Picture an urban concourse of art galleries, cafés, and other shops, nestled alongside living space, lined with wildflower and sculptural gardens. Imagine people spending the day with friends in the city, strolling from one gallery to the next.

Now picture this setting in downtown Detroit - a city of automobiles, where pedestrians are second-class citizens and crossing the street is often easier in a car than on foot.

The family behind the G.R. N’Namdi Gallery is hoping to turn this vision of foot traffic in Detroit into a reality. At an opening reception for a new exhibition at the Detroit N’Namdi gallery, located on Forest St. just a few blocks south of the Detroit Institue of Art, George N’Namdi and his daughter Kemba greet everyone, hug friends, and elaborate on the artwork - giving all their guests plenty of face-to-face time. Their energy and warmth foster an atmosphere of comfortable interaction and enjoyment that the family hopes to extend beyond the walls of their gallery.

A few weeks later, Kemba N’Namdi, the director of the Detroit N’Namdi Gallery sat down to discuss the gallery’s past and the family’s plans for developing a larger cultural destination on the site in the (near!) future.
Concerned about quality of life issues in their community, the N’Namdi family has been taking direct action to improve Detroit for over two decades. George and his wife Carmen N’Namdi founded the Nataki Talibah Schoolhouse of Detroit in 1978. The successful school was incorporated into the city’s charter schools system in the mid 90s and Carmen N’Namdi continues be serve as principal.

Seeing a need for art galleries in Detroit and specifically galleries that spoke to the city’s African American culture, George opened the first N’Namdi gallery in Detroit’s Harmonie Park in1981, learning the business as he went along.

Maintaining a gallery in a city with little foot traffic proved extremely difficult and N’Namdi decided he needed to build a name for the gallery before he could generate traffic in the city. To accomplish this he moved the N’Namdi to Birmingham, a town that already supported a large number of galleries.

The move paid off. As the gallery’s reputation grew, the N’Namdis opened a permanent second gallery in Chicago (managed by George’s son Jumaane) and satellites in Columbus, Ohio and Argentina. With the gallery’s reputation established, the family began planning its return home: “We are who we are, because of Detroit,” says Kemba.

In September of 2001, G.R. N’Namdi Gallery once again opened its doors in the city of Detroit. Kemba, who was working for the United Nations in Paris, returned to help her father run the new gallery.

However, the Detroit gallery is only part of the family’s larger plan to get more people to spend an afternoon, or a day, walking and experiencing the city. The gallery currently shares a building with an auto repair shop, but the family plans to overhaul the garage and move their gallery into that space, leaving their current space to be inhabited by other galleries. Spaces have also been reserved for a coffee shop and a bookstore with a focus on art and literature.

For the G.R. N’Namdi gallery, the move will literally open the door to a wealth of new exhibition possibilities. The garage entrance that currently allows cars in and out of the building will allow the gallery to bring in sculptures and large paintings that are too big to fit through the doors of their current space. (Campus Collision, which currently does business in the garage, will reopen at another site in the city.)

On the land directly to the east of N’Namdi, the Arts League of Michigan is set to construct its own Cultural Arts facility. Since its inception in 1991, the Arts League has been “committed to being the premier African and African American cultural arts center in the nation.” The League is involved in the sponsorship of cultural programs, activities, concerts, and education.

There are also plans underway to transform the surrounding area - from Forest to Canfield between Woodward and John R - into residential spaces with underground parking. While all the details have not been confirmed, the gallery spaces and many of the other projects are expected to be completed by fall.

Making a project like this happen anywhere isn’t easy. As Kemba N’Namdi points out, the stigma attached to Detroit makes it even harder to do here. “Banks don’t want to loan money,” she says. Investors have a hard time envisioning a real return. Legislation that could help is a long time in coming. In order to bring change about, the funding has to come largely “out of pocket.”

“True change comes from individuals,” says N’Namdi. “Not developers. Developers follow the trend.” The city’s future, she says, will be “shaped by small businesses and individuals that fill up the pockets in the city” and who are guided by “a vision for a quality of life – a way of life.”

She argues that this vision can only come from people who are involved in the city, who interact with their environment on a daily basis.
“If you use it,” she says, “you see how ugly it is. And if you see how ugly it is, you want to do something about it. When you don’t use it, you don’t see it. And when you don’t see it you don’t deal with it.”

A pedestrian concourse connecting all the elements of the planned projects is an essential part of the N’Namdis’ vision. A steady flow of people will attract more businesses and more businesses will attract more people.
Kemba N’Namdi discusses also envisions a landscape design, including grassy mounds, trees and flower borders that will create flow between businesses rather than walls. She describes this as, “working with your neighbors instead of building fences