African Art

Importing African Art to Cultivate Black-Affirming Aesthetics

Tanaiia Hall is the co-founder of B1 Art Imports, a Black-owned business that imports high-quality African art from multiple countries on the Continent.

In this interview, she discusses her passion for showcasing the beauty of the African diaspora through art, her commitment to sourcing authentic and unique pieces, and the significance of Black-affirming aesthetics.

African Art
Tanaiia Hall

How did your love for art and the African diaspora inspire you to create B1 Art?

Growing up, my mother’s diverse creative interests, including sewing, clay sculpting, modeling, hairstyling, and cooking, nurtured my talent and deepened my passion for the arts.

In 2021, I made a decision to dive into the world of art collecting, with a focus on Black art. As fate would have it, my partner and I met a Black art collector who was interested in adding more African art to his collection and we collectively thought about where, of all the countries we had visited, we might focus our efforts on importing art.

The essence of the African diaspora, its vibrant colors, powerful imagery, and universal energy, resonates with people from all walks of life. Personally, having traveled across North America, Africa, and various diasporic communities, I’ve encountered individuals who resemble me. These experiences deepened my sense of connection but also taught me that not everyone shares the same perspective. My appreciation for my Black heritage began at home and has grown as I delve into our history and accomplishments.

Both sides of my family were part of the “Great Migration,” relocating from the South to the North and West. Reflecting on their resilience in establishing successful businesses from scratch in Los Angeles County and West Oakland fills me with immense pride. It reinforces my respect for all Black individuals who have overcome the legacy of slavery and displacement.

I’ve observed commonalities in our hair, food, music, and expressions across different Black communities, fostering a sense of connection and shared understanding. As I’ve matured, I’ve become even more committed to prioritizing “us” in how I shape my life, do business, and spend my money. Contributing to the wealth of fellow Black individuals brings me immeasurable joy.

What is the significance of having Black-affirming aesthetics in the home?

To me, having Black-affirming aesthetics in the home is a must, if you are Black. I suspect that some people are on autopilot and don’t realize how certain things in their homes may be draining their energy and that is easy to do. 

There are so many things that decorated the collective family houses that I fondly remember from my childhood that I associate with “being Black”. When talking to others and comparing notes about the décor they had growing up that we also had feels comforting for some reason.  These things were probably not made by black people and were not worth much but by virtue of being in a lot of Black homes, they became part of the shared experience. 

Recently,  I saw on a program on YouTube, the host said that he sits in the dark in an all-Black room to recharge his energy and that was profound to me.  From being suspended in the dark in utero to sleeping in the dark at night, all Black has always been supportive of our well-being.  After hearing that and seeing some home décor shows featuring Black people with themes of Black-affirming aesthetics, I set an intention to make sure that my space was not by accident and that it was a celebration of and invitation to my ancestors. 

Life can be emotionally challenging outside of your doors so, I am a firm believer in your home being a sanctuary, safe and comfortable.  I saw a documentary about a Black art collector whose home is basically a gallery of Black art. He said that every Black person should own a piece of Black art.  I did not think about that before but, when he said that, I agreed with it. There are a lot of people who have homes that depict images of and things made by others and of people who hate them yet, they are confused about why the energy in their home is “challenging” and unsupportive. 

Whether you make it yourself, buy Black art from Etsy or Ross, or own a Bisa Butler or Ernie Barnes, we have to be conscious of how much of ourselves may not be in what we purchase to style our home and why depictions of our highest selves, ancestors and cultural memories and traditions must be splashed throughout the place that we rest and are the most vulnerable and creative.

What do you look for in a piece of art when deciding whether to acquire it for B1 Art?

Many items I see when traveling and in touristy areas seem mass-produced, lack uniqueness, and, potentially, are not even made in that country.  On the last trips I went on, without the idea of purchasing art to sell in mind, I could not find art that I thought depicted the beauty and artistry of the people in that country.  

If I can see the person creating it in front of me, whether painting or carving the wood, the better.  Everyone’s eye is different but when something makes me gasp or makes me stop to look at it and touch it, we are on the right track.  If I walk away but can’t get it out of my mind, it’s the one.  Fun fact: I left a huge, canvas painting in Cuba that was one of the only pieces of art that I saw that I wanted and I regret it every time I think about it. 

I want to see something unique about it even if you have other vendors selling something that is very similar.  What is eye-catching about the way that this person’s hands interpreted what a man on a horse should look and feel like?  Weight, texture, and unique detail all come together to leave an impression.  What I see being imported and sold locally tends to look like pieces from the same countries from vendor to vendor. 

That is understandable as the most accessible items that require the lowest overhead are typically what people become accustomed to but for B1, we do not feel limited to only get those items that can fit in a suitcase or that people may already be familiar with.  I like to find things that will create a “one of a kind” experience for the buyer.  

How do you choose the artists and artworks that you feature in your collection?

Our first pieces and most of the art come from Sierra Leone.  I have not been there yet but, my partner has spent a lot of time there and was in the process of building a home and staying there so, he already knew the beauty of the art there and the people who would become part of our fabulous team. 

We work with artists whose work embodies that “Je ne se quoi” craftsmanship that reminds me of the sturdiness, comfort, and authenticity of my nostalgic black experience growing up even if the details of the art pieces themselves were very different.  Most importantly, their art shows their familiarity, love, and the complexity of whatever they are depicting.  Creating art is a spiritual experience for any artists that I have spoken with or observed whose art I also appreciate. 

I think that energy and connection is what calls me.  We have bold statement pieces, anywhere from items that could practically be used as a load-bearing wall in your house to subtle pieces that you can stare at for hours but not realize you are doing it.  Once again, I choose pieces that I can’t take my eyes off of and that I also have probably never laid my eyes on before. 

We also now work with artists in Guinea and Nigeria.  The wooden statues from Guinea are similar to the ones in Sierra Leone but a collector will easily see the differences in their approaches, use of wood, and the ways their takes on what they are recreating subtly differ.  I had not seen a Nigerian bronze piece prior to buying our first pieces.  The craftsmanship is stunning and, although they may be a dime a dozen in Nigeria, I was today years old when I first laid eyes on one in person amid all of my travels.  

What advice would you give to someone who is interested in starting their own art collection?

I think that it depends on what the goal is and from my experience there usually is not a “goal” you just start buying what you like or don’t buy anything because you think that there is a “right way” to do it.  If you don’t know your style then search for Black art images on Pinterest, Etsy, and Google “Black art galleries”. As you look for those things, more of them will show up in your feed. 

I love seeing homes that are decorated in Black, African diasporic aesthetic in other publications and now there are so many YouTube shows popping up featuring people with homes decorated in this way.  I studied fashion design once upon a time and one of the many things I learned was to scour the internet (and magazines) for inspiration for designs so, there is no need to try to recreate the wheel and to think that you have to conceive of your own theme and taste without feeling like it has to make sense to others or follow a prescribed script.

It is worth considering at the beginning of your journey whether you want to collect art just based on what you like and what fits your space and/or if you want to collect art that you like but that you also consider as an investment.  In other words, do you want to target pieces that you think you could sell for more than you paid for it at some point in time in the future or pass on to your loved ones in an estate plan to increase their net worth? I think that those are two different lanes and approaches, but they can and typically do coexist. I bought what I liked prior to 2021 and now, I also collect with the intention of them being investments and a way to generate and maintain generational wealth while also enjoying it now. 

Therefore, I am mindful of wanting pieces that are unique and beautiful to me and that I want to be passed down for many generations to come but that also may be sold, if necessary or as a strategic financial move.  At the end of the day, I think that it should “call” you.  If you walk away from it or leave it in your Etsy shopping cart but can’t get it out of your mind, that might be a piece that you need in your collection.  If you have a home with a minimalistic aesthetic or maximalist, I am certain that we have a piece that would fit.  

Also, your tastes can evolve as you grow.  Be prepared for and create space for things that worked in one space or when you were at a certain place in life to no longer fit in a new space or with evolved tastes.  That does not have to be a tragedy or disappointment but, instead, can be an opportunity to have an art swap, sale or to have seasonal rotations and to have some things in time out for a while as you bring in other items.

What can we expect to see from B1 Art in the future? 

As I mentioned we just received our first shipment of bronze sculptures from Benin, Nigeria so, we will be beefing up the inventory for that collection.

We are working out a deal with the artist to be able to provide steady business for him and to assemble a team there so that we can continue to practice cooperative economics with the many local business owners from our buyer/operations manager to the artist to the crate builder, transporter, lumber sellers, national authenticity certifier, shipping agent contractor that we work with to make sure we deliver pieces to our customers and that the pipeline of people involved in the process continues to benefit.

We have also been seeing art pieces for sale and in people’s collections that are in bad shape.  We have been tempted to get into the search and rescue business by acquiring those pieces and restoring them to their glory. So, you may see some select pieces acquired from other people’s collections and not the artist directly, in the future.

by Tony O. Lawson

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