To Chanel Compton, executive director of the Banneker-Douglass Museum, there was never any question as to who should curate the first exhibit since its recent renovation: It had to be Baltimore gallerist Myrtis Bedolla.
“We begged her,” said Compton, speaking at the opening celebration Nov. 10. “We knew we wanted to do a show that focused on African diaspora artists in Maryland. She’s incredibly busy, but she said ‘yes.’”
Bedolla, the owner of Galerie Myrtis, arguably the most prestigious art gallery in Baltimore, chose the museum’s reopening to spotlight the work of Tawny Chatmon, an Annapolis-based photographer whose gold-embellished portraits are in the collections of music star Alicia Keyes, major museums and Beyoncé’s mom.
Buoyed by social media hits, a successful first New York exhibition and significant acquisitions, Chatmon’s first work up for auction at Christie’s went for $25,200 in September. Chatmon is a rising star in the international art world who happens to call Anne Arundel County home.
“They are so incredibly beautiful,” Bedolla said of Chatmon’s photographs with gold leaf overlays, “but they’re not just beautiful for beauty’s sake. There’s a social and political commentary that lies within.”
One of Chatmon’s newest works, a portrait of a young Black girl surrounded by swirls of gold, is a centerpiece of “The Radical Voice of Blackness Speaks of Resistance and Joy,” a collection of works by a dozen Maryland-based Black artists paired with works from the museum’s permanent collection chosen by Bedolla. A few are downstairs in the entrance gallery, but most are upstairs in the former sanctuary of Mount Moriah AME Church, which reopened as a state-owned museum in 1984.
After nearly 40 years of welcoming visitors, the main exhibition space of the Banneker-Douglass Museum needed updating. The renovation included ripping up decades-old carpeting to reveal the original pine floors. Unfortunately, contractors found most of the wood unsalvageable, Compton said, so she opted to place new pine flooring over the soft, damaged wood below.
“We’re trying to be historically accurate,” Compton said, noting that the building, which dates to 1875, is on the National Register of Historic Places. The project, which cost more than $100,000, also included improving the lighting in the sanctuary, installing temporary exhibition walls and upgrading the audio-visual equipment in the former sanctuary.
“We wanted to bring it back to its original glory and also elevate it for exhibitions and performances,” Compton said.
Others on display at the return exhibit include photographer Devin Allen, portraitist Monica Ikegwu and fiber artist Joyce J. Scott. Chatmon’s contribution, “Remnants/Peace and Joy are the Birthright of All Beings,” is at its center.
A self-taught commercial photographer, Chatmon, 43, began pursuing art more earnestly in 2010, after her father was diagnosed with advanced prostate cancer. He saw how hard his daughter was working to advocate for him, seeking everything from second opinions to insurance approvals, and urged her to apply the same go-getter determination to her career.
In the midst of her grief after her father’s death in December that year, Chatmon had a reckoning. “I saw my dad’s life taken away, and I said to myself, ‘What am doing? Why am I taking these [commercial] assignments?’”
With support from her husband, she began transitioning toward focusing her camera lens on Black children, including her own son and two daughters, nieces and the children of various friends in Prince George’s County, where she lived at the time.
Chatmon said she “didn’t really have a plan,” but she found herself responding to violence against young Black people, including Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old shot and killed in Sanford, Florida in 2012 in an unprovoked attack, and societal bias against Black women’s natural hair.
“All of these things started to weigh on me,” Chatmon said. When she photographed Black children, she focused on depicting their innocence and natural beauty.
“What I’m saying to my sisters is that you’re valuable, you’re precious, you’re special,” Chatmon said.
For her 2016 series, Byzantine Contempo, Chatmon began experimenting with overlaying gold leaf onto her portraits, mostly as necklaces and crowns. It was around this time that one of Bedolla’s assistants spotted some of Chatmon’s photographs on Instagram and said, “You have got to see this woman’s work, and she also happens to be local.”
“I was absolutely blown away, and really moved by them,” Bedolla said of Chatmon’s photographs. “I saw how important what she was doing was for our community and continues to be.”
Bedolla met with Chatmon and asked if she had gallery representation. She did not – not yet. The two women clicked.
“It was an easy ‘yes,’” to being represented by Gallerie Myrtis, which has a selective roster of just a dozen Black artists who take turns exhibiting at the gallery’s bricks-and-mortar space on North Charles Street. Bedolla also brokers sales of her artists’ work, consults for high-end buyers and presents at international art fairs like the Venice Bienalle and Context Art Miami.
Chatmon’s first solo exhibition took place in 2019, at the Prince George’s African American Museum and Cultural Center. Her second was in New York, always a huge milestone for artists, but especially significant for Chatmon, since it was held not at a tiny Soho gallery but at Fotografiska, the new American branch of the international photography museum based in Sweden.
While she worked to prepare about 20 images for the show, Chatmon also began experimenting with a new technique: Printing out canvases, mounting them, and surrounding her portraits in gold mosaics, similar to the style of Austrian painter Gustav Klimt. By appropriating his technique, Chatmon said she is also subverting it, because the figures being elevated are fully clothed Black children rather than nude white women.
“I was awestruck,” Bedolla said, of the first time she saw the new direction. “You have to experience it so you could see all the various dimensions and the texture and how beautifully nuanced the surface of these photographs are.”
Ever since that Fotografiska show, there has been a waiting list to buy Chatmon’s portraits. It also helped that in 2019, superstar singer Beyonce posted an image of her daughter Blue Ivy smiling widely in front of one. Reposting the image to her own account, Chatmon wrote that she was filled with “gratitude, happiness, disbelief, fulfillment, anxiety and joy.”
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Her career was taking off, but around the same time, Chatmon’s husband needed to relocate to Texas for business. The family moved, but the pandemic sent them bouncing back to Maryland. The house they found for their three children and Chatmon’s studio was in Annapolis, about 10 minutes from downtown.
“It’s worked out so well,” Chatmon said of the 2020 move. “I actually do like Annapolis a lot.”
She admires the city’s commitment to publicly processing Black history, rather than “sweeping things under the rug.” She cited the erecting of markers to honor lynching victims and the new UNESCO plaque acknowledging that enslaved people disembarked at City Dock.
“They are trying to preserve the true history of what happened here,” Chatmon said.
She doesn’t know whether she and her family will make Anne Arundel County a permanent home, but for now she’s found the right place to create work that both reflects Black history and looks to a better future.
“I’m so focused on what I want to say, and what I want to put out into the world,” Chatmon said. “I’m just so grateful that people are responding to my work, and that it is touching people.”
“The Radical Voice of Blackness Speaks of Resistance and Joy.” Through Sept. 30, 2023, Banneker-Douglass Museum, 84 Franklin Street, Annapolis. 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday. Free. https://bdmuseum.maryland.gov/
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