If you are despairing over the closing of several prominent Atlanta art galleries in the past year, let us alert your antennae to a relatively new one in town. Arnika Dawkins, a spunky art collector and photographer educated at the Savannah College of Art and Design, opened her eponymous gallery near Cascade Heights a year ago, and she is already staking a claim in the realm of photography.
With the legendary work of Bob Gomel, Elliot Erwitt and Gerald Ratto in her inventory, it’s evident that Dawkins has a keen eye and due reverence for the canon. While perhaps still sharpening the focus of her own contemporary vision, Dawkins has welcomed Deborah Willis, chair of photography at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts and MacArthur fellow, to curate her current show.
“Dreaming Identities,” an exhibition of 10 female artists on view through December 1, reflects Willis’ multidisciplinary research on the topic of identity as portrayed in front of and behind the photographic lens. The artists address the theme from diverse photographic and cultural vantage points, be it memory, family, beauty, history, music or travel. Broad in scope, each variation could be a curatorial discourse in itself. In fact, the exhibition seems more like a catalog of artists than a decisively crafted curatorial vision. Fortunately, much of the work is strong and can stand on its own.
Delphine Fawundu’s unapologetic self-portrait series offers a visual interpretation of Nina Simone’s controversial song “Four Women.” Simone’s 1966 work identifies four pejorative stereotypes that black women have shouldered since the end of slavery. Fawundu’s modern-day personae speak to the evolution of these stereotypes as they exist today. The delicate, powder-perfect face of the young “Saffronia” is a high point. Holding herself in uncertainty, she teeters between two racial identities in a world that often sees in mere black and white.
Seeming to address notions of death more than identity, Linda Foard Roberts’ images are calculated yet personal. The show’s signature work, “Wisdom,” is a penetrating image of the artist’s father, one eye searching the viewer, the other beholding a reality beyond the frame. Roberts’ metaphors, both mysterious and sentimental, reach for the rich, velvety void behind them. Peering in at her mortality through these nostalgic, sepia-toned apparitions — a pile of dirt, an open book — Roberts’ pictorial vignettes become the lens through which she both fearfully and knowingly perceives her future.
Carla Williams’ “All the Women in My Family” is a luminous self-portrait composed of family photographs, all printed on lustrous, transparent vellum. Despite the pictures’ colorful variation in age and relationship, their common materiality unites them within a timeless domain. Delicately pinned to the wall in three or four layers, these photographic relics visually parallel the layering of experience and heritage through an elegant and simple presentation of found materials.
Some images disappoint. While presented as a form of travelogue, Nashormeh Lindo’s photographs seem more like snapshots of her travels than decided studies in personal or collective identity. Computerized special effects in her work are obvious and distracting as well. Equally questionable inclusions are Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe’s low-lit images of marriage and death centered on the universally ritualized use and depiction of flowers. Willis’ “identity” framework is so broad that it seems that anything a photographer shoots could be incorporated into the show.
Also in the exhibit are photos by Atlanta artists, most notably the eerily hybrid portraits of Sheila Pree Bright’s “Plastic Bodies” series and her stunning “Grillz” series. Lynn Marshall-Linnemeier is represented by narrative portraiture of young African-American girls clad in the snowy white dress of their innocence. The presentation is clever and arguably more effective than the images themselves. Printed on sheets and hung with clothespins on a clothesline, Marshall-Linnemeier’s photographs are immediately anchored within the tactile world.
Dawkins intends to remain small but dynamic. She currently represents four photographers: Builder Levy, Allen Cooley, Titus Heagins and the late Marlene Hawthrone Thomas. Recognizing the evolving gallery model in an increasingly globalized art market, Dawkins has already participated in art fairs in Los Angeles and New York. In December, the gallery will showcase recently discovered photographs from the late Gordon Parks’ Segregation Series, in a collaborative exhibition with Jackson Fine Art. The Atlanta community can expect another three or four major exhibitions from Dawkins in the coming year.