The following is one of several extended looks into figures and institutions selected for “The Deciders,” a list of art-world figures pointing the way forward developed by ARTnews and special guest editor Kasseem “Swizz Beatz” Dean. See the full list in the Winter 2020 issue of the magazine and online here.
In spring 2017, Joeonna Bellorado-Samuels took over an empty storefront in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood and made it home to a project independent of her day job as director of a major art gallery. She used the space to house three pop-up exhibitions that she curated herself. She called the series “We Buy Gold,” she says, for both philosophical and practical reasons.
“The name came from several vectors of necessity,” she said recently. “It’s an announcement that I see everyday and everywhere, particularly (though not limited to) areas where material assets are not held by those who exist in those spaces; it represents both aspiration and desperation. And it is a site where the two exist together in the most literal way. ‘We Buy Gold’ as a project was deeply invested in examining, widening, and challenging concepts around value and access.”
“On a lighter note,” she added, “I knew I wouldn’t have too much of a problem finding a used sign for the window.” Such signage is ubiquitous in Bed-Stuy.
For the inaugural show, she asked artist Alexandra Bell to create a mural for the backyard. Bell had been creating unsigned murals throughout Brooklyn that addressed racial bias in the press. For “We Buy Gold,” she re-created A Teenager with Promise (2017), an incisive large-scale portrait of Michael Brown, the 18-year-old African-American man who had been shot by a police officer three years earlier in Ferguson, Missouri. For the run of all three exhibitions, artist and Bronx-based activist Shellyne Rodriguez displayed two volumes of her zine, Cake, which explores the concept of power.
“Her voice and work around, and resistance of, geographic subjugation is important,” Bellorado-Samuels said of Rodriquez’s work. “It is also a very necessary conversation to engage when opening a space.”
Despite her many roles Bellorado-Samuels prefers the title dealer. She has worked at Jack Shainman Gallery since 2008, when she became assistant to gallery co-founder (and artist) Claude Simard. She credits Simard, who passed away in 2014, as a mentor.
As a director at the gallery, she has shepherded the careers of artists including Toyin Ojih Odutola and Nina Chanel Abney, both of whom have achieved international recognition. She is also a founding director of For Freedoms, a super PAC cofounded by Shainman artist Hank Willis Thomas that aims to use art to affect public policy.
Art runs in Bellorado-Samuels’s family—her father, Joe Sam, is a painter—but she planned to go in a different direction. She began her professional career in Washington, D.C., as a lobbyist. The next step would have been law school, but she thought better of it. Instead, she went to art school in New York, where she studied photography and photo-based media. While a student, she worked as an intern at the Studio Museum in Harlem, working and collaborating with emerging artists, and began to shift her focus away from making art and toward advocating for it instead. “I definitely have the impulse to make [art],” she said. “But, [unlike artists] I don’t have to make [it].”
“We Buy Gold” consequently became an alternative exhibition space at a time of increasing commercial interest in art by artists of African descent. Even more important, she created a space that could be held accountable in a neighborhood rife with gentrification. As Rodriguez wrote at the time, “when Joeonna hit me up about this project . . . I cringed because I knew I was going to have to ask those hard questions. Who owns the space? How long? How did they acquire it? What are the plans for that space when this project ends? What is the owner’s relationship to the neighborhood? I was so happy when she wrote me back answering every single question. She was happy to, and was glad I [had] asked.”
These days, Bellorado-Samuels is busy editing a monograph documenting “We Buy Gold,” set for release by Pacific Publishing in 2020. It will be a welcome documentation of a project that articulated the activism of a new generation’s rising black artists. “We Buy Gold” ran parallel to the newly formed Black Women Artists for Black Lives Matter. The space became a refuge we didn’t know we needed from the surging anti-black rhetoric and violence seen and experienced both in the United States and abroad.