Azikiwe Mohammed at 5 Eldridge Street in Manhattan, the location of the Black Painters Academy (image courtesy of Azikiwe Mohammed)

Azikiwe Mohammed’s idea for the Black Painters Academy came to him when he heard about a friend who had attended one of the popular “paint and sip” classes in her neighborhood. The works that were presented as references for what to paint, however, were all mostly from the Western canon, and by primarily white artists.

“It’s always this overarching white history starting point that everybody’s coming from,” Mohammed told Hyperallergic. “The object is disseminated throughout the entire room, and everybody paints the same thing, further spreading that history.”

Although art museums and galleries have made some strides in diversifying their exhibitions in the last few years, shows dedicated to Black painters are still the outlier. And encounters with their work are not the institutional norm, especially for those who did not receive an in-depth art education. What if that could change?

In response, Mohammed conceived of the Black Painters Academy, set to open early next year, as a school where aspiring painters can learn from the rich history of Black art. Classes will be entirely free of charge and open to students of all ages, young and old. He especially hopes to engage those who may not have access to painting classes or feel unwelcome in such spaces, including many people of color.

“You’re seeing a lot more Black identifying painters in the field moving around, more Black objects. It’s incredible, it’s absolutely beautiful to see,” said Mohammed. “But where are the other ones? What if we had a building where we could help make some more?”

A painting by Azikiwe Mohammed, “Places I’ve Been With Helicopters #3 / A Modern Zong Massacre” (2020), acrylic and gouache on board, 40 x 24 inches (courtesy of the artist and Mindy Solomon Gallery)

The academy will be located at 5 Eldridge Street in Manhattan’s Chinatown neighborhood, and the artist has launched a Kickstarter to help raise funds for the first year of operations. With 144 individual backers so far, the project has raised $9,000 of its $18,000 goal.

At Black Painters Academy, every student will receive a free black canvas, paint, brushes, and a lesson on Black art history taught by Mohammed himself. Other artists of color, such as Steve Locke and Carlos Rosales-Silva, will be joining as guest teachers.

“A painter’s currency are the secrets and tricks they gather over their years of working. I want to help people find their secrets. Historically the examples we have been presented in this field center on a white art history that excludes us at every turn,” Mohammed says in a statement describing the project. “I aim to offer a different departure point.”

Another feature will distinguish the school from other models, says Mohammed: “success will be built-in.” What that means, he explains, is doing everything possible to make the classes feasible for participants. If they can’t finish their painting during the session, they can return and keep working on it. If they don’t have space to store their work, it will be kept in the space. (Mohammed also plans to auction the works that students leave behind every semester, starting at $50, to benefit organizations working to put art classes back in public schools.)

The artist’s long-term goal is to turn Black Painters Academy into a mobile school so the classes can reach people with limited time, access to transportation, and other factors that might impede them from participating.

“As Black people, we’re often told that we’re not allowed space,” he said. “We are making this space to make sure that we have it.” Classes will be made available on a first come, first serve basis, with priority given to Black, Brown, and other students of color; still, Mohammed emphasized that the school will be open to everyone.

“Just because we’re saying yes to us doesn’t mean we’re saying no to you. If you tell me you also don’t have space, the door is open, just come on in.”

The Black Painters Academy is expected to open in January 2021 and operate at limited capacity or digitally during the COVID-19 pandemic. Donations to the fundraiser can be made here.

Valentina Di Liscia is the News Editor at Hyperallergic. Originally from Argentina, she studied at the University of Chicago and is currently working on her MA at Hunter College, where she received the...