N’Namdi’s biggest gamble

Nov 28, 2001 at 12:00 am

George N’Namdi is thinking. It’s what he does best.

The proprietor of G.R. N’Namdi Gallery (newly transplanted from Birmingham to Detroit’s Cultural Center) has just logged another day of looking at art, coddling clients, paying bills and running around town like a Basquiat portrait with its head cut off. Though dealing in art is exhausting business, N’Namdi makes it seem like a rare privilege and pleasure.

In his porkpie hat (a style sported famously by jazz tenor man Lester Young) and long dark overcoat, he only needs a saxophone case for us to see him kicking back in Count Basie’s tour bus on the way to a gig in Memphis on some cool 1940s afternoon. But instead of improvising blue notes, N’Namdi gets his thrills thinking up new ways to affect the world, such as the new odds-defying project he’s proposing for Detroit’s Cultural Center.

Here’s a virtuoso of conversation and repartee who has made looking inward and imagining his most important pastimes.

“The universe directs me in doing things. I don’t do that formal business-planning kind of approach,” he says in his sparse office. On the walls of these new Detroit digs hang works by Al Loving, Ed Clark and other abstractionists who, in large part due to N’Namdi’s efforts, have been moving on up in the ever-fluid American art scene.

But promoting his artists is only part of what N’Namdi has in mind. Lately, like so often in the past, his ambitions have taken him beyond the strict limits of the gallery business and plugged him into the everyday concerns of his fellow Detroiters, whether they be art aficionados or not.

The new G.R. N’Namdi Gallery — with its projected 16,000 square feet, at least two other galleries, a bookstore-coffee shop and one or two upscale restaurants — is more and more about urban revitalization and the transformation of our Cultural Center. And though this latest venture involves the biggest risk of his life, the early signs are promising.

“This Cultural Center is such a diverse area — it’s one of our diverse areas in the state. As it is now, we’ve had more people — traffic from Birmingham or the suburbs — than we had when we were in Birmingham. It’s been a pent-up need. … We had our opening for Al Loving and people were just moving back and forth across the street, from the Artists Market to here — it was just like they thought they had died and gone to heaven,” N’Namdi says.

Like the Count and the Duke, N’Namdi has his sidemen, though they tend to be related to him by blood: his daughter Kemba, 29, who has just returned from a stint with UNESCO in Paris to join the gallery staff in Detroit; and his son Jumaane, 26, who runs the G.R. N’Namdi Gallery on West Huron Street in Chicago.

And as Duke Ellington depended on the collaboration of composer-pianist Billy Strayhorn, N’Namdi has always relied on his wife, Carmen, for the deep lyricism of her innovative thinking.

The kids are playing their mom and dad’s arrangements as if they’ve been rehearsing them since before kindergarten. As Kemba says about finally rejoining the aggregation, “Somehow we all knew that someone was going to do it, or all of us were going to do it, in some capacity or another. … I’ve been at it full time, six weeks — part time, all my life.

“When I was in Paris, I realized how cultural Detroit is — it’s just that we’re such a heavily underground culture. But now everybody’s kind of coming out of that underground status. We’ve maintained that integrity, that edge of the underground, but it’s kind of surfacing now. I would really like to see Detroit become recognized for the art it has.”

People mover

George N’Namdi, dealer-turned-visionary, educator-turned-leader of the band, has been a lifelong motivational wonder waiting to happen. Born George Johnson in 1946 in Columbus, Ohio, he was drawn early on to the financial perks of commerce, though these soon gave way to a deeper commitment to teaching. (He changed his name to N’Namdi some 30 years later; in Ibo, the name means “The family name lives on.”) He attended Ohio State University and graduated with a major in education.

“But I came in as an accounting major. … I did accounting purely for money and loved doing it … but in the latter half of the ’60s, I began to participate in a tutorial program in the city, in the projects. That’s when I got off my capitalist bent and changed my major to education. I had a pretty successful career in it — I got a master’s and another master’s in psychology and a Ph.D. in psychology.”

