Ukwensi Chappell

Gamal Williams | July 19th, 2021
Ukwensi Chappell

Ukwensi Chappell

Black artists and their work have long been marginalized as untrained, uneducated, and lesser than their White counterparts. The terms “Black art” and “Black artists” by definition prove this marginalization. The artist is seen as Black first, and then through a less than approving lens, their work is viewed in its own little box, unworthy of comparison to the likes of a Rembrandt, a Van Gogh, a Picasso, or a Warhol. The aren’t seen as impressionists, abstractists, sculptors, cubists, expressionists, or realists. They are merely Black artists that make Black art that only Black people could understand and appreciate. Ukwensi Chappel sees art as art.

In 2018, Ukwensi Chappell opened Gallerie Ukwensi, located in the Ghent District of Norfolk. Ukwensi (he explains it’s pronunciation in his energetic tones as “Oooo, Quincy”), opened Gallerie Ukwensi to do what other gallery’s wouldn’t: expose and educate people to the beauty of art crafted by Black artists. A tour through his gallery reveals something deeper, something powerful and beautiful, rooted in centuries of exclusion. Ukwensi takes the time to greet every customer, young or old, Black, White or purple, rich or poor. He doesn’t just greet people; he engages with them.

Ukwensi, or “Uki” as his friends call him, watched as I marveled at the beauty held on his walls. As I leaned in to admire a piece, Uki would offer the story behind the art, revealing something special and personal about the artist that inspired the work. When asked why he knew so much about not only a particular piece, but the artists themselves, he said “Most gallery’s in the area didn’t greet me when I came in, and if they did, they didn’t tell me about the art. But every piece has a story, and every story was an experience by the artist.”

Ukwensi’s art, rich abstracts made of layers of crushed glass and pigments suspended in clear enamel that form 3-dimensional kaleidoscopes, line the main wall. Uki calls his work “My windows to your imagination.” No matter what you think you see in his work, its correct. I told him I saw a deep sea scape in one piece; an alien world in another. Uki smiled and tilted his head. “If that is what you see, then that’s what it is. It’s your imagination.”

As we continued the tour, I was astonished to discover the backgrounds of some of the artists. High school teachers, college students, and working class people’s work hung amongst artists that made their living solely through their art. What was more surprising, was that they weren’t all Black. “Yes, my plan was to become the #1 gallery for Black artists because they don’t get a shot. But I wanted to highlight all artists,” Uki explains. “If their art spoke to me, I wanted them in here. We have Black, White, Asian, and Hispanic artists.”

At the conclusion of our tour, Uki offered me a glass of wine or water. He then sat in the soft, leather couch below one of his pieces in the lush seating area in the heart of Gallerie Ukwensi. We were soon joined by two other artists featured in the gallery. Artist Gia Labidi, a dynamic powerhouse of triumph and beauty, and self-taught painter Ralph Thomas, whose infectious energy and slight Southern twang lights up any conversation. Gia and Ralph had no business to conduct. They were merely stopping by, an action I soon found was welcomed in Gallerie Ukwensi. To Uki, Gia and Ralph weren’t just business partners, they were friends, each with a mutual respect and appreciation for the others.

“I was driving by on lunch one day and saw the gallery,” Gia Labidi, a sculptor and painter for more than 20 years recalls. “I gave him my card so I could be on the list to be notified of the opening. He called me not too long after and wanted my work.” Gia’s work has been displayed nationally and internationally. “Uki wants to give us a voice. He is endearing and whomever walks through that door, he engages with them.” There was pain in her voice when she spoke that last sentence. When asked why she felt Gallerie Ukwensi was important, the pain is put into words. “The only place we could be seen, was in Black gallery’s. Its irritating that White artists are just artists. They aren’t labeled,” Gia stated, “…and our art isn’t supported. It’s been 20 years since there was a black owned gallery in Ghent.”

Ralph Thomas, who taught himself using paint-by-numbers kits, echoes Gia’s sentiments. “Most times, art gallery’s don’t even want to speak to you if you’re a Black artist. They look at you like ‘Oh, you doin’ Black art.’ I’m like ‘No, I’m doing art that’s just as good as anything you have up in here!’” Uki nods in agreement. Then, the gallery door swings open, and three ladies enter. They are young, Black, maybe in college or attend Maury High School up the road. Uki politely excused himself and his eyes squinted as his smile pushed his cheeks into them. They are a bit surprised that not only were the greeted so fast, but that the towering man that approached them smiled. They smiled back then walked with wide eyes and gaped mouths as Ukwensi highlighted every piece. They were learning, enjoying, experiencing, and it all started with two words from Uki:

“Hello. Welcome.”

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