Orange Mound

The CMPLX opens to packed house in Orange Mound

On January 11, The Collective, a group of Black creatives living and working in Memphis, hosted a grand opening exhibition for their first permanent gallery and studio space, The CMPLX. The atmosphere was electric with music, poetry, speeches and stunning artwork by 11 different artists lining every wall. Nearly every inch of the 5,300-square-foot location was packed shoulder to shoulder for hours. 

"This event is so fulfilling because it's a massive celebration for Black creatives and community. We have longed for a place to call our home, somewhere in a community that represents us and needs to have a voice," said artist and Collective member Mia Saine. 

The Collective launched four years ago with a mission to elevate Black artists, empower Black communities and shift the culture of Memphis but a permanent space was a distant dream.

“This is a homecoming for sure. A lot of work, four years of work being put together," said Lawrence Matthews, curator, artist and program director with The Collective. "This is proof that what we’re trying to do works and it will pack out a gallery to the point that people maybe can’t look at the art.”

The members of The Collective hope the space, located at 2234 Lamar Avenue next door to the Orange Mound Gallery, will serve as a center for collaboration for the Black creative community and inspire a cultural revolution centered in the historic but long disenfranchised Orange Mound community.

Matthews pointed to the iconic 'Great Day in Harlem' photo and Harlem Renaissance musicians as inspiration. 

"What we're trying to do ... like they did, is create a hub for Black creativity and Black genius to evolve and grow and prosper," said Lawrence. "That's the main thing is to prosper and be paid for doing what they're doing." 

Artists and guests mingle at the new CMPLX gallery and studio in Orange Mound. In the center of the room stands a piece by artist Felicia Wheeler. (Cole Bradley)
The CMPLX includes two large galleries, offices, a conference room and open work and studio spaces. It's open Monday through Friday from 12 p.m. to 8 p.m. for customers to browse and buy art and artists to work on projects. Beyond just visual artists, the Collective welcomes virtually anyone who identifies as a Black creative to co-work in the space. The group also plans to offer event rentals and host professional development opportunities like critiques and business development workshops.  

Victoria Jones, executive director of The Collective, said it's important to have spaces that are safe and supportive for Black artists, many of whom feel ignored, misunderstood or tokenized in majority-white mainstream art communities. 

“On paper, The CMPLX is a work space for Black artists," said Jones. "A place for Black artists to come to a safe space, walk through their personal projects, their group projects, whatever, but in a safe space surrounded by folks who look like them.”

Jones also said The CMPLX is much more than a brick and mortar location.

"Black folks in Memphis have been having to process a certain amount of trauma and not having safe spaces to do that," said Jones. "At some point in the day you get to think about what you [want], who you love, that type of thing, but it doesn’t get to be the top thing a lot of us get to think about so what is it to create a space where people can just process [in] love and community?”

Jones said there's a misconception that there are only a few talented Black artists in Memphis, including the artists featured in the grand opening exhibition, but it's simply not true. 

“These people — as exceptional as they are, as beautiful as the work is — they are not the exception," said Jones. "They are just what it looks like when they have access to space and opportunities." 

DJ Chandler Blingg prepares to spin at The CMPLX gallery grand opening. (Cole Bradley)
The Collective largely self-funded The CMPLX from its members own pockets and personal networks, though they did receive funding from the Tennessee Arts Commission and ArtsMemphis for an upcoming professional development series.

"There isn’t some big dollar man behind this; there isn’t some city behind this," said Jones. "It’s Black people, Black artists who decided they wanted to do something and they did it.”

The Collective said locating in Orange Mound is especially important given its history as the oldest Black community in Memphis and one of the country's foremost examples of Black resiliency and self-reliance, as well as its current state as one of the city's poorest and most marginalized majority-Black neighborhoods. 

"This space brings accessibility to those who also matter," said Saine. "It’s already evident that  creativity and talent are interwoven in Memphis, so to give people the opportunity to explore and develop without censorship and financial burden is absolutely incredible." 

Britney Thornton is an Orange Mound resident, community leader and founder of the JUICE Orange Mound community organization. She's also hosting The CMPLX's second event on January 13 where she'll kick off her campaign for City Council. 

"In all of my 29 years, I have never seen anything — outside of the Melrose Alumni breakfast — as magical in Orange Mound as The CMPLX opening," said Thornton.

"I always have to travel outside of my neighborhood to find thriving business and shoulder to shoulder events. To mix and mingle with entrepreneurs and professionals and artists and students in my home community meant the world," she continued. "There is a new energy in Orange Mound that is showing us that our dreams can come true." 

“People want to see Black art and hear Black narratives and hear Black stories in this Black city,” said Matthews. "There’s a market for Black narratives. And now there’s a space for Black narratives.”
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Read more articles by Cole Bradley.

Cole Bradley is a native Memphian and graduate of the University of Memphis. Cole's worked locally as a researcher and community engagement strategist and began contributing to High Ground in Jan 2017.