Austin’s Only Black-Owned Art Gallery Hosts ‘American History’ Exhibit
Who created Black History Month, which takes place every February
Who created Black History Month? It has its origins in Negro History Week, created in 1925 by Carter G. Woodson.
In East Austin, high-rise apartments and newly built complexes are signs of gentrification in the historic district. But nestled inside the ever-changing neighborhood is RichesArt Gallerya black-owned creative space that aims to redefine American history with a new exhibit.
On the gallery walls are the faces of Malcolm X, Maya Angelou, Jean-Michel Basquiat and other iconic black figures. Vivid watercolors and oil paintings highlight these figures’ stories as cultural and political pioneers while conveying a message that transcends their art forms.
For Black History Month, gallery owner and painter Richard Samuel brought together 19 artists from Austin and Houston for an exhibition called “American History.” With each completed canvas, the 33-year-old artist wanted to celebrate the contributions of black figures while opening the hearts and minds of gallery visitors of all faiths and colors.
“The way our history is kind of taught and portrayed isn’t always right,” Samuel said. “I feel like what we call black history is so important to American history, and for anyone who is American, it is their history as well.
“I feel like a lot of people helped make America what it is, and we only really get the story one way. We should enjoy every bit of it.”
Paired with visual works by Texas artists, Dick Gregory’s “Defining Moments in Black History: Reading Between the Lies” audiobook plays in the background to create an immersive experience.
After attending the opening reception for the exhibition, Steven Hatchett, co-founder of the Austin-based arts organization COLOR, said he brought a sense of freshness to the city. It is certain that the art gallery will become a cultural enclave in the years to come.
“I felt supportive of the type of business that (Samuel) is building for Austin,” Hatchett said. “It’s about having a safe space for artists of color. And in a practical sense, that’s powerful and something we desperately need.
“We have legacy organizations like the George Washington Carver Museum, but the new energy it brings has been an incredible thing to see.”
From footballer to artist and entrepreneur
Samuel’s vision for the art space began during his years as a professional soccer player.
Just before retiring in 2018, Samuel applied the skills he learned in a watercolor class at age 18 and started creating artwork again. At the end of his last season in Germany, he organized a personal exhibition of his work. It was his first time selling his work, and from there his artistic journey “blew up”, he said.
Samuel began renting the space, which was previously a store that sold adult accessories, in May 2021, and opened it as RichesArt Gallery a month later. He got to know other people in the local art scene; he said his space is the only black-owned gallery in Austin.
Instead of feelings of accomplishment, Samuel said disappointment had set in.
“I was sad because our people didn’t have more space to exhibit,” he said. “And at the same time, I found statistics that showed that African Americans were only 15% of contemporary artists exhibited in galleries. Now I realize that’s the way it is because black people don’t don’t own the space. So that’s the way to change that.”
When he first moved into space, his goal was to move his art business out of his building. But after acknowledging the lack of black-owned art galleries, he was pushed to showcase the talents of creators of color and empower them.
Focused on restoring lost culture in East Austin
Samuel’s ambitions have grown stronger, given the change that has taken place in East Austin. As homes and businesses disappear to make way for new properties, the population of Black and Latino residents and entrepreneurs who once occupied the area have been slowly driven out – and with it their history.
But the gallery will represent the recovery of the region’s history and culture, Samuel said.
“You can see how people get kicked out of the neighborhood they’ve known forever. And, you know, when gentrification happens like that, your art and your culture tends to leave too,” he said. “But we’re going to display that culture; it’s hugely important.”
Multimedia artist Dr. Morris said Samuel firmly carried the baton for black creatives.
Morris, 31, whose work “The Cowboy” is displayed at the front of the exhibition, said Samuel supported all the visual artists who participated in the exhibition and continued to encourage them.
“(Samuel) is very, very meticulous about what he wants to post, but he’s very open to everyone, especially people of color,” said Morris, a Tampa native. “He gave a voice to the voiceless and he held up a torch to empower the marginalized.”
Push for more local support
Beyond Black History Month, Samuel said his space, along with other minority-owned businesses, should be celebrated and supported more by Austinites.
In turn, Samuel hopes more creative people of color will create artistic platforms for others to shine and give people a broader view of the talent that exists in Central Texas.
As the gallery nears its anniversary this spring, Samuel said he plans to hold more exhibitions and events highlighting the city’s artists. And in time, he would like to establish more arts complexes on East Sixth Street and continue to provide a haven for creative expression and influence in East Austin.
If you are going to
Or: 2511 E. Sixth St., Unit A
Hours: noon to 8 p.m. Monday to Saturday
The “American History” exhibition will run until February 28. For more information, visit richart.com.