Yet even before he finished his bachelor’s degree he was teaching night classes in adult education and accumulating practical experiences that fueled his passion for working with people.

“I applied for this job as educational director for Head Start and got it — my first job three months out of college and I’m supervising 47 teachers. I had 10 day-care centers under me. I did it for six months, then I got a promotion to education coordinator for the city — the public schools, the Catholic schools and the Model Cities program — and I’ve only been out of college six months.

“I did a lot of reading, all the developmental books, because I have a theoretical-philosophical kind of mind. … After I became the coordinator, all the educational directors reported to me. And I’m 25 at this time.” Within six months, N’Namdi would be promoted again, becoming a state officer responsible for half of Ohio’s day-care training. He did that a year, then left to get his Ph.D.

Among the pieces of this seemingly charmed life falling into place was N’Namdi’s marriage in 1971 to Carmen Kiner, a student of early childhood education at Ohio State when they met and a woman with whom he has shared a lifelong commitment to rethinking education, history and culture. “George and I operate with what we call the psychology of the norm, and that is to think of yourself as the norm, without being exclusive,” she says. “For instance, George does not say ‘black artist, black art.’ And I don’t say ‘black history, black scientist,’ whatever. Because, of course, when you say that, that implies that somebody else is actually the real scientist and you are an imitator of what has already been established. And since we think of ourselves as the originators of whatever it is we’re doing, we don’t have the need to do that.”

Tale of two

Though such ideas can seem to have a life of their own, flowering in the various corners of existence and changing lives as they grow, they actually take root in specifically motivated ways.

By 1974, N’Namdi had moved to Ann Arbor to work on a Ph.D. in psychology at the University of Michigan; he and Carmen had two young daughters and another child on the way. His ambition at the time was to teach at Howard University in Washington, D.C. But people only imagine what circumstances allow them to imagine, and tragedy soon turned the young family in quite another direction.

On Nov. 3, 1974, the couple’s second daughter, Nataki Talibah, died of accidental strangulation in her crib. She was 14 months old. Her death sent the young parents into depths of self-recrimination and despair. David J. Dent, in his 2000 book In Search of Black America, devotes a sensitive chapter (“The Norm of No Color”) to the heartbreak, depression and resilience of the N’Namdis.

“We were either just absolutely going to die ourselves, or we’re going to find a purpose for this. And the purpose became starting a school in her name. … The impact of the death was so strong that I think it probably made me feel like the only way I could accept it was to make something out of it. … I was just driven. George was as driven as I was,” Carmen told Dent.

Over objections and warnings from friends, and despite their lack of experience in school administration and utter lack of contacts in Detroit, the N’Namdis decided to establish the Nataki Talibah Schoolhouse here.

As George recalls, “We came here totally cold turkey to start a school. No jobs, no nothin’. We just researched cities — D.C., New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, Columbus, like that — and said, ‘We’re going to Detroit.’ We moved in ’76 and said, ‘In ’78, hook or crook, we’re opening.’”

With Detroit reeling from more than a decade of white flight and a dwindling tax base, real-estate values plummeted and public education fell into crisis. And though it seemed like madness to move to such a place, the school’s overhead costs were low and the demand for educational alternatives was growing.

“We never did things for money, and that’s what made it successful,” says George. “For three years I had a job at a clinic, and I was working at Wayne State University — I had two full-time jobs — at Wayne State I would teach in the evening and I’d come over on my lunch break from my other job to have office hours. For three years my whole check from Wayne State went to pay the teachers at the school.”

George was 32 and Carmen 29 when they founded Nataki Talibah Schoolhouse. They started with 18 students, including their own three children — Kemba, Jumaane and younger daughter Izegbe. They were buoyed by a wealth of teaching knowledge and progressive attitudes to the learning experience — and unyielding determination that carried them through until the charter school system came along in the ’90s.

