The journey of an artist is inspiring to watch. But for black artists, the journey can be fraught with dead ends, missed opportunities and outright discrimination. While it’s a national problem, it’s especially notable here in Pittsburgh where black artists often feel like they’re kept out of artist circles and fend for themselves.
One such Pittsburgh artist is Natiq Jalil, who, with the help of his mentor and wife, artist and poet Crystal Noel Jalil, started the Colored Section Black Artist Collective. Originally from Montgomery, Alabama, Jalil traveled and lived in many cities – including New York, Washington, DC and Los Angeles – before settling in the Steel City.
Jalil says he has always been an artist, and his mother used to tell stories about him being drawn to creating art as a toddler. Still, he went to school to study theoretical physics but ended up graduating in computer science.
“My heart has always been for the arts. And so, for a while, I did spoken word poetry as a profession. Eventually I started doing my visual art and including words in it, which I still do to this day, and now I do art full time,” he says.
Second show of the collective Invisible, currently on display at Downtown’s 820 Liberty Avenue gallery, was born out of a conversation between Jalil and featured artist Amun Ray, and focuses on themes of mental health and stigma in the black community. The exhibition features paintings, sculptures, performances, multimedia installations and poetry by 12 artists, including Jameelah Platt and Cheré D. Gordon, who all explore their personal struggles with mental health.
The show also explores the “trichotomy of black lived experience.” Jalil says black artists are “the undesirables, the copied and the rejected” and although the influence of black artists can be seen virtually everywhere, they hardly get their due.
One of Jalil’s mentors, George Gist, was a professional portrait painter, muralist, and jazz musician who lived in Pittsburgh’s Hill District. Jalil says Gist came up with the idea for The Colored Section, right down to the name and mission, but Gist died in 2020 before the project could materialize.
“George, he felt like there was way too much competition between black artists here in Pittsburgh. He felt like it was hampering our ability to take full advantage of all the talent here,” says Jalil. “And so he wanted to create a collective that would focus on a real community among black artists.”
Gist was widely respected in the Pittsburgh arts community, especially by those he mentored, so it was important that his vision become a reality for Jalil, who runs The Colored Section with his wife and curator Zeal Eva.
The other members of the collective are Gordon, Platt, Isaiah Spencer, Jessica Vaden, Maurice Sturdivant, KiAsia, Trenita Finney, Amun Ray, Sarah Huny Young, Jabari Mercer, Nina Soto, Shori Sims, Tomi Adebayo and Trinity Spencer.
The Colored Section officially formed in November 2020, and their first show Year
“We’re the artists who struggled to get in through the front door, so to speak. And so we had to find our own ways in the art world. I’m trying to leverage the name I’ve built as Natiq to spread awareness of The Colored Section,” says Jalil. “So we really focus on artists who are either unknown or underrepresented or those who have mental health issues. Some have been a little ostracized, any black artist who has struggled to get their work known.
Starting The Colored Section was, in part, a response to the long history of black arts dismissal, but Jalil also considers the artists in the collective to be part of his chosen family. Just as his biological family met on Sundays for dinner, the artists of the collective meet for meals on Fridays.
As for the future, the group of artists plans to have four major shows each year, one for each season. They are looking to expand beyond Pittsburgh and have shows scheduled in Los Angeles this year.
While the collective is currently closed to membership, Jalil says that if an artist catches his eye, there is always an opportunity to be brought into the group.
“People have different expectations for us, but our own expectations are to overcome everything,” he says. “We welcome those eyes upon us as an example of what black people can do when we really put our minds to it. We won’t do everything perfectly, but we will do our best for everything. »
The Colored Section Black Artists’ Collective presents Invisible. Continues until February 13. 820 Liberty Ave., Downtown. To free. tinyurl.com/PittsburghInVisible