Harlem Takes a Trip North for Art Lovers

HFAS founder Dion Clarke addresses attendees.
HFAS founder Dion Clarke addresses attendees.

(The Root) — Harlem Fine Arts Show founder Dion Clarke has a thing for the classics; his personal collection boasts works from Romare Bearden, Elizabeth Catlett and other legendary African-American artists.


"But I also have a sweet spot for the emerging artist, the artist that needs a little nurturing," he said in an interview with The Root at the 2012 HFAS exhibition in Martha's Vineyard, held Aug. 9 to Aug. 12. The Root is a sponsor of the show.

His desire to marry the "well-established" with the "up-and-coming" prompted him to create the Harlem Fine Arts Show in New York City. What started as a small multicultural arts festival, according to Clarke, has grown into one of the biggest multicultural art shows in the U.S. Now, entering its fourth year, HFAS has been brought by Clarke to Martha's Vineyard, a locale known for its popularity among affluent African Americans for decades.

"I've been coming here for 30 years, and we've never had anything like this before in the history of African-American presence on the Vineyard," Henry Louis Gates Jr., editor-in-chief of The Root, said in an interview on the show's opening night.

More than 30 artists and hundreds of attendees congregated en masse at Hooked Restaurant in the Oak Bluffs section of the island, selling and purchasing black art from various traditions, disciplines and perspectives. From sculpted, clay, steel, metal and glass works to expressionist oil paintings to revisionist chalk drawings, there is no shortage of variety in fine black art at this year's event.

Geographical diversity also featured prominently in this year's show. Artists traveled from every corner of the continental U.S., and French and Kenyan artists were among the international representations. Kenyan-born artist and curator Gathinja Yamokoski, owner of TrueAfricanArt.com, collects art exclusively made by African artists. Currently, she holds art from eight different countries, works she describes as bright and heavily steeped in various African traditions. Showcasing her art and the work of other artists from across the Atlantic at HFAS is an opportunity not lost on her, understanding the importance of showcasing on an island with such a rich African-American tradition.

"When I moved [to the U.S from Kenya] 10 years ago, I realized there was a lot of artistic talent back home, and they all wanted exposure," Yamokoski said. "To be able to present African artists at a venue like this means everything."


Jewelry designer and self-described "wearable artist" Corinthia Peoples could barely sit down as attendees made frequent stops to her table display to gawk at, try on and purchase her original jewelry, making hers one of the most popular exhibitions of the show. Peoples, who is California-bred and New Jersey-based, pairs gem stones solely with sterling silver, a specialization that has garnered an impressive list of clients, including Cynthia Dellums, wife of former Oakland, Calif. mayor Ron Dellums, as well as author Ntozake Shange. For Peoples, HFAS is an opportunity to celebrate and connect to black art. 

"When I would walk the floor and see the other artists, I saw myself depicted in the art as the standard of beauty," she said. "The show affirms me, as an African-American woman, in the arts." 


Clarke is committed to continuing HFAS. Since the 13-year-old National Black Fine Arts Show, the largest of its kind in New York, announced its hiatus in 2009 and subsequent cancellation in 2010, no grand-scale show for exhibiting black art existed there. Clarke hopes HFAS will fill that void.

"It's great for our artists because it empowers them and enables them to become economically strong. It's great for consumers because they can purchase affordable pieces. It's good for everyone," Clarke said.


HFAS is scheduled to return to Harlem in February 2013.

Akoto Ofori-Atta is The Root's assistant editor.

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