“We got financial footing when it turned into a charter school. But previous to that, my wife didn’t get paid for seven years, not a check for seven years. I taught full time at Wayne State and was the bus driver at the school. I would drive from 6:30 a.m. and Carmen would meet me at my other job (at a community health clinic) at 8 and take the kids to the school. Then in the evening, I would get off and have about an hour before I’d go to Wayne, and she’d meet me and I would take the kids the rest of the way. She’d take ours, go home and feed them. Then I’d go to Wayne and teach. We started with 18 kids and now the school has 450. It’s like a little campus now.”

Got art?

The tireless psychologist and educator would soon become a dealer in objects of beauty, albeit ones with metaphysical overtones — and his dreams would turn from schoolhouses to galleries to a whole sector of our often maligned city.

N’Namdi’s passion for art had begun early, in response to his mother’s frequent redecorating of the ancestral home (she got rid of the antique furniture and replaced it with a “contemporary” look), but it got more serious in college.

“I bought my first piece of art in 1968, when I was 22 years old, and paid $125. I started buying work from art students. Then I started going to art fairs.”

Throughout the years of classes and other distractions, alongside the hard necessities of life, N’Namdi’s pleasure in the visual continued.

He opened his first gallery out of a desire for something better.

“I didn’t want to live in a city that didn’t have galleries. But I also wanted African-Americans to participate in the culture. Your culture’s your spirit — if you let that go …

“I remember G. Mennen Williams bringing all this African art to the DIA. I’m like, ‘He shouldn’t have to do all that.’ I mean it’s good that he did it, but I want to be able to say — when my kids go there or my grandkids or other kids — ‘George N’Namdi donated that’ or somebody else donated it. I mean it’s like you’re participating in your own culture.”

Taking a step that would again alter his trajectory, N’Namdi opened his first gallery, Jazzonia, in 1981 in Harmonie Park on the present site of Intermezzo. He spent three years in that enormous space, then moved into the David Whitney Building with a new name, the G.R. N’Namdi Gallery. These would be his digs for the next six years. N’Namdi learned on the job and started interacting with artists as much as possible.

“My first show was all New York. A year before I opened the gallery — so in 1980 — I started going to New York. I met [Detroit painter] McArthur Binion and he introduced me to Ed Clark, Al Loving and all these different artists in the city. Every month I’d go back there, sit down and ask them these questions. And it really was such an education, the eye that you develop by talking to these artists about their work. … I would say, ‘Why did you put that red streak in there, or that red dot?’ What happens, I found out, is that they had a reason for it — and once you saw it, you began to be able to figure out composition, form and relationships, spatial things.”

With the waning of the Cass Corridor’s Willis Gallery and the relative underrepresentation of African-American artists in the more established venues, the Detroit art scene was ripe for something new. And old attitudes about the way business got done were there for the shattering.

Detroit painter Gilda Snowden recalls walking by Jazzonia one day: “I looked in and George was there — I didn’t know who George was. I said, ‘Is this a gallery?’ He said, ‘Yeah.’ I said, ‘Well, I’m an artist.’ And he asked to see my work. What happened was, he put me in a show there called ‘Currents.’ It was a four-person show — myself, Yolanda Sharpe, Adam Thomas and Reginald Gammon. I brought all this work in and said, ‘Well, what are you going to put in?’ And he said, ‘All of it.’ He hung all this work and I was just amazed at his energy. I’d never met anybody like him before.”

Sherry Washington, proprietor of Sherry Washington Gallery (on Library Street across from the new Compuware site), remembers Jazzonia as “beautiful hardwood floors, a lot of camaraderie, a lot of young people getting involved.”

Moving out

By the time N’Namdi renovated space in the David Whitney Building for his next project, the G.R. N’Namdi Gallery, he had seized the attention of artists and the public, and particularly a growing number of African-American collectors. Washington, whose present portfolio includes primarily African-American artists, remembers hard times for art in those early years: “In the ‘old days,’ the ’80s, people didn’t take art as seriously as they do now. ... Those days were very difficult, really and truly, though now there’s an excellent market for art in this city. But in order to sell art, you have to educate the public, and George has been letting people know that African-American art has a presence in the world community of art.”

Snowden, whose own reputation as a painter and a mentor to younger artists has blossomed, appreciates N’Namdi’s courage and skill in promoting abstract art, rather than the more commercial assumptions attached to narrative realism.

