In the words of famous American author Steven Pressfield: “Creative work is a gift to the world and every being in it. Don’t cheat us of your contribution. Give us what you’ve got.”
What started out as a few artists advertising their artwork on Instagram has manifested into an idea to create a safe space for Black Winnipeg-based artists to express themselves freely where the only limit is their imagination.
Founded in February 2023, Black Artists Winnipeg is an independently funded organization that gives Black artists of multidisciplinary backgrounds, such as music and artwork, opportunities to connect with the community, showcase their talents, network with new artists and collaborate on new projects.
The group connects artists with benefactors, chances to produce commissioned work and volunteer opportunities. Black Artists Winnipeg currently works with more than 11 artists of different mediums.
Olivia Cassie founded the organization after participating in an art showcase at the University of Manitoba (U of M) last February. There, she met Efe Ogboru, a fellow artist who was part of the exhibition and is now Black Artists Winnipeg’s artist director.
“I have a lot of artwork in case there needs to be more art in the event space,” Ogboru says. “I am also in charge of organizing or setting up the interior design of the event space, wherever it may be.”
Finally, Cassie takes notes of any new artists looking to join the group and how much artwork they plan on bringing with them.
Shortly after, they met up with Kevin Manzi, one of Cassie’s classmates at the U of M. Manzi was already considering turning his artwork into a business, and he is now the Black Artists Winnipeg program director. He handles the business side of collaborating with other organizations to access gallery space.
Black Artists Winnipeg also gives local youth safer spaces to cultivate their creativity and develop artistic skills, along with guidance from more experienced artists. The organization hopes to set up workshops for different art styles in the future.
The group also uses makeshift gallery spaces and pop-ups at local events to connect with the community and help local artists gain exposure. Black Artists Winnipeg was involved with GerryFest in August and teamed up with YBK Entertainment for Afro Fall, a live-music, food and games event, in September.
The festival specifically celebrated excellence within the Black community. It featured an art gallery, vendor stands serving African food and selling homemade wares and a musical lineup of singers, rappers and DJs. More than 200 people attended, according to YBK Entertainment.
“Everything came out of pocket, and it has paid off so well,” Cassie says.
Black Artists Winnipeg wants to be part of more events like these, and a few are lined up for October. They will be a part of an R&B event at the Friskee Pearl on Oct. 21 and are looking into planning their first-ever paint workshop.
One of the organization’s artists, Danai Musabayane, is a U of M student who says Black Artists Winnipeg has made her feel welcome and helped improve her artistic abilities.
“I thought Black Artists Winnipeg would be an opportunity to try and connect with other people in art,” Musabayane says. “I didn’t even know if there were any art clubs at the University of Manitoba. I’d never heard of any. I’ve learned tons of new things from these guys.”
She says the group has taught her how to try “out different art techniques, how to properly price your artwork for the amount of time and equipment used to make it and where to buy high-quality canvases, paint and so on.”
Many artists struggle to show their work and make money or an entire career off their art. This is often especially true for Black artists. Cassie, a more experienced artist, realized how hard it is for Black artists to show or gain recognition for their work and branch out to new opportunities.
Some of the barriers Black artists face include a lack of support from the community, cultural biases and systemic racism.
Cassie says supporting Black artists in Winnipeg is more crucial now than ever. “I think it’s important, because art can contribute to changing minds,” she says. “If Black art becomes commonplace, I think it would strongly help the city culture shift in a more accepting direction.
“On top of that, it benefits the individual artists. The sale of artwork is affirming, and artists should be compensated for their work, especially in today’s economy. At the end of the day, we are professionals trying to take up a space that predominantly consists of white people.”
Cassie, Ogboru and Manzi shared the same idea to create a space for Black artists.
“I already had an idea of wanting to create a space for Black artists,” Ogboru says, “because there are a lot of Black artists in Winnipeg, but they don’t come out due to general shyness or limitations based on their background. Being an artist doesn’t seem like a career you’ll want to go for many people.”
Mazi says some galleries aren’t willing to take in artists’ work when it’s labelled as “Black art.” Others claim this work is “just what people don’t want to see.”
Manzi says he didn’t realize the difficulties of being an artist in Winnipeg when he first started and notes that there aren’t many supports in place for Black artists. He says he went to three different galleries to submit his artwork and was told “‘We’re not looking for something like this right now,’ or ‘We don’t have space right now,’ even though they do.”
“We’re all just trying to be artists, successful artists. That’s all I want my label to say: I just want to be an artist,” Manzi says.
Musabayne says Black Artists Winnipeg helps bring people together and allows artists to network when doing so isn’t always easy.
“It was hard to connect with people and find people with similar interests,” she says.
“When I came to Canada, I didn’t know people, so I mostly did art in my room. It was tough to connect with people, because most buyers would rather buy art from someone who they know, someone they trust rather than some random person on the internet.”
Because of Black Artists Winnipeg, she has connected with buyers and people outside the organization. She never realized how many Black artists truly needed a space to create until she attended Afro Fall, where she recognized many of her classmates collaborating.
Black Artists Winnipeg came from one typical thought the trio shared: more Black artists in Winnipeg deserved a space to create, collaborate and show off their talents. Even without a permanent space, they could still provide new creatives with the tools to pursue their passion further.
Cassie’s main goals for the organization are to get enough funding to obtain a permanent gallery for all the artwork they currently have from other artists and host even more events for the community to attend.
Black Artists Winnipeg accept donations from the community, because “every little bit helps,” Cassie says. They hope to inspire more Black artists to show off their talent, because everyone deserves recognition for their creativity.
Published in Volume 78, Number 05 of The Uniter (October 5, 2023)