ON BEING BLACK IN DENVER ... AND ALL THE COLORS THAT IT BRINGS
“There are as many types of Black people as there are colors.”
By John Moore, Senior Arts Journalist
While scanning the portrait series “Black in Denver,” the sharp-eyed viewer might be quick to pick out recognizable faces from among photographer Narkita Gold’s many subjects. Hey, there’s Denver Mayor Michael B. Hancock! Over there is State Rep. Leslie Herod. Some will surely notice local activist Suzy Q Smith.
Gold, 33, would rather you look not for names but consider the panorama of faces as a nameless whole. There’s the dancer, the teacher, the model, the hustler, the RTD bus driver. (And that’s all just one photo subject – a strong, gay Black man named Antonio who tells Gold he is happy to feel masculine one day and feminine the next.)
The joy, she says, comes from gazing into each subject’s face and unique identity.
“Black in Denver,” opening Thursday (November 19) in the Arvada Center’s Upper Gallery, is a robust anthology of portraits and interviews that seeks to illustrate the vast diversity of experiences, careers, attitudes, values and skin tones that make up the Black diaspora. Here in Denver, and everywhere.
“I do intentionally try to find everyday folks living their lives in this space and time,” said Gold, a Nashville native who moved to Denver in 2015. In many ways, “Black in Denver” is the culmination of her own quest to find out what it means to be, in fact, Black in Denver. (Narkita Gold is pictured at right by Kori Hazel.)
“Some people have told me I should go after this famous person or another, but that is not my point," Gold said. "Honestly, I am looking for people who show many ways of being. I am looking for people who are exploring their sexuality, their gender or different belief systems. I am looking for people who have healed themselves. I have been able to completely reinvent myself since I moved to Denver, and I am looking for people who will talk to me about how they have evolved here as well. I am looking for people who can help me change the narrative."
So while there is an organizer, a protester and a community organizer, there is also a beekeeper, a rock climber and an ice-cream maker. “Sometimes even in our own community, we say there are certain things that Blacks don’t tend to do,” Gold said. “And I am pushing up against that. These are some of the people who have been important to me in my journey of coming to self.”
The result is a colorful mosaic that is meant to be considered both for its 90 individual pieces, and as a singular whole. She sets each of her portraits set against a rainbow of warm and vibrant background colors intended to accentuate each face at its most joyful, introspective or seasoned. The intentional repetition of these background colors is meant to convey both the interdependence and independence of each portrait – and the real person each one depicts.
And then taken as a whole, the viewer is meant to be struck not necessarily by Blackness but instead by the overall explosion of color. One that reinforces the spectrum of the Black experience, as evidenced by her subjects’ widely varying skin tones.
“I wanted to explore the entire color spectrum because Blackness is a spectrum,” Gold said. “That’s why you have all these background colors that run from cool to warm. There are as many types of Black people as there are colors.”
Just as crucial to Gold’s creative process is the interview that accompanies each portrait: The stories behind the faces. “My creative process is really through conversation, especially when it comes to capturing someone’s essence through a camera,” she said. “I usually start out with a really big question like, like, ‘Tell me about yourself.’ And that starts them out a journey of their own. And then I dig into all these pieces that make up a person. And after all that, I say: ‘OK, with all that in mind: Who are you? What does it mean to be you?’ You have to ask a lot of questions to get a person, far removed from everyone else, to finally define themselves for themselves.”
Most essentially, Gold asks each subject to answer the question she’s also asking for herself: What does it mean to be Black in Denver? To Herod, it means the ability to make systemic change. To the dancer, it means to be overlooked. To the travel blogger, it means to be introspective. To the Kabbalah student, it means freedom.
'I hope that when you stop and look into the eyes of these people that you see a reflection. Maybe you'll see yourself.'
Gold has been building her “Black in Denver” series since 2017, but she finds both meaning and metaphor in that it will be fully exhibited for the first time here and now: Here being a predominantly White city like Arvada. Now being the tumultuous year of 2020. The police murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd hurt Gold deeply. At first, they made her want to quit. Then they steeled her resolve.
“When I set out to create the series, it was never meant to share with White people who we are,” she said. “There were many times when I asked myself, ‘Why am I even doing this?’ But now after everything that has happened this year, it's like, ‘Oh ... yeah. This work needed to be seen here in order to possibly make a change.’ ” Gold came to see the possibility of her series serving as a kind of antidote to some of the hostility that Black people face on a daily basis.
“I have some mixed emotions about that,” she said. “But if it can help in any way … If I can inspire people to do some self-inquiry … If I can change the narrative around the fact that Blacks are not homogenous … That we are many different things … If I can cause awareness that helps you find out who you are, and loving who you are, and believing who you are, then I'm here for that. All day.”
For the Arvada Center exhibit, which will be free and open for socially distanced walkthroughs through at least December 27, Gold’s portraits will be displayed in a variety of groups, sizes and formats, including video. But Gold has handpicked nine primary oversized portraits that will be carefully positioned so that when you stop, you will be looking right into the subject’s eyes. That, too, is intentional.
“I can't tell you how many times I've had a White person who won't look at me as they pass,” Gold said. “I hope that when you stop and look into the eyes of these people that you see a reflection. Maybe you'll see yourself and realize that we are all connected. We all need each other. 'I am because you are.' That is something that I strongly believe.
"I hope this reminds the community that we all originate from the continent of Africa, and we are all connected because of that. And so ... Remember that.”
Gold’s collaborator for the “Black in Denver” exhibit at the Arvada Center is Denver photographer Yvens Alex Saintil, who provides a starkly different look at the topic of Blackness through his lens.
“Alex has been documenting all the protests here in Denver over the last few years," Gold said. "I wanted to partner with him because I know from my experience that being Black in Denver is learning how to exist in duality. You can be yourself and live authentically in Denver but, at the same time, you're still Black. You still face discrimination and racism. It might not be as overt in Denver as it is in the South, but it still happens here. We are still marginalized, and I wanted to show that through Alex’s work. So you've got my photos, which are very bright, vibrant and saturated – and you've got Alex's photos, which are black and white. And that is very intentional. I want you to see the contrast in our realities.”
Although Gold’s first big gallery opening won’t have the pomp and celebration it deserves because of COVID restrictions, “Honestly ... the little girl in me is just so excited,” she said.
“I want to make sure people are walking away inspired to ask questions like, ‘Who am I?’ and ‘What does it mean to be me?’ Because I think that's a really big piece of the puzzle when it comes to moving forward as a community that wants to unite in 2020. But before we can come together as a community, I think we have all to do some individual work first. So I hope to inspire some self-inquiry.”
John Moore was named one of the 12 most influential theater critics in the U.S. by American Theatre Magazine during his time at The Denver Post. He also is the founder of The Denver Actors Fund, and is now contributing reports for the local theatre community for ArvadaCenter.Org. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
"On Being: Black in Denver"
- A portrait-and-interview exhibition by Narkita Gold
- November 19 through at least December 27
- Arvada Center for the Arts and Humanities, 6901 Wadsworth Blvd.
- Free and open to the public, but a reservation is required at arvadacenter.org
- To comply with new state safety regulations, the exhibition is currently open to single-family households through timed reservations. Social distancing guidelines and mask wear are required.
- Information: 720-898-7200