“What he’s done is enhanced and honed his perspective. He’s always had an allegiance to abstraction,” Snowden says. “At times it’s been very difficult, because people need to be educated as to what abstract art is. But George has always stuck by his guns as far as that’s gone, and really supported artists who made a commitment to that point of view.”

N’Namdi’s reasoning behind this aesthetic of abstraction is more involved with historical and political issues than with preference for one form over another:

“Now this is not an anti-figurative statement, but when I look at something figurative — I look at Robert Colescott, and I really like his work — I say, ‘Robert, your work functions in the abstract.’ If I came from another planet and didn’t understand the people who made this narrative, it still would be a very painterly painting. And so Robert likes exhibiting with the gallery, because I know he likes that kind of respect and also that purity with which I’m looking at it, where someone else may look at it strictly like, ‘Look at the story he’s telling here.’”

This idea of “storyness,” this “realism” and the easily identifiable “blackness” of its imagery have been characteristic of most of the African-American art promoted by mainstream American venues for more than a century.

Says N’Namdi, “My major frustration is with people who think they’re doing you a favor by putting you in that [black art] box, but not understanding that once you get in that box, you’re going to be there for a while. … I would say that frustration is about getting African-American artists who do abstract work the proper attention that they rightfully deserve. Because a lot of the museums and European-American dealers only promote African-American art that has a narrative to it — either from a historical perspective (like Duncanson or Bannister) or the more modern (like Jacob Lawrence and Romare Bearden) or the controversial stuff (like Kara Walker or Tyree Guyton). It’s almost a way of saying, like, ‘Jazz is not intellectual’ and it, along with blues (which I love) and R&B and rap, gets promoted because it’s obviously just ‘right out of the streets.’ So you have people who promote realism and end up blocking other things … and they won’t look at those other abstract artists who challenge the status quo.”

N’Namdi’s quest to expose his artists eventually led him to try to run two spaces concurrently, the David Whitney site and a new gallery in Birmingham. Then economic realities made him drop the Detroit space entirely. Some saw him “selling out to the suburbs” or “leaving the city.” But many artists, whether represented by him or not, understood his strategy quite clearly.

Snowden explains, “George really thinks in terms of the promotion of his artists, getting them seen in a larger arena, and that goes along with him moving to Birmingham after the David Whitney years, and then eventually having a branch in Columbus, Ohio, and then in Chicago, where he still has his gallery. He’s always moved up and out.”

But perhaps Carmen, as founder and principal of the Nataki Talibah Schoolhouse, gives the matter a more pedagogical explanation and puts it best:

“George would not think of saying that Ed Clark is a prominent black artist. Of course, it’s very important that he’s African-American, just like it’s very important the state he’s from; it’s very important that he doesn’t have a brother, he has a sister. Everything about you is very important and we definitely want to know all of that. … Everyone should know all things, all the time.”

Brave new market

Michigan, after all is said and done, may be just like anywhere else in America, but Detroit certainly isn’t. And an African-American gallery owner promoting African-American art in an affluent white suburb of Detroit will find these truths to be self-evident:

“The interesting part is that some people didn’t want me to be there, which motivated me to be there. At least the landlord said, ‘Well, “they” don’t know about your art,’ or something. And that motivated me to get aggressive on the space — so now I’m taking a place for $3,000 a month and I’m like, ‘What the hell did I just do?’ Anyway, I got the space. The first year was terrible. I sold two pieces that were directly related to Birmingham. Everybody else who bought stuff would buy it in Detroit. But then business just kept growing and growing and growing.”

Maybe it was the theory of the norm in action or just plain bullheaded determination, but N’Namdi made a go of it for 12 years in the great white north. His neighbors there were such high-profile venues as the Robert Kidd Gallery, the David Klein Gallery, the Hill Gallery, Suzanne Hilberry and Donald Morris. He was playing hardball with the big boys; he brought a jolt of color to the white canvas of affluence; and he just plain refused to think in terms of limits or injustice.

