An inventory of the Memphis black arts scene

In a city with a majority-black population and a history of intense creativity, it’s no wonder the black arts community is as dynamic and expansive as it is today.
Memphis is home to an abundance of arts organizations and creative businesses, many of whom have a large presence with African American audiences. Below is a catalogue of some of the Memphis art organizations largely serving black students, black artists, black audiences and/or patrons.
 
FILM
 
Baobab Filmhouse:
Year Established: 2016
Neighborhood: The Edge (Memphis Medical District)
 
Established by Hattiloo Founder Ekundayo Bandele, the 42-seat filmhouse is located in the first home of Hattiloo. Baobab’s mission is celebrating the cinematic work of black filmmakers and talent and providing the opportunity for all ethnic groups to share and promote authentic stories that reflect the true reality of black people all over the globe.
 
THEATRE

Harkins House Productions
Year Established: 2010
Neighborhood: University of Memphis
 
Playwright, essayist, poet, and author Chandra Kamaria founded Harkins House Productions in 2010. HHP’s mission to preserve the cultural legacy of the African diaspora by creating and producing theatrical works, documentaries, and films. Through its Kulture Groove division, HHP also produces cultural events. Through its Kulture Teach division, the organization offers writing and theatre workshops for both adults and teens.
 
Hattiloo Theatre
Year Established: 2006
Neighborhood: Overton Square (Midtown)
 Hattiloo Theatre
Now in its 10th season, Bandele’s black repertory theatre has produced a play by the venerable August Wilson each season. In 2014 Hattiloo relocated from its original home on Marshall Avenue to a new $3.3 million dollar building in the rapidly developing Overton Square. The theatre is currently undergoing an additional expansion. The theatre maintains a slate of free community education and outreach programs (such as plays staged in neighborhoods and youth camps), as well as partners with other local arts organizations.
 
LilyRoze Studios
Year Established: 2007
Neighborhood: South Main Arts District (Downtown)
 
Founded in 2007, Nadia Matthew’s LilyRoze Studios is an all-in-one theatre, television, fashion, music, and production center. Since fall 2011 the organization has been housed on in a 2,500 facility at 810 S. Main St. Matthews, the head instructor of the studios, teaches weekly child, teen, and adult acting classes. She also hosts a summer camp for students. The studio has produced a Christian-television show pilot, short films, commercials, and theatrical showcases.
 
Women’s Theatre Festival of Memphis
Year Established: 2012
Neighborhood: N/A
 
Spearheaded by playwright Ruby O’Gray and director Karen Moore, the Women’s Theatre Festival of Memphis works to acknowledge and award women who have contributed to the world of theatre, as well as showcase performances about women, directed by women, and written by women. WTFM, a nonprofit organization, hosts festivals featuring theatrical, operatic, dance, symphonic performances, stage readings, and workshops. During the festival, the Gyneka Awards are bestowed upon women who have made significant contributions to theatre and performing arts.
 
MUSIC
 
Angel Street
Year Established: 2013
Neighborhood: North Memphis
 
Angel Street began as an choir performance featuring girls from North Memphis, eventually becoming an official branch of Oasis of Hope (via Hope Church). Angel Street Founder and Executive Director recruits girls from Humes Middle School, Manassas High School, KIPP Memphis Collegiate School, and Caldwell-Guthrie Elementary School. The curriculum includes basic music education, songwriting, team building, art projects and other activities, performance opportunities, and live studio recording. During the fall and spring semester the girls participate in two to three big performances.
 
Harmonic South Strings Orchestra
Year Established: 2016
Neighborhood: Alcy (South Memphis)
 
Michelle Johnson founded Harmonic South String Orchestra only back in June but her history includes over 30 years of being a strings and orchestra educator and leading the now defunct Alcy String Orchestra. Harmonic South Strings Orchestra picked up where Johnson left off, beginning with this year's summer camp composed of students age five to 18. Students in the target area of South Memphis had instruments provided to them. HSSO also provided transportation to the camp for neighborhood students.
 
