'Black history is American history': Austin's only Black-owned art gallery hosts the group show 'American History'
When artist Richard Samuel opened his own gallery last year, he didn’t know it would be the only Black-owned art gallery in Austin. “It was a surprise to me,” Samuel says. “I opened up just because it’s a life dream of mine to have my own gallery and a space where I could have jazz nights and a creative space to create work. And then I found out it was the only [currently] open Black-owned gallery in Austin. There was one before but it had closed down. And then I found out I was the only other one, besides one in Houston, in Texas. There were only two at the time. Now there’s one in San Antonio and I believe there’s another one in Houston. So it’s three or four in Texas now. But it was crazy. It was 2021, [and] I was like, ‘no way I’m the only Black-owned gallery.’”
Samuel says he hopes his gallery, RichesArt, doesn’t remain Austin’s only Black-owned art gallery for long. “I would love to help maybe some of these artists sell all of their works and they have enough money to put down and open their own space here in Austin,” he says. “We can have a collaborative and anything like that.”
Long before opening the gallery, Samuel got his start as a young artist by painting the things he saw every day, which is his case was a lot of action figures. “Yeah, I’m a huge comic book connoisseur,” he says with a laugh. “And so I just non-stop drew action figures. And my mom started buying me paint supplies, and I started noticing the reaction out of her when I would do florals or something different from comic book characters. So it was kind of like a drive for her approval at first, what got me into other things besides comic books. She was like, ‘Will you paint this flower, please? I’ve had enough Spider-Man.’”
After a short digression about our shared love of Spider-Man, Samuel talks a bit about the group show that’s currently on exhibit at RichesArt. “It’s called American History, because I believe… Black history is American history, and we should treat it that way in our textbooks and everything,” he says. “It’s just an art show dedicated to Black art and Black history that helped shape America. [It comprises] 19 artists and a little over 30 pieces of work. And then we’ll have an audio experience too – it’s Dick Gregory’s book Defining Moments in Black History. So you come in, you can look at the work and then you can also put on the silent headphones and listen to the book while you’re walking around.”
Samuel says some of the works in the show are inspired by historical events and some are more personal. “It’s a mix,” he says. “Some of the pieces are about events… but I also think that art is a physical representation of what we’re going through, or our experiences at the time. So I think any art that anyone makes is a historical landmark or whatever you want to call it. So a lot of the pieces are just experiences from that artist, which is history in my opinion.”
When we spoke, Samuel was still working on hanging and arranging the works in the show. “I only have one wall hung,” he says. “I have two more walls to go. It goes together like a puzzle piece. You basically just hang one piece and you’re like, ‘I think this looks good here,’ and then you just build around it.”
There’s a lot of hard work that comes with owning a gallery, but arranging the art is work that Samuel enjoys. “That’s the fun part,” he says. “But it’s a lot of hard work, a lot of manhours. But the turnaround from it, when you start to have exhibits like this and other art shows we have… You know, you give your artists their first time displaying or selling their first work or learning how to hang things, and it creates so much just greatness in your heart. So it’s been awesome. Tough, but it’s been awesome.”
When audiences come to the gallery to see American History, Samuel hopes they enjoy the art and also think a bit. “I want them to come in here and be completely immersed in the art and the environment and feel like they’re kind of in a different world,” he says. “And I would love for them to learn something, whether it’s the audio book or the message behind an artist’s piece, and they leave with some appreciation.”
'American History' is on display at RichesArt Gallery through February 28.