“I think of maybe an obstacle, but I don’t think of injustices. I don’t allow an individual to be racist with me. I don’t give enough attention to that … an institution maybe … but on a one-to-one basis, frankly I don’t give a damn. So I don’t go around looking for things like that … and they exist, but it doesn’t matter. I’m like, ‘I gotta keep going here.’ A frustration is an obstacle you just haven’t overcome yet.”

Exhibit A

Among the more challenging artists featured by G.R. N’Namdi Gallery are such internationally lauded (and mostly New York-based) painters as Clark, Loving, Colescott, Jack Whitten and Howardena Pindell. But here in Detroit, at the source of all the N’Namdi conceptual energy, resides a veteran painter whose work has been a pillar of the gallery’s continuing brilliance: Allie McGhee.

From the windows of his studio on Jefferson overlooking Belle Isle, McGhee can almost see the marble fountain on the island’s western end, the “subject” of one of his more lyrical abstractions. As the light off the river floods in, he works on four or five canvases simultaneously, then takes a break to go for a run across the bridge and around the island. At 60, he’s in better shape than most men half his age. And he’s at the top of his game when it comes to making art.

“When I first started with George’s gallery, I met a lot of cats that I respect but didn’t know. I got to talk to them, like when they come to town, they come to my studio. … Clark, Loving, Whitten. We sit up and laugh and talk about things. Mostly it’s not about the nuts and bolts of art — it’s about the related kinds of energies that pour into your work. And it’s good camaraderie and great fun. That’s important too, because it’s sort of a solitary situation — I bus down here to my studio every day, like I’m going to a job (and I am), and I come here and stay all day. It’s just you and these white walls most of your life. So when you get together with someone else, you don’t have to talk about it — there’s immediate understanding.”

This sense of common purpose and work ethic connects artists to N’Namdi, and his ability to provide support, both financial and spiritual, to his people. The N’Namdi is one of a few galleries successful enough to send its artists a monthly stipend, fostering the freedom to make art full-time.

Says McGhee, “When you think about the fairy-tale part about art — where you connected, who were you working with in that particular period, or who you associated with or who you exhibited with — George has put together a very interesting group of people who produce a wide range of art. You see all kinds of solutions to visual experiences. I go myself for the same reason, to see what a guy’s going to pull off this time … and look for inspiration for yourself … motivation.”

As we, like McGhee, recall the art legends of our time — who ignited whom, where they hung out, what they drank — we rely on anecdotes that turn into scenes from a mental movie.

“Last week,” says McGhee, “when Ed [Clark] was here, we went to breakfast. We tried to go to a restaurant where he was lodged, but we couldn’t get in and came down here to the Big Boy. When you get in there, they’ve got a basket of crayons, so Ed was like, ‘Oh boy, crayons!’ Hap-py! So we flip our little Big Boy mats over and start drawing like little kids. The waitress comes and says, ‘Having fun?’ And we say, ‘Oh yeah, but you should have some yellow. You don’t have yellow?’ They had blue, orange and red. We say, ‘No yellow, no green.’ She says, ‘Yeah, we’ll get that next time.’ So we did some artwork, and we exchanged, saying, ‘Here. This is for you and this is for me … take these home, get ’em framed.’ Those little bitty things like that, that are not really about big-time art or how successful you are.”

Our attention, of course, is ever on the artists, the makers — but behind the scenes, hot-wiring the connections, archiving, promoting and selling, making things and states of mind possible, is the dealer, the man that art histories tend to forget.

McGhee says, “The guys, almost to a man, from New York tell me that George sells more art here in the city of Detroit than anybody in New York. That says a great deal about our city too.”

Back downtown

As N’Namdi moves full-throttle into the next phase of his dreams, one wonders about the motivation for this new set of changes. If leaving Detroit at the end of the ’80s was important to greater visibility for the gallery’s artists, why would he return to the scene of his original conception 20 years later? What new variables come into play, what new thought bubbles pop up in his effervescent mind?

