BY VASHTI HARRIS
Four years ago, New Jersey Renaissance men Dontae Muse and Wilford Charles struggled to open their own art gallery, “Above Art Studios,” in the City of New Brunswick.
Today, “Above Art Studios” is an established art gallery that has showcased numerous artworks from more than 100 Black—and non-Black—artists, located at 55B Morris St., in New Brunswick. Muse and Charles also utilize their gallery space to host community events for people of the African Diaspora community.
The importance of such spaces can’t be underestimated. Almost on a weekly basis, a video is uploaded on social media showing a Black-American, or another person of color, being accosted, interrogated, or harassed by a non-Black citizen in a public or private space. Rebuking and exposing the “Karens” and “Kens” of this country aside, safe spaces where people of color can gather is an essential need, especially when it becomes down to creative spaces.
After promoting and planning many events, Charles and Muse decided to open their own unique art gallery; they created a space to call their own. “We were going to other spaces and it’s was almost like borrowing sugar from the neighbor that doesn’t like you. ‘Can we come here and do what we do’ and they’re like ‘yeah, we’re going charge you extra and we’re going to charge your people extra.’ We just wanted to make a safe space for us,” Charles said. “Of course, through God’s graces, we landed in the space that we landed. We had an artistic friend who led us to the New Brunswick area and that’s how we got there and got into that space. The space was designed to be a multi-cultural and multi-faceted facility so it wasn’t originally just a gallery, and it still isn’t.”
Outside of being a serial entrepreneur, Charles is a teacher with music being his focused artistic prowess. In addition to art, and visual art, he also does music production, vocals, DJ, and rap. Muse, his partner, is an arts administrator, an entrepreneur, and an author who has written two books with his latest one titled, “Tripping Over Canvases.”
Although there are several Black-owned art galleries in the New York City area, the two said they don’t know of others apart from their own in Middlesex County, New Jersey. Not having a blueprint on how to open an art gallery, Charles said they ended up going to a gallery opening in Charlotte, North Carolina, to learn.
Before opening the gallery, Muse said that they definitely ran into obstacles and roadblocks along the way but in the end was able to get their art gallery open. “We do feel like there were instances where have you had different complexions might have gone a little smoother,” Muse said, recalling some of the challenges they faced before launching their space. “But ultimately we actually were guided and blessed. We were hitting different walls and come across obstacles but thanks God, the universe, the sources, we still figured out a way to get us past everything.”
“It was a fight, it was a war to beat that we fought through and this war was exactly a reflection of our country today,” Charles said.
“Above Art Studios” opened in early December 2016. Since then, the space has shown numerous art installations and displayed paintings, sculptures, and other art pieces to showcase the various experiences of people in the African Diaspora community.
“We recreate a diaspora movie with each installation. So, you’re going to get something different. We are picky about what we get, we just don’t allow anything that doesn’t fit with what we’re trying to present,” Charles said. “That doesn’t make us opinionated as much, [but] it helps us tell the story. We are a Black-owned art gallery; however, we’ve had white artists have art in our art gallery, but we’re not like other galleries where you just see Italian art. We’re a gallery that is going to give you a theme. We’re going to give you a movie with the visual painting.”
Muse said their latest art installation “Who is She” was about women artists revealing themselves in their artworks. Later in the installation, they also added art pieces from male artists showing how they see women.
“We have one of a mother in Africa with a baby wrapped around her belly. Most of our mediums are canvases with acrylic and oils paint. We have some pieces that are sculpted to canvases and little different pieces, but our pieces are really what they’re called contemporary pieces that show you the people and their background or a piece of them,” Charles said.
Too often when a person of color walks into a famous art gallery or museum, like the Metropolitan Museum of Art, they don’t see themselves in the artwork that is on display.
“That’s why when you come into the gallery as a minority you see a piece of yourself rather than you seeing, Europe,” Charles added. “In most galleries and museums, you will see a lot of European artwork and when you enter our gallery you get to see a piece of the diaspora when you walk through our space.”
The space offers art for sale, and hosts a plethora of community events ranging from yoga sessions, Homeless/Community Paint events, and community discussions. “One of the biggest things about art administration is to actually administer and put in the work. So, a big portion of the responsibilities is planning the execution of events. So, we always strive to be different, be innovative [and] separate ourselves,” Muse said. “Anyone else that might be around or watching a lot of times people started to duplicate what it is that you’re doing, so you have to continue to strive, to be innovative and unique. Keep your creativity as high at all times, so we just always look for different ways to do something different.”
Because they own and operate their own art gallery, the partners have the power to host the events that cater to their community. If they want to further their education on Black-owned wine brands and wineries they can have wine tasting events in their gallery. “It’s Black-owned gallery, but it’s a cultural space that fills the needs of the have nots,” Charles said. “What we found out in our communities is that we don’t have anything, we don’t have anything at all. The little things that we do always gets shut down or whatever the case might be…” Charles said.
Despite the ongoing Coronavirus pandemic, Muse and Charles continue to showcase art and host events while following the state’s social distancing protocols.
How do they handle these new unexpected challenge? “Adjusting things to make sure that they’re hybrid,” Charles said. “Adjusting our sights on our communities and community work to make sure that we can continue to develop and continue to push the Diaspora forward. So, we’re going we’re trying to work smarter, not harder.”
These tireless entrepreneurs sure keep busy. In addition to working on an album, Charles plans to relaunch “Beyond Art,” a magazine that he says pushes “the narrative for black art, black excellence.”