For Chanel Compton, executive director of the Banneker-Douglass Museum, there was no question who should curate the first exhibit since its recent renovation: It had to be Baltimore-based exhibitor Myrtis Bedolla.
“We begged her,” Compton said, speaking at the opening ceremony on November 10. “We knew we wanted to put on a show focused on African diaspora artists in Maryland. She’s incredibly busy, but she said ‘yes’.”
Pedulla, owner of Gallery Mertis, arguably Baltimore’s most prestigious art gallery, chose to reopen the museum to highlight the work of Tawny Chatmon, the Annapolis-based photographer whose gold-embellished portraits are in the collections of music star Alicia Keys, the flagship. Museums and Beyoncé’s mom.
Buoyed by social media hits, a successful New York debut gallery and major acquisitions, Chatmon’s first work sold for auction at Christie’s for $25,200 in September. Chatmon is a rising star in the international art world and happens to call the county of Anne Arundel home.
“They are very beautiful,” Pedulla said of Chatmon’s gold leaf-covered portraits, “but they are not beautiful just for the sake of beauty. There is a social and political commentary lurking within.”
One of Chatmon’s most recent works, a portrait of a young black girl surrounded by swirls of gold, is the centerpiece of “The Radical Voice of Blackness Speaks of Resistance and Joy,” a collection of works by dozens of Maryland-based black artists with works from the museum’s permanent collection. Bidula chose her. A few are downstairs in the entrance hall, but most are upstairs in the former sanctuary of Mount Moriah AME Church, which reopened as a state-owned museum in 1984.
After nearly 40 years of welcoming visitors, the Banneker-Douglass Museum’s main exhibition space needed updating. The renovation included ripping out decades-old carpeting to reveal the original pine floors. Unfortunately, contractors found most of the wood unsalvageable, Compton said, so she opted to lay new pine floors over the damaged softwood below.
“We try to be historically accurate,” said Compton, noting that the building, which dates back to 1875, is on the National Register of Historic Places. The project, which cost more than $100,000, included improving the lighting on the campus, installing temporary exhibit walls, and upgrading the audio-visual equipment on the former campus.
“We wanted to restore it to its original glory and also raise it for exhibitions and performances,” said Compton.
Other exhibitors in the return gallery include photographer Devin Allen, portrait painter Monica Ikejo, and fiber artist Joyce J. Scott. Chatmon’s contribution, “Remains/Peace and joy are a birthright of all beings,” is at its heart.
Self-taught commercial photographer Chatmon, 43, began pursuing art more seriously in 2010, after her father was diagnosed with advanced prostate cancer. He saw how hard his daughter worked to defend him, seeking everything from second opinions to insurance approvals, and urged her to apply the same determination to her own career.
In the midst of her grief over her father’s death in December of that year, Chatmon had a reckoning. “I saw my father’s life being taken, and I said to myself, ‘What am I doing?'” Why am I taking this [commercial] assignments?'”
With her husband’s support, she began to shift toward focusing her camera lens on black children, including her own son, two daughters, nieces, and the children of various friends in Prince George’s County, where she was living at the time.
Chatmon said she “never really had a plan,” but found herself responding to violence against young black men, including Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old shot and killed in Sanford, Florida in 2012 in an unprovoked attack, and societal prejudice against poetry. normal for black women.
“All of this stuff is starting to weigh on me,” Chatmon said. When I photographed black children, I focused on portraying their innocence and natural beauty.
“What I tell my sisters is that you are valuable, that you are precious, that you are special,” said Chatmon.
In her 2016 series, Byzantine Contempo, Chatmon began experimenting with gold leaf overlays on her images, mostly in the form of necklaces and crowns. Around this time, an associate of Pedulla spotted some of Chatmon’s Instagram photos and said, “You have to see this woman’s work, and she’s also a local.”
“I was completely stunned, and really touched by them,” Pedulla said of Chatmon’s photos. “I saw how important what she was doing was and still is for our community.”
Pedulla met up with Chatmon and asked if she had representation at the fair. You haven’t – not yet. The two women clicked.
It was an easy ‘yes,’ to be represented by Gallerie Myrtis, which has an eclectic list of dozens of black artists who take turns exhibiting in its gallery space on North Charles Street. Pedulla also brokers sales of her artists’ work, consults upscale buyers and presents at art fairs. International such as Venice Biennale and Miami Art Context.
Chatmon’s first solo exhibition took place in 2019, at the Prince George Museum and African American Cultural Centre. The second was in New York, always a landmark for artists, but of particular interest to Chatmon, as it was held not at the tiny Soho gallery but at Fotografiska, the new American branch of the International Museum of Photography based in Sweden.
As she worked to prepare about 20 pictures for the show, Chatmon also began experimenting with a new technique: printing plates, superimposing them, and enclosing her images in gold mosaics, in the style of Austrian painter Gustav Klimt. By adopting his style, Chatmon said she also subverts her, because the characters being lifted are fully clothed black children rather than naked white women.
“I was in awe,” Pedulla said, the first time she saw the new direction. “You have to try it on so you can see all the different dimensions and textures and how beautiful the surface of these images is.”
Since Fotografiska was introduced, there has been a waiting list to buy Chatmon photos. It also helped that in 2019, superstar singer Beyoncé posted a photo of her daughter, Blue Ivy, smiling broadly in front of one. After posting the photo back to her own account, Chatmon wrote that it was filled with “gratitude, happiness, disbelief, fulfillment, anxiety, and joy.”
Check out the latest news of the day before you travel in the evening.
Her career was taking off, but around the same time, Chatmon’s husband needed to move to Texas for work. The family moved, but the pandemic sent them back to Maryland. The home they found for their three children and Chatmon studio was in Annapolis, about 10 minutes from downtown.
“Things have worked out really well,” Chatmon said of the 2020 transfer. “I actually like Annapolis a lot.”
She admires the city’s commitment to addressing black history publicly, rather than “shoveling things under the rug.” She cited the placement of signs honoring lynching victims and a new UNESCO plaque acknowledging that enslaved people disembarked at City Dock.
“They’re trying to preserve the real history of what happened here,” Chatmon said.
She doesn’t know if she and her family will make Anne Arundel County a permanent home, but for now she has found the right place to create work that reflects black history and looks forward to a better future.
“I’m very focused on what I want to say, what I want to get out in the world,” said Chatmon. “I am so grateful that people have responded to my work, and that it affects people.”
“The voice of radical blackness speaks of resistance and joy.” Through September 30, 2023, Banneker-Douglass Museum, 84 Franklin Street, Annapolis. 10 am to 4 pm from Tuesday to Sunday. free. https://bdmuseum.maryland.gov/