While this week’s Savannah Urban Arts Festival features a ton of cool stuff — screenings, vinyl sales, poetry slams, hip hop jams, a video game tournament, and even skateboarding — there’s no doubt what the premier attraction is.
Art Beats + Lyrics, a blend of traveling art gallery, installation, and hip hop road show, hits town 7–11 p.m. this Saturday at the Ralph Mark Gilbert Civil Rights Museum on MLK Jr. Boulevard.
Based in Atlanta, AB+L is less a traditional art show than a multimedia collective and a happening. While its roots are in the streets, the collective has garnered praise from the mainstream art world; a recent show at the prestigious High Museum in Atlanta was not only swamped with museumgoers, but resulted in plenty of new memberships for the High Museum itself.
The visual artists in an AB+L show are artists who may or may not have an arts education, but who are definitely outside the mainstream.
While AB+L shows are generally sponsored by Jack Daniels Whiskey, because this Saturday’s appearance is for all ages, it is funded by the City of Savannah and the Georgia Council for the Arts (the latter threatened with termination by the state legislature).
The brainchild of Jabari Graham, AB+L has also gone on the road to Charlotte and Birmingham. We spoke to Graham last week.
What can people expect when they come to AB+L? Set the scene for us.
Jabari Graham: They’ll see huge, oversized pieces of wall that we constructed along with colorful art. Freaked out, of course. We’ll bring some of the lowrider bicycles there. Definitely music. One of the DJs we’re going to have was actually a DJ with Public Enemy. He’s going to come down and spin. It’s really going to be like a sensory overload of art, music, dance, and good atmosphere.
When you founded AB+L, did you have a lightbulb over the head moment? Or was it a more gradual thing?
Jabari Graham: When I first did this show it was in 2004. I was laid off of my job. I used to work with Universoul Circus — they actually just left Savannah a couple of weeks ago. I was laid off from there and me and my friend were at the unemployment office, and they had these inspirational tapes.
I always wanted to do something with art and music, and I just started realizing about all the graffiti that was in Atlanta. Who are these artists? Because no one could really buy them. So I just wanted to highlight them as well as other urban artists who aren’t in prestigious galleries for whatever reason. Highlight that art form and use the live music, deejaying, break dancing, and real hip hop, not like BET or radio stations.
After the first show, which was in a small hole in the wall type gallery and restaurant, we did the second show at the High Museum in Atlanta. That’s the southeast’s leading museum. It was like, OK, they wanted this production, but we’re not allowed to hang on their walls. We were like, we’ll just do it on our own walls. We painted on the walls, got the graffiti artists to do some cool things, and then we hung the pieces on there. From there we had a moving exhibit and could go anyplace and put up the installation.
Are traditional artists and galleries threatened at all about your success?
Jabari Graham: I don’t think it’s threatening. For the most part they seem a little more adapted to it. At some of the galleries in Atlanta, there was no kind of urban art. But now they’re more open to some of the artists that I’ve had in my shows. I think they’ve opened up to it.
Atlanta would seem to be fertile ground for an urban arts show. Are other cities maybe a little less receptive?
Jabari Graham: No. We’ve been from Mississippi and just left DC. The Smithsonian was right across the street! Everywhere we’ve been we’ve had a very receptive audience. In those cities there are a lot of urban artists who also don’t have that platform. So it’s helping them out by giving them exposure and showing their artwork. The only thing I would say is that some people didn’t understand what it was beforehand. But when they went to the show, they got it, you know what I’m saying?
Word of mouth is big for you, isn’t it?
Jabari Graham: Yeah. You do your underground, guerilla PR but you also get those artists involved. And that’s the word of mouth — artist to fan.
What’s your process for deciding who gets to display?
Jabari Graham: There’s no process, really. From the early days it was going to stores and asking, who is this artist? But now most artists come recommended from other artists. I’ll go on a blog or check out a magazine. If I think it’s dope, I’ll reach out to them.
How often do you rotate artists and performers between shows? Do some works carry over?
Jabari Graham: Some of the art is carried from show to show. We still have new art that we put in each and every show. We may commission some artists. We keep the nuts and bolts, but we also add some sprockets, you know? With entertainment it’s kind of the same way. We know what works. I don’t want to have to worry about, OK, is this new DJ any good? I know this dude, he rocks out, so we’ll use him again.
Do you worry that some more credentialed, traditional artists will try and get into your show to sponge off your buzz and street cred?
Jabari Graham: Not really. There have been some artists that will sell $20,000 pieces of art, or more. It’s like they want to be a part of something cool but at the same time we respect the fine art they do. Nothing’s really new under the sun. We get advice from a lot of older artists on how to sell stuff, how to position ourselves and put it out to the public. We’re cool with that.
Sounds like you don’t really see AB+L as competing with mainstream art.
Jabari Graham: Nah, I don’t want to. We all love art.
Getting into Georgia politics: Last week we got news that the legislature might eliminate the Georgia Council for the Arts, which is partially funding your appearance here this weekend. What do you have to say about that?
Jabari Graham: I was talking to a friend about this the other day, and I was like, man, what more do kids have to look forward to in school? If you get rid of gym and PE and music and art? All the other stuff is very necessary, don’t get me wrong. But those are outlets for creativity. And because they messed up the budget, kids have to suffer. My mother was a principal and a teacher, and she was a strong advocate for those types of programs. And I was into those programs. But it’s pretty messed up. Things were already messed up, but that’s just going to mess it up even worse. It’s not cool.
What’s next for AB+L? Do you want to continue road shows, or move on to some other type of presentation?
Jabari Graham: I’d love to continue. I’d love to go to New York and LA, we haven’t been there with the show. But after that I’d like to go abroad. Some people have reached out to me from Egypt and South America about bringing it there. I hope that can work out, man, because I read in magazines about how the art world is there, and it’s dope, you know? I think we have something cool and I’d like to compliment the two together, and get out of the states.
“Urban” is usually a code word for “African American.” But it’s interesting that AB+L is so big in places with very few people of African heritage.
Jabari Graham: Hip hop is huge over there. You’ve got acts in the states that don’t really blow up to their full potential, but when they go to Europe they’re stars. I know some of these people in Atlanta. People can walk past them, but they go to New Zealand and they’re celebrities. I think the same way our music is big over there, underground wise and mainstream wise, this art show has the potential to be the same way.
Savannah Urban Arts Schedule
6–9pm: SUAFilm – Screenings by independent filmmakers from across the Southeast. Indigo Arts Center. 703D Louisville Rd. All Ages.
11pm–2am: Rare Grooves hosted by DJ Valis – Cool selections of funk, soul, breaks and hip hop. Bacchus, 309 W. Congress St. 21+
7–9pm: Keep it Cool – Live performance from Dezaray Dawn, spoken word poetry performances, and a photo exhibition by Sheldon Frazier: Lulu’s Chocolate Bar, 42 MLK Jr. Blvd.
9 p.m.–12am: The Jam Session – Musicians, dancers, poets and others. American Legion Post 135, 1810 Bull Street. 21+
6–9pm: On the Grind Skateboarding – An evening skating session and skateboard demos. Woody’s Skate Park, 218 Windsor Road. All Ages
9pm–1am: Shut Up and Fight – Video game tournament, SUAF King of the Beats battle, and regional breakdancing tournament, as well as the opening reception for an exhibit by selected artists. Indigo Arts Center, 703D Louisville Road. 16+
12pm–6pm: The Big Party – Full day of music, food, vendors, activities for the family. Ralph Mark Gilbert Civil Rights Museum, 460 MLK Jr. Blvd. All Ages
7pm–11pm: Art Beats + Lyrics – Traveling Urban Arts Exhibition includes live music, DJ performances, visual arts and more. Ralph Mark Gilbert Civil Rights Museum, 460 MLK Jr. Blvd. All Ages
1pm–2:30pm–SUAF Artist Networking Brunch–Light brunch and network with other regional artists. Indigo Arts Center, 703D Louisville Rd. All Ages
5pm–10pm: Vinyl Appreciation – Local DJs and record collectors play favorite rare and undiscovered music selections. Indigo Arts Center, 703D Louisville Rd. 16+