Expanding Modern African American Art in Detroit: N’Namdi Center for Contemporary Art

Tylonne J. Sawyer, "Dark Matter," N'Namdi Center for Contemporary Art, Detroit, MI

Tylonne J. Sawyer, "Dark Matter," N'Namdi Center for Contemporary Art, Detroit, MI. Photo by Zynab Al-Timimi.

The N’Namdi Center For Contemporary Art in Detroit has amassed one of the largest collections of modern African American art in the nation. The N’Namdi collection will be on view for the next year with rotating art pieces. Over 500 pieces are in the collection. The N’Namdi gallery is an important space in Detroit, creating change and playing an important role within the community.

Alongside the N’Namdi collection is a separate gallery room with the stunning art piece of an African American man on a horse with a shimmery background, which is part of the “Dark Matter” exhibition by Tylonn J. Sawyer.

Sawyer is an African American multidisciplinary artist educator and curator. He was born and raised in Detroit, Michigan, and currently works and lives in Detroit. Sawyer went to Eastern Michigan University for his bachelor’s degree in Drawing and Painting and went to The New York Academy of Art Graduate School of Figurative Art Program and received his master’s in Painting. He also studied at the Royal Academy of Arts in London, England.

Sawyer has been part of solo and group exhibitions at The Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, The Detroit Institute of Art, The Library Street Collective, The Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit, the Venice Biennale and his work has been featured in galleries in New York and San Francisco. Sawyer won the Alain Locke Award and the Kresge Arts in Detroit Fellowship for Visual Arts.

Sawyer’s work juxtaposes themes of identity both individual and collective with investigations of race and history in popular culture.

N’Namdi gallery curator Izegbe N’Namdi, daughter of founder and owner George N’Namdi, describes Sawyer as a person who brings healthy dialogue to topics that are seen as sensitive to bring up in conversations. Izegbe states, “He’s able to lift up and put it out there to become a conversation of change, healing, and forward movement.” Izegbe adds, “‘Dark Matter’ is his first exhibition in his hometown in nearly a year. There is more dark matter in the universe than normal matter, but we just can’t see it.”

Sawyer told The Detroit Metro Times that dark matter is a metaphor for African American contributions to art and culture. He also told The Detroit Metro Times, “Often our contributions are sort of redacted from the history of those things,” adding, “The works in the show address a variety of issues from art history to water crises in major black cities.”

I loved all his pieces in this exhibition. The pieces that stood out the most to me were “Man on a Black Horse,” “Matriarch,” and “New World Water.” “Man on a Black Horse” is the biggest piece in the exhibition. I felt the powerful energy from the piece. It shows an African American man that is not afraid of the unknown and will charge right into it. “The Matriarch” shows the strength of an African American woman and how she is there for her family by supporting and guiding them. “New World Water” consists of two paintings, one where the man’s eyes are open and the other where they are closed. To me, the pair of paintings shows how the black community closes their eyes to certain issues and keeps their eyes open to others.

The “Dark Matter” exhibition will be open until June 19.

The N’Namdi Center for Contemporary Art was founded by George N’Namdi in 1981 and over the years evolved to become an arts center and official museum. Her father is a child psychologist by training and practiced child psychology for a few years which became the catalyst for the birth of the gallery. While still in college, George N’Namdi started collecting art. His love for art pushed him to become an art dealer.

George N’Namdi always had the intention to place the gallery in Detroit to help build the community’s physical and mental well-being. Izegbe stated, “the beauty of art is that it helps us even without therapy, even if we don’t know we are in a therapy session at that time.” This is extremely important and is the driver for how the N’Namdi Center teaches and promotes the arts.

The gallery first started off as a visual arts-only institution, but the N’Namdi Center saw a need within the community for more than just visuals. Now they have dance classes, jazz concerts, and theater so that they can display a wider variety of the arts to all ages throughout the metro Detroit area.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic, when the N’Namdi Center had to bring their dance class outside into the community, they were able to expand their community engagement. They are looking to expand the youth art classes.

Where the gallery is currently located off Woodward Ave in midtown Detroit is called the historical “Sugar Hill” arts district. It was developed between 2000 and 2006. This was their first district and they wanted to create more to highlight the artistic essence of Detroit and its people. According to Izegbe, they and their development partner Zachary and Associates picked “Historical Sugar Hill for the name because the area has a similar energy to the Sugar Hill district in New York.”

The N’Namdi Center is developing a new district on Grand River just north of the Motor City Casino called the West End Gallery District. The N’Namdi Center will become the anchor gallery. The first building in this district will be the OC apartment which will have commercial storefronts where the gallery will reside. It is named after the artist OC because they are using his self-portrait piece from the N’Namdi collection to create the apartments. The current space will be maintained as the N’Namdi Art Museum and continue the functionality for various genres of art.

The N’Namdi Center is a family-run business. The N’Namdi Center has a sister gallery in Miami run by Izegbe’s brother, Jumaane N’Namdi. Izegbe and her brother are making sure they preserve their father’s legacy with a focus on future sustainability. This year they look forward to hosting jazz and new breakout artists in their gallery space.

Izegbe wants to let emerging artists know that their gallery shouldn’t be the end all be all goal because there are a lot of galleries and resources within the community. A few of those places are the Artists Market here in Detroit where they have annual roll calls for artists to submit work and the Detroit Fine Arts Breakfast Club.

The N’Namdi Center for Contemporary Art is located at 52 E Forest Ave, Detroit, MI 48201. They are open Tuesday - Saturday from 11:00 am to 6:00 pm. Admission is free.