This Gallerist Is Creating Nuanced Conversations Around Race in the Art World
Joeonna Bellorado-Samuels's mobile We Buy Gold gallery exhibits work that doesn't fit into white America's concept of normativity.
Joeonna Bellorado-Samuels didn’t intend to start a conversation about race and gentrification when she opened roving art gallery We Buy Gold in Bed-Stuy last summer. “I was kind of misquoted, and then every other writer picks that up. But I’m like, No, I’m not trying to bridge those gaps!” she said. “But I learned, if that’s the conversation people are having, then I need to acknowledge that and not shy away from it.”
In truth, Bellorado-Samuels opened We Buy Gold to put on “the shows that had been in my head.” As a director at Jack Shainman Gallery in Manhattan, she wanted to bring artists closer to her community in Brooklyn’s rapidly gentrifying neighborhood. Last summer, We Buy Gold hosted three exhibitions featuring artists like South Africa’s Mohau Modisakeng, whose video installation examined the traumas of the Middle Passage, and Brooklyn-based Alexandra Bell, whose photo project inverted the “bad guy” public image given to Mike Brown, the teenager killed in 2014 by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri.
“There’s this misnomer that We Buy Gold is only showing artists of color,” Bellorado-Samuels explained. “That was never something that came from me. [Artists of color are] just my normativity.” As if in response to this misconception, Bellorado-Samuels will help poet and author Claudia Rankine interrogate the narrative that has centered whiteness as the criterion as a curatorial committee member of Rankine’s Racial Imaginary Institute. The institute will host its next art show at the Kitchen, in June, right after Bellorado-Samuels opens We Buy Gold in Chinatown on April 29 through June 3.
Below, I talked to the gallerist about the evolution of We Buy Gold and how black women can take up space in the art world.
VICE: Why did you open We Buy Gold?
Joeonna Bellorado-Samuels: I was interested in trying out different models and working with artists that we don’t represent at the [Jack Shainman] gallery. I wanted to make the shows that had been in my head. And I was also really interested in opening it where I live. It was really important for me to do something in Bed-Stuy that was a departure from the model of institutional spaces.
There’s often a sense of hostility felt by people who aren’t used to inhabiting those types of spaces. Did you seek to erase any of those tensions with We Buy Gold?
Oh yeah, totally. Access is something that is really important to me and to what I was trying to do with We Buy Gold. I definitely don’t feel like I came up with any solutions to that, but it was definitely something I’m committed to. Sometimes I think breaking down those barriers has to do with just being there and consistency, because it does take time to get people in there and familiar with the art.
You’ve mentioned before that you feel like you should be taking up more space as a person of color in the art industry. Can you break that down?
While there are a lot of artists of color, I don’t think they are necessarily represented in a lot of spaces. And there are definitely not a lot of us on the other side of that, within those roles, working in galleries or museums or curatorial practices. I think it’s important for us to do as much as we can, to make sure our voices are heard and we’re representing as much as we can. And that isn’t exclusive to artists of color. There’s kind of this misnomer that We Buy Gold is only showing artists of color. But that was never something that came from me. That’s just my normativity, in the same way that it is for a lot of other people in seemingly exclusionary exhibition industries.
It does seem like the discussion of race can be limiting in the art world.
I find it interesting that We Buy Gold caught on as a "black artist show." Yes, it’s a gallery show that exhibits a lot of artists of color. And I do think that’s something that should be remarked upon. But I’m cautious about anything that describes a space within a certain distinct limitation. It feels too easy. Other spaces, even though they are very singular in what they show, are never discussed in that way.
It’s not about not wanting to talk about race—every single show that we did talks about race. It’s just that I want to have a conversation about the nuance in that. I’m not interested in shows in which race is the only thing that strings them together. There’s so much nuance and complexity in that, and I just find it can be quite lazy—not from the black artists, but from people who are gazing on us.
What do you see for the future of black women in art?
As art makers or art workers?
I’m just hoping that there ends up being more of us, but I do think the community is growing. There’s this group of women who all work at galleries, and we all get together and have quarterly gatherings, and we make sure to stay in touch consistently. It’s not a support group, but it’s supportive. It's this kind of building community within the community just because there are so few of us, and we end up having this sense of isolation. I just hope that there ends up being more of us so our voices can be represented more thoroughly.
What’s next for We Buy Gold?
We’re going to Chinatown, on East Broadway, close to Canal, from April 29 to June 3. Photographer Elliott Jerome Brown Jr., Shellyne Rodriguez, who did the Cake volumes in the shop, Texas Isaiah, and filmmaker Ja’Tovia Gary will be at the show. And we’re bringing back the shop in the space, including work by Patrick Martinez.
Photography and Styling by Maroon World
Makeup: Wanthy Rayos
Hawker 4000 Provided by Talon Air
This story is a part of VICE's ongoing effort to highlight the contributions of black women around the globe who are making a difference. To read more stories about strong black women making history today, go here.
Sign up for our newsletter to get the best of VICE delivered to your inbox daily.
Follow Amirah Mercher on Twitter.