Black Art Matters Pop-Up Exhibition Opens This Saturday at The Cleveland Gallery

Yasuke The Black Samurai - Ajha Dean-Phillips
Ajha Dean-Phillips
Yasuke The Black Samurai

Created to celebrate Black artists and emphasize the importance, impact and influence of their work on society, the Black Art Matters pop-up exhibition opens this Saturday at the Cleveland Gallery (1728 St. Clair) with a reception from 6 to 9 p.m. Music will be provided by DJ Swahlay and WRAPITUPSHEA will provide food.

Sponsored by the Cleveland Black Arts Movement, CoCreative Cleveland and the Cleveland Gallery, the exhibition features work from 17 artists including Aja Joi Grant, Alyssa Marie Yacovone, Cheyenne Ball, Carlisa Hayes, to name a few.

The Cleveland Black Arts Movement (CBAM) was founded by Ajha Dean-Phillips, a 24-year-old artist and graphic designer from Cleveland who attended Bedford High school before graduating with a Bachelor of the Arts in Graphic Design Baldwin Wallace University in 2020. After not painting or drawing for a period of time, Phillips decided he wanted to get back to making art and being a part of the arts community, so he went out and grabbed himself a large canvas and some paints and went to work.

“My first art piece back was inspired by the late Chadwick Boseman and the black samurai Yasuke,” said Phillips. “As I was getting back into the art realm, I noticed that there weren’t many Black artists represented in the art museums, so I did some research and I found that only about 1.3% of artists featured in museums are Black. I wanted to change that. I was trying to figure out how I could impact the art community and open the doors to change how others view Black art and show people how Black art has always affected society.”

This piece is featured in the exhibition and is entitled “Yasuke The African Samurai,” and the subject confronts the viewer with a determined glare as if sizing up his opponent. The monochromatic grays and blacks offer an understated simplicity while still displaying expert technique and tremendous attention to detail. The knobs on his chest armor offer a fantastic quality of Karuta worn by samurai warriors and their retainers during the feudal era of Japan and adds an almost science-fiction quality to it, as if he could be some sort of time traveler from another world. The image is stark and unrelenting.

“It takes honor, grace and discipline to be a Samurai just like it takes to be an actor,” said Phillips. “I appreciated the way the late Chadwick Boseman played his roles with such honor, grace and discipline, his skill of acting was just as sharp as a katana…I wanted a way in which to honor his memory and create a piece I feel shows who Chadwick was to me: a Black samurai trained with honor, grace and discipline. He is someone that changed my life through his roles and how he carried himself. I hope that this painting represents him well to others just as much as it does to me. This painting is a reminder to always be sharp, respect the craft of art and truly be grateful for the easy and hard times. I want this painting to symbolize the greatness of all black artists and a symbol to motivate all artists to just do it. If you have an idea go for it the only thing you should be waiting on is you the time will never be right."

From this resurgence of artistic endeavor and aspiration sprung forth The Cleveland Black Arts Movement, whose mission is showcase Black artists' influence on society, be it visual arts, music, poetry, fashion etc. Phillips said that this exhibition was on the forefront of his mind while spearheading the organization and wants to not only celebrate Black artists but also to offer networking and job opportunities. The Black Art Matters Exhibition was conceptualized by Phillips with the encouragement and support of his friends, family, co-workers and mentor, Jason Garrett.

“I wanted the Black Art Matters Pop-Up Exhibition to coincide with Black History Month because I felt like it was the perfect way to end Black History Month by adding to the history of the Black arts,'' concluded Phillips. “As for The Cleveland Black Arts Movement, I want this to be a year round thing where we have events all year because Black history isn’t just a month, Black history happens every day of our lives even if some don’t see it or know about it. I want the viewers to leave this mini exhibition with a sense of respect and appreciation for Black art. I hope that CBAM is able to inspire others to create their own organizations geared towards Black people to support the arts in our communities. I want not only my organization but other Black organizations to push the conversation about the arts and break the barriers of what is successful in the Black community. I want us to show Black boys and girls, men and women that the arts are just as important and impactful as sports.”
Scroll to read more Arts Stories & Interviews articles


Join Cleveland Scene Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.