Connecting the Next Generation of Black and Brown Artists

Larry Ossei-Mensah is a self-taught art curator and co-founder of the nonprofit ARTNOIR, which aims to connect and empower the next generation of Black and brown artists. As a curator, he works to source and showcase pieces from diverse artists all across the globe, celebrating the power they hold to change the way we view art, culture and the world.

Did you always know art was something you wanted to pursue?

I grew up in the Bronx in the ‘80s and ‘90s as a first generation Ghanaian-American. Graffiti, these urban hieroglyphs, break dancing, the genesis of hip-hop culture, were my introduction to art. I didn't really grow up going to museums. My exposure starts with the streets, starts with the community. As an adult, that's when I began to deepen my relationship with the arts.

What was your first exposure to the power of Black art?

During grad school, having the opportunity to travel Europe, that's when I began to get exposure. In Florence at the Uffizi Gallery, I see these portraits of folks who are clearly Black—it totally reframed my thinking. To understand there's a history of us being present globally began this journey of trying to answer questions. Where are we present? Where have we had an impact? How can art be a device to explore who I am as a man, as a person of African descent?

When I moved back to New York, I started this exploration in earnest as a photographer, a writer and now, a curator.

As a curator, what excites you about art?

t’s not always just about what excites me, it’s also about who has something important to offer. What makes Black art groundbreaking for me is the feeling. But, what is more important is which artists are offering us a perspective of the world that shows the spectrum of Black creativity, Black expression. I'm making an effort through my curatorial practice to highlight that diversity in expression. Black folks aren't a monolith. The diaspora isn't a monolith—there are so many different strategies and approaches.

“Black folks aren't a monolith. The diaspora isn't a monolith—there are so many different strategies and approaches.”

How has your work inspired your personal style?

My personal style is about keeping it accessible. I mean I think everything I do in my life is about accessibility and creating a sense of belonging, being a catalyst for diversity beyond just culture, and collaboration. Making sure accessibility is there from a style standpoint, and in the exhibitions I do—that's fundamental to how I live my life. What I throw on, that's gonna be the spark for the day.

Do you dress differently depending on the city where you exhibit?

I'm always cognizant of the city I'm in and thinking about how my style can respond to the personality. A place like San Francisco, the weather fluctuates every three hours, so, a lot of layers. Someplace in middle America, no judgment on their style, but [it’s] more homogenous. I'm gonna wear that purple coat or that pink sweater. It's my opportunity to assert my presence, to let you know that I'm someone who loves himself. Hopefully that can inspire you to love yourself, as well.

Tell us about the show you’re currently curating.

I am curating the first US solo museum show for Amoako Boafo entitled Soul of Black Folks at the Museum of the African Diaspora in San Francisco. It's been a transformative experience for me.

I think Amoako's work encapsulates Black subjectivity, thinking about Black joy, but then also thinking about the spectrum in which Blackness can be expressed, its various states of being, these states of grace. Frankly, he has created an inflection point in the culture. I'm excited to share it with the world.

“Making sure accessibility is there from a style standpoint, and in the exhibitions I do—that's fundamental to how I live my life.”

How did being self-taught affect your experience in the art community?

I'm the type of person who, if I don't see what I think could be potentially transformative in the world—create it, make it. That also just comes from my upbringing, like,“All right, if we don't see it in the world, we're gonna make it happen and build it.”When you're a self-taught curator, you are not constrained by formalities. But it did create other challenges for me, at least at the start of my career, because I didn't fit the 'mold' and wanted to be accepted. I spent the beginning of my career trying to fit in, to get a seat at the table, and then, I realized that there was more power in creating your own table with like-minded folks.

Did the desire to “create your own table” inspire you to co-found ARTNOIR?

That table's reflective in the work that ARTNOIR does. ARTNOIR started in 2013 with a constellation of friends creating shared experiences around art, creating this safe space for us to find joy in the arts, particularly thinking about the Black experience and the multitudes of spectrums that can exist.

Now, we’re a nonprofit. This year we're launching a scholarship program for Black and brown MFA students at The City University of New York and The State University of New York. [We’re] expanding our mentorship work—really building something that will outlast my existence on this earth.

What’s next for you?

The thing that makes me full in life is working in collaboration with artists, creatives—helping them towards fulfilling their potential. So, continuing to open up doors, inspire folks, and live my truth. Obviously, celebrate the wins and the opportunities, but we're talking about Black joy, Black subjectivity, Black expression. It's a continual work. It's not something that will have any endpoint in my lifetime. It's fulfilling, but we're only halfway through the journey.

Creating the world that I wanna see in collaboration with the folks I align with in terms of vision and intention—it's been fun. It hasn't been easy, but I think anything that's worthwhile is not easy.

“I'm the type of person who, if I don't see what I think could be potentially transformative in the world—create it, make it.”

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