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Art on the Vine: Celebrating Five Years

Maleke Glee

Photo courtesy Agora Culture and Dayo Kosoko

I interviewed Agora Culture founder Jessica Stafford Davis, and the inaugural Savage-Lewis Artists in Residence, Nakeya Brown and Larry Cook, who are among the twenty-two presenting artists. The Savage-Lewis Residency is inspired by the works Augusta Savage and Norman Lewis produced during their 1935 stay at Martha’s Vineyard.

Maleke Glee Jessica, how did Agora Culture come to be?

Jessica Stafford Davis In my studies and work in the art world, coupled with my business experience, I quickly realized there was a disconnect between emerging and early-career artists and younger collectors. I saw the need to rectify this through educational opportunities that allow those with nuanced interests in visual arts and collecting to feel welcomed, comfortable, and connected to artists they may not have known otherwise.

MG How did you begin your collecting journey?

JSD While I purchased limited edition prints in college, my first substantive piece was Mequitta Ahuja’s Winged I (2011), from the Dream Sequence series. I first encountered Mequitta’s work in the exhibition Portraiture Now at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery. I learned that she had been an artist in residence at The Studio Museum in Harlem in 2009–10. The figures in her work touched me on a personal level. I reached out to her and she offered to meet me in DC and walk me through her exhibition. I ended up acquiring the work and making a great friend, too.

MG What are some of the benefits of collecting, particularly from living artists of color?

JSD There are many benefits, including financial, and community- and relationship-building, but what I have been most struck by is the sense of responsibility and the benefit of safeguarding cherished cultural assets. You do not own art; you are a temporary custodian of compelling stories that live on through these objects. By collecting works by living artists of color, you have the opportunity to be the keeper of some of the rarest stories and truths because they have been muted for so long. The learning opportunities are endless and enriching. I have learned the most from my artist friends when discussing their work. I have a newfound respect for how deep and well-researched their practices are.

MG What are you looking forward to the most at Art on the Vine this year?

JSD From August 10 to 14, we will celebrate a milestone—our fifth anniversary. This year we will focus on Black women. Women struggle to be seen and heard, and this is especially difficult for Black women. This year we will present and bring together Black women artists making significant work.

MG What words would you offer to those interested in applying for the residency?

JSD Think collaboratively. Be willing to push your practice to new vulnerabilities. We are looking for rare, unique connections, and specifically creating a space for artists to extend their practices in areas they would not have the ability to otherwise.

MG Nakeya, much of your work pays homage to Black women's nostalgia related to beauty and hair, in relation to culture and politics. What was it like to work with and contrast that with Black male beauty topics and aesthetics?

Nakeya Brown I explored a question that came up in my artist talks: “What about the male experience?” I never quite knew how to answer that. I brought this up to Larry. We talked for a long time about the practices he and friends carried out: the use of wave caps, du-rags, brushes, texturizers, the list goes on. This residency allowed us to pass on some tenderness and nostalgia to manhood.

MG How did Martha's Vineyard affect your process or presented works?

Larry Cook The environment directly impacted my work. I used the island’s landscapes and beaches as a backdrop to create my latest series documenting club backdrops. One particular photograph was captured inside the Baptist Temple Park, which is now a plot of grassy land overlooked by the historically Black-owned Shearer Cottage, where we stayed.

MG As collaborators who happen to be married, what did the residency offer regarding new realizations on how you may learn from and support one another?

NG and LC The entire process we consulted with one another, from mood boarding the image to deciding on paper quality and final framing. We delegated duties and saw that the piece came together just how we envisioned.

Learn more about Art on the Vine at artonthevinemv.com.

–Maleke Glee