Haiti and Cuba have competing claims to the title "Pearl of the Antilles," explains Emmanuelle Sainte, co-founder of a Pan-African artist collective of (roughly) the same name that opened its doors on the east end of Nob Hill eight months ago. Sainte, along with partner Ken Smith, thought the moniker Pearls of the Antilles would be perfect for their collective. The name not only exudes a certain poetic exoticism, but it's also a fine symbol for the complex history of African peoples, a history that's brought so many descendents of Africa to the New World.
The basic concept of the collective is simple. "We charge artists a $50 fee to show their art in the store," says Smith, "you know, just to help keep the doors open. Of course, I don't want to be the mean guy, so if someone can't pay, we've worked it out so they can show their art here, with us getting a small cut on any sales."
It's this sort of casual, open philosophy that separates Pearls of the Antilles from more conventional art venues. Walking into the collective, you can tell this isn't any ordinary gallery. Although they host monthly exhibits—this month's features an excellent display of batik prints on rice paper by Nigerian artist Ife Fidudusola—the place is more like a bric-a-brac boutique. In the back room, paintings lean up against the wall. In the main room, every inch of wall space seems to be crammed with art in widely varying styles. Shelves contain ceramics, wood boxes, dolls, figurines, weavings, beadwork, drums and jewelry. Smith's own elaborate candles are there, too, along with a circular rack of shirts. (Some of the best ones are designed by Fidudusola.) My favorite artifacts in the store are a bundle of wood fingers carved by a homeless artist.
There are also a few political books for sale. And a table full of flyers. And a shelf of CDs by some local musicians—reggae groups Mystic Vision and One Foundation, jazz maestro Zimbabwe Nkenya and others.
This is a cool, comfortable, chaotic place. Unlike a traditional gallery, you don't feel like you're going to get electrocuted if you dare to touch anything.
Sainte points out that because Africa is the proverbial cradle of humanity, all of us are Africans on some level. Her statement indicates the kind of cultural diversity embodied in their fascinating project. The collective is more than just a simple gallery. It's a true creative communal space with ties to related or supporting entities across the city, such as the African Artists Guild, Channel 27, KUNM, Out ch'Yonda and the embryonic African American Cultural Center, a center still in the planning stages, and still searching for a home.
In addition to visual art, Pearls of the Antilles promotes dance, poetry, music and other performances in the space. The collective's artists also teach classes, to both children and adults.
Smith and Sainte are currently devising creative ways to further the aspirations of the artists they represent. With this in mind, they put together the African American Pavilion at this year's state fair. They also got their artists involved with Go!, the Downtown arts festival, and the recent Bioneers conference. They're currently working on various strategies to get their artists displayed in local independent businesses. And they've also decided to start producing prints and cards of some of the best work so people can purchase art in forms that are even more financially accessible.
For now, every week is new and exciting. Over the past few months, all kinds of people have wandered into the store to offer advice or services, generating a lot of positive creative energy. "I'm just a candlemaker," Smith explains. "I just kind of fell into this whole thing. I don't know what this will turn into, but I know we have a lot to offer this community."