“Well, one is economics,” offers N’Namdi. “I wanted to have some equity. We’ve been out to Birmingham for more than a decade and spent $600,000 in rent. That’s a lot of money and I had nothing to show for it. … But also, I think now the gallery has become one of the few national galleries in our metropolitan area … I realized we could make an impact on the city.”

But the arrival of one more exhibition space in the Cultural Center, no matter how hip or dazzling, isn’t quite enough, and N’Namdi knows a lot about impact. Rather, the new G.R. N’Namdi Gallery will be a $3 million complex housing multiple businesses aimed at significantly improving the quality of life in these parts. The goal is, with corporate support and government cooperation, to help a once-proud Motor City resurge to greatness.

“In our development plan,” N’Namdi continues, “there’ll be housing on Garfield [the street behind the complex]. And we’re working with the city to get a small parking deck for our space and for the guests of the housing. And all along our building will be a walkway, with the businesses in our building facing out to the walkway that’ll be extended eventually down to Canfield. So it’ll be like this small, European street in the middle of the major streets that’ll allow people to walk back and forth. We had these development meetings for the area, and I told them, ‘Whatever you do, don’t put up fencing, ’cause if you do, you’re thinking of today not tomorrow.’ The urban experience is to be able to move, kind of flow … You make it like it’s a common area, so it’s no longer an alley back there, it’s a walkway. It’s bright — it’s got flowers — it’s got sculpture. Now you have traffic and that’s what prevents crime.”

N’Namdi’s practicality makes him the kind of hipster entrepreneur who knows how to talk to administrators without a chip on his shoulder. And since the first phase, which renovated less than half of his building, was paid for out-of-pocket, officials and other planners have been listening.

“The city’s been supportive. The process is laborious … it’s long to get it done,” says N’Namdi. “But people want to live around this Cultural Center — it’s where people want to be. You go into the restaurants around here, on the weekend you’re waiting in line. And pretty soon there are going to be more upscale, arty, contemporary spaces. Any place where you have four or five galleries, you can say you’ve got a gallery district. That’s significant. Because in addition to the large institutions here — the museums and the university — now you’re talking about major galleries, national galleries. Art has always been the catalyst for redevelopment. Soho and Chelsea in New York, even things that happen in Harlem … what are they doing? They’re promoting art.”

The longer he speaks, the more expansive his vision becomes. “Detroit now has to become the entertainment and cultural mecca for our region, particularly our immediate region here. Because the suburbs can’t offer you this — we have put too much weight on our suburbs to be something that they really can’t be.

“Detroit is one of the largest markets in the country for African-American art. If it’s second, it’s only second to New York. It’s a much bigger market than Chicago, much bigger. There’s no museum in this country at the level of the DIA that has the level of participation and involvement of the African-American community like the DIA. No one else comes close to it. The others salivate to get that kind of involvement. In Detroit, the African-Americans take some responsibility for their institutions like the DIA, the symphony, the Opera House.

“Detroit has so much going for itself, but what we need is a PR firm from London to do us an ad campaign — not (from) the U.S., definitely not from Detroit — because Londoners really appreciate Detroit, and they also respect and understand it. You want a group of people who think so highly of it, like ‘Yes! This is an exciting place.’ Like when I bring an artist from Europe here, they’re like, ‘Wow, Detroit!’

“We need to get some corporate money to do this major ad campaign to change the perspective on Detroit. We have to deal with it as a metropolitan area, not this city-suburb thing. Anybody who’s not going to cross any kind of line is very narrow and you don’t want them in your life anyway. We have to look at it like a metropolitan area and for every community you highlight something, in every one.”

As Carmen N’Namdi always says, “Everyone should know all things, all the time.”

Through Dec. 8, the G.R. N’Namdi Gallery presents painter Ed Clark’s Midi Series: “Chasing the Sun.” Dec. 8-Jan. 12, the gallery hosts “Interwoven,” an exhibition of the work of Carol Ann Carter and Lucy Slivinski (opening reception, Saturday, Dec. 8, 5-8 p.m.). The gallery is at 66 E. Forest, Detroit. Call 313-831-8700.

George Tysh is the Metro Times arts editor. E-mail him at [email protected]