Memphis Slim House
Year Established: 2014
Neighborhood: Soulsville (South Memphis)

The Memphis Slim House is the physical form of the Memphis Music Magnet. Across the street from the Stax Museum of American Soul Music, the building is the former home of the blues musician known as Memphis Slim. After a rejuvenation from Community LIFT, the Memphis Slim House serves as a resource for member musicians, with space for practice, recording, and photo/video shoots. The upstairs of the building is home to an art gallery which rotates exhibits from local visual artists.
 
Memphis Music Initiative
Year Established: 2014
Neighborhood: Various
 
The Memphis Music Initiative is a $20 million, five year project working to expand the access of music programming to low income and black youth in Memphis. The approach is three-pronged: Sustaining existing in-school music education and expanding instruction through partnerships with local musicians, expanding high quality extracurricular programs to reach more youth and remove barriers to participation, and developing places to spur innovation where youth can hear, play and learn music. The first prong of the initiative began in January 2015 when teaching fellows were placed in classrooms to pilot the program. In the summer and fall of 2015 initial grants were made to youth development and music engagement organizations in Memphis.
 
Stax Music Academy:
Year Established: 2000
Neighborhood: Soulsville (South Memphis)
  The Stax Music Academy provides after-school mentoring and music education with a focus on at-risk youth.
Stax Music Academy began at Stafford Elementary School with only 125 students. Two years later students began learning and performing in the Stax Music Academy building, adjacent to the soul museum. Since then more than 4,000 students have been a part of SMA through either S.N.A.P. (Soul Nurtures Artistic Performance) or the Summer Music Experience. Students study vocals, instrumentals, music writing, music theory, and production. Students from Stax Music Academy recently performed at the grand opening of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.
 
DANCE
 
Ballet on Wheels
Year Established: 2002
Neighborhood: Cooper Young (Midtown)
 
The mission of Ballet on Wheels is to develop and define art education and appreciation of classical ballet and other dance genres, through self discipline, creative expression and performance exposure, in young people of diverse backgrounds. Professional teachers provide instruction in classical ballet, creative movement, pointe, modern, adult ballet, and hip hop dance. Students can participate in master class dance intensives and audition or be selected for Ballet On Wheels Theatre of Dance, a pre-professional youth dance company. BOW sponsors dance projects and community service dance events throughout the city, as well as classes in schools and local youth organizations.
 
Collage Dance Collective
Year Established: 2005
Neighborhood: Broad Avenue Arts District (Binghampton)
 Collage Dance Collective
Executive Director Marcellus Harper and Artistic Director Kevin Thomas founded Collage Dance Collective in 2005 soon after Dance Theatre of Harlem began its nearly 10 year hiatus. (Thomas was a principal dancer with DTH.) The two moved the organization to Memphis in 2007 and started the school in 2009 with one student in a church studio in Cooper Young. The group rapidly grew, more than doubling in size year after year. Collage Dance Collective operates on a mission to increase diversity in ballet by making it more inclusive. Harper and Thomas brought on board six additional full time dancers from all across the country in August 2015. Two dancers and one apprentice were a part of the conversancy originally.
 
MJ Urban Ballet (formerly U-Dig Dance Academy)
Year Established: 2005
Neighborhood: Southeast Memphis
 
Tarrik Moore founded U-Dig (Universal Dance & Interdisciplinary Guild) Dance Academy, a nontraditional dance school specializing in jookin. Jookin is a hip hop dance form unique to Memphis. The organization now known as MJ Urban Ballet claims to have provided instruction to over 7,500 young people via schools and nonprofit groups. In workshops and classes students are trained in jookin and other forms of hip hop dance.
 
SubRoy Studios
Year Established: 2007
Neighborhood: Raleigh-Bartlett (Whitten Road)
 
Subculture Royalty Dance Company first began as the dance company of the now defunct Yo! Academy of Visual & Performing Arts. In March 2012, the commercial dance company SubRoy Studios opened and became a training ground or SubRoy Empire All Stars, and the Memphis Grizzlies Entertainment Dance Teams.
 
 
VISUAL ART
 
Art Village Gallery
Year Established: 1991
Neighborhood: Downtown (South Main Historic Arts District)
 
Art Village Gallery and owner Ephraim Urevbu first opened his studio space in a back room on Beale Street after graduating from the University of Memphis. The gallery and event space includes a wine tasting room and houses Urevbu’s permanent collection. In addition to exhibitions and interior design consultations, the gallery showcases the work of artists from places such as Colombia, Ethiopia, Thailand, Zimbabwe, Namibia, and Nigeria, where Urevbu grew up.
 
Brenda Joysmith Gallery and Studio
Year Established: 2000
Neighborhood: South Main Arts District (Downtown)
 
Joysmith Gallery’s mission is to provide both cause and caliber in its presentation of works by established and emerging black artists from Africa and the diaspora. Joysmith’s work has been seen on the sets of black television shows and films such as The Cosby Show, A Different World, Family Matters, Love and Basketball, and Jason’s Lyric.
 
Elliot and Kimberly Perry (private collection):
Year Established: Unknown
Neighborhood: N/A
 
Former Memphis State University and National Basketball Association player Elliot Perry and his wife Kimberly over the years have assembled a notable collection of masterworks from African American artists. Works from their collection have sporadically been featured in local museums, as well as those in other parts of the country.
 
NIA Artist Collective:
Year Established: 2001
Neighborhood: Various
 
Artists Lester Merriweather, frank d. Robinson jr., Vitus Shell, and twins Jerry and Terry Lynn first established the NIA Artist Collective in 2001. Spurred by the lack of support and space to show art by black artists in the city, the group started meeting at Joysmith Gallery. The mission of NIA Artist Collective is 'to enrich the cultural condition of the greater Memphis community through the support and cultivation of the practice of black visual artists.' NIA provides an outlet for black artists to collaborate with and mentor one another in artistic skill, self-promotion, and how to support themselves as artists. The collective has included more than 40 artists, all connected to Memphis in some way. Artists ranged from non-degreed to Master of Fine Arts recipients and have included painters, sculptors, and installation artists. Subject matter explored by the artists has included afrofuturism, black feminism, and black nationalism. NIA Artist Collective exhibitions have been held in Nashville, Tenn.; Tunica, Miss.; Buffalo, NY; and New York. The word “nia” is Swahili for purpose.
 
MULTIPLE DISCIPLINES
 
Memphis Black Arts Alliance (formerly Black Arts Firehouse)
Year Established: 1982
Neighborhood: Soulsville (South Memphis)

The Memphis Black Arts Alliance has been located in a 1910-era firehouse on S. Bellevue for over 30 years.The MBAA was born out of a coalition of black arts groups in the late 1970s in Memphis. Bennie Nelson West started the organization with the mission of improving the quality of life and economic well-being of Greater Memphis through the preservation, celebration, and advancement of African-American arts, culture and literature. Nelson West remained at the helm as founding executive director until her retirement in late 2015. Over the years, MBAA has had several mainstay programs. These have included the ArtsAcademy, consisting of year-round group and private classes for all ages in dance, music, theater, visual and literary arts. ter troupe featuring comedic, dramatic and poetic works. The MBAA claims to have employed 300 performing and visual artists and provided community-based arts education to 3,000, including Rufus Thomas and Carla Thomas, as well as providing space to visual artists such as George Hunt and Brenda Joysmith.
 
The Collective (THE CLTV):
Year Established: 2015
Neighborhood: Various
 
The Collective is an art organization dedicated to providing a platform to African American artists within the city. Member artists include those working in various media, from music to visual arts to clothing design. Through art based programming, workshops, and community building efforts the organization advocates for the the use of creative expression to shift the culture towards positive growth, creativity, and strength. The Collective also produces a magazine, CONTRABN.
 
 
 

Read more articles by Elle Perry.

A native of Memphis, Elle Perry serves as coordinator of the Teen Appeal, the Scripps Howard city-wide high school newspaper program. 
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