appreciate, and celebrate liberation. Black Spirituals pulls a person into a new or augmented reality through art. It is easily one of the most powerful and beautiful experiences I have been a part of in my artist career. Experiences and energy are endless at the CAN!

Image courtesy of Nalan Smartt

Featured image courtesy of Alex Michael (ALXMCHL)

Black Spirituals tickets are still available for 2/20 and 2/27. Purchase your tickets here before they go for good!

More Than Meets the Eye(s): A Peek Into Black Spirituals’ Adewale Alli

The human experience is one filled with irony. Those first moments of existence, we are seen as pure but deemed born into sin. We’re taught from a very young age that we’re all uniquely unique, but are then carefully crafted to be the same as the next. Before you know it, you’re living the same life as the one before, living someone else’s “truth.”

Artist Adewale Alli knows this all too well, and through his art, offers a chance…an escape from the imposed sociological sanctions of society. With his trademark “red eyes” and color-centric pieces, the Baltimore artist invokes an unsettling sense of urgency in introspection. His work beckons the viewer to reach into their subconscious and acknowledge the things buried deep.

Take a peek at the conversation I had with the CAN First Patron artist below as we talk about his evolving relationship with color, his inspirations, and his favorite set from the Black Spirituals installation.

What led you to adopting art as a career and lifestyle?

That is a long story!!!! Let’s just say it became an overwhelming passion I could not ignore, and it’s in my blood.

What medium do you find yourself working with most? Is there a medium that you would like to incorporate more into your future works?

These days I’ve been working with polyurethane. It’s a very interesting medium. I get to play with form and texture, [and] it really feels like I’m creating, not just painting. I would love to incorporate fire. I’m a pyromaniac; I have this crazy obsession with creating fire. I believe fire is a very misunderstood element.

How does your creative process begin?

It alway begins with a dream. Dreams are weird because they are our brain’s way of telling us secrets we withhold from ourselves when we’re awake. I like that I can steal those secrets and stories and turn them into something I can show the world. So I wake up, jot down what I can remember, and set out to share it with the world the only way I know how.

“Who” or “What” is inspiring you the most these days?

For who, I have three people that inspire me: ASA [Jackson], Anselm Kiefer, and Bram Bogart. And for what, I believe that would be my progressive understanding of the cosmos as it is, not as it is described.

There is a clear shift from your past works to your more recent works, specifically with the implementation of color. What was the catalyst behind that change?

I have always wanted to explore with color, but I’ve always been afraid of it, so I wanted to challenge myself. I believe that my relationship with color has evolved over time and is still far from being complete. Previously (depending on when you began following my work), my use of color was juvenile, bleaker, and more focused on form.

Now, I am realizing that color is not a tool but a language artists and non-artists alike use to convey meaning and messages to the masses. I found myself immersing deeply in the way humans use color to communicate, from artificial uses like the red in stop signs to instinctual uses like the red in blood…both meant to warn people. The study of color, and all of its uses, helps me to learn and create anew.

I’ve recognized shifting red eyes to be a staple in a lot of your paintings. Is there an underlying significance there?

The quintessential red eyes! Those have meant so many things to me over the years I first adopted them. I don’t think I could tell you what they mean to me now, but I can tell you the feelings they elicit in my audience and why I like them.

I’ve been told that the red eyes make people uneasy, wary, suspicious, and conscious of their surroundings. I’ve also been told that they cause people to look at their surroundings then into themselves to see if they’re missing something important. I feel all those feelings every day: doubt, concern, and curiosity. I like that the meaning (no matter how arbitrary it may be) can be conveyed to the audience in so many interpretations.

Do you have a favorite set from the installation?

The Red Room!!!!! The energy in that room is unbelievably intense, and I love it!! It is also my favorite color to look at.

What is the biggest thing you hope for viewers to take out of Black Spirituals?

I want people to leave this installation feeling the same way I felt, pure awe. Artists put a lot of their life into making pieces and telling stories. We do it for the artistry and love for it…sure, but also for the validation from our audience.

I want the people that go in and come out to feel like they found a piece of themselves in there that they never knew they were missing. I want them to feel even more connected or embedded in the human experience and be thankful for that.

Image courtesy of @contemporaryartsnetwork

Featured image (Born Of The Sun”) is courtesy of Adewale Alli

There are still a couple of dates left for Black Spirituals. Be sure to get your tickets here!

A Change in Perspective with Black Spirituals’ Dathan Kane

When you think “black and white,” what’s the first thing that comes to mind?

Most people would say something along the lines of rules or limitations…outdated structures of time and space—but VA artist Dathan Kane is not “most people.” Rather than subscribing to the realm of conventional human expectations, Kane’s world of “organic black and white shapes” operates like a Rorschach Test, full of limitless possibilities for viewers to see, interpret, and experience.

With his signature style being established throughout the East Coast (e.g., Virginia and North Carolina), West Coast (e.g., California and Washington), and internationally (e.g., China), Kane’s goal of interrupting the daily drone of life with “color” and a new perspective is becoming closer than ever.

Read my conversation with the Hampton artist below about his approach to art, his creative process, and thought process behind the Black Spirituals “Opium Den.”

How did you get started in art?

Art has always been a part of my life. I was originally inspired by anime, cartoons, comics and manga growing up. I started drawing to help channel my imagination as a way to keep myself entertained as an only child.

What medium do you find yourself working with most? Is there a medium that you would like to incorporate more into your future works?

I find myself working with acrylics and wall paint all the time now. In this stage of my career, I’m focused on murals/street art, but I would be open to explor[ing] sculpture again.

How does your creative process begin?

My process typically begins with a general design concept in my head that would best fit the space or surface that I’m working on. When painting on canvas, I tend to use a burnt umber color as a base layer before painting any black. When it comes to murals, I go right to the “black paint” to cover the exterior surface, beginning my phase one. Phase two begins with outlining a potential design that can be organic and responsive to the shapes I put down. Phase three ends with filling in the overlapping and crossing lines with “white paint” to form complete shapes for a finished composition.

Your niche seems to be solely focused on black and white patterns. Is there a reasoning behind your style?

I wanted to create something bold that people would stop to question. Color is something that people expect to see when viewing art but can be thrown off when it is absent. Drawing also serves as the foundation for worlds that people can come into, so I have always had intentions on doing the same. I wanted to create a world that would spawn emotional responses that could be seen as positive or negative using bold, organic black and white shapes.

You are the artist that created the mural I referenced in the “Of What Could Be, Of What Can Be” feature. What was your approach to that piece? Also, thank you for that added “color” and character on that bleak stretch of road!

I feel honored by your response to that project. The mural I created for the (CAN) titled “Lyft Up” (2020) was a direct response to COVID-19. When Asa [Jackson] first purchased the (CAN) he originally wanted me to paint the front of the building, but I knew that I wanted the biggest wall.

My goal for the project was to bring attention to the (CAN) to say that we are here and things will get better. This took place during a time when people needed to have their spirits lifted, and I had the will to accomplish this without the use of a “lyft” or cherry picker.

Can you talk a little more about the significance of the “Opium Den” in Black Spirituals?

The “Opium Den” was a space created specifically for Max P’s overdose scene in the Black Spirituals story. I needed to create a fun, distorted place that gave a “Willy Wonka” energy to it. We knew that this space had to represent a place of freedom and temptation for anything that would be offered during a party situation. I titled this installation, “Goodtime” (2021).

Dathan Kane, “Goodtime,” 2021. The Contemporary Arts Network, Newport News, Virginia

Do you have a favorite set from the installation?

Besides “Goodtime” (2021), my top set would have to be the “RED Room.”

What is the biggest thing you hope for viewers to take out of Black Spirituals?

I hope viewers can leave this show feeling impacted, shocked and encouraged to help change the way people of color have been treated throughout time.

Image courtesy of @contemporaryartsnetwork

Featured image courtesy of Alchemy NFK

Black Spirituals will be running throughout the entirety of February–be sure to get your tickets and experience the thrilling trip through Slawstrips Kalb, here!

Of What Could Be, Of What Can Be: The Reimagining Tale of Black Spirituals

Embark on a one-of-a-kind expedition through time to Slawstrips Kalb–“a hyper-satiric alternate reality” where the audience is subject to the “Black American life” by way of four teenagers working through the challenges brought on by “the choices they make and temptations they follow.” Written, composed, and directed by the Newport News Contemporary Arts Network’s (CAN) Tunny Crew, Black Spirituals is a “retelling” of the black individual’s story “from a place of empowerment.” The art installation will debut this Saturday, January 23rd at the Newport News CAN HQ, and will run on each consecutive Saturday for the entirety of Black History Month (visitors may also purchase tickets to tour the exhibit on Wednesdays and Thursdays throughout the month of February). Purchase your tickets here and read up on Popscure member Jasmine’s pre-debut thoughts on Black Spirituals below!

There was a general route I would take during my daily commute from the James River Bridge to the far ends of Newport News. Every day I would pass through this monochromatic route of grays and browns—heightened especially on gloomy days. And each day, I would scan the surrounding buildings…my mind always on autopilot mode. That is…until I saw a building I’d seen a million times, but this time things were different. This time the building had character…presence. Funnily enough, the building’s side was painted in a pattern of black and white—yet, it was as if it was saying, “Look at me!” As time passed, more murals were added to the lone building, ultimately creating a beacon of life amidst the lifeless stretch of road—signifying the possibility of what could be, of what can be.

Little did I know that I would be in that same building (many) months later taking in before me a vast set-up for an art installation—Black Spirituals. But just limiting it to the description of “art installation” almost doesn’t seem to do Black Spirituals, or its vision, justice. Deemed “an emancipated Negro Spiritual,” the experience is a stimulating amalgamation of mixed media creating an alternate reality as expansive as its goals to produce dialogue and education through topics ranging from mental health surrounding grief and loss, police brutality, racism in America, the drug epidemic, familial dysfunction, and exploitation within industries. With works from the CAN Foundation’s First Patron artists (Mahari Chabwera, Nastassja Swift, Asa Jackson, Hampton Boyer, and Adewale Alli) and CAN artists (Dathan Kane and Alex Michael), the collaborative venture bypasses traditional limitations in favor for delivering its message through a play and exhibition, original motion picture, and album. And really, I think that is the underlying beauty of Black Spirituals.

The topics in and of itself are undoubtedly important and way past overdue for discussion, but the true gem of Black Spirituals lies in the possibility…the possibilities. To me, the reclamation that is Black Spirituals transcends past its initial purpose to educate and furthermore invites you to imagine…to manifest…to change…to reclaim. The black narrative has been tainted throughout all aspects of life in history with black people being consistently portrayed as lesser than…lazy…sexual deviants or violent criminals—all damning qualities consciously and subconsciously taken without any further thought. You see it in the way the media portrays black individuals after the umpteenth fatal death by a police officer’s hand, or the way young black girls are seen and treated as sexual beings before they’re even able to comprehend what that even means. No one ever seems to ask about the “how’s” or “why’s” of social disparities as it relates to poverty and welfare, lack of education, drug abuse, or the most favored red herring of debate—“black-on-black” crime. How do you think a young child would feel if they were constantly inundated with such toxic preconceptions before knowing what that word even meant? Black Spirituals reclaims the black narrative, reimagines the story, and reveals the possibilities. Black Spirituals is the reclamation of identity…sense of self-worth…sense of purpose…sense of belonging. Black Spirituals is the possibility of what could be, of what can be.

All featured images courtesy of Nathan Croslin, Nalan Smartt, and Chip Jackson

Black Spirituals will debut tomorrow and run from 7:00-10:00 PM. Can’t make it? Don’t worry—the installation will run throughout Black History Month every consecutive Saturday and be open for Wednesday and Thursday tours throughout February. Get your tickets and find out more information here, and be sure to stay tuned for more from Black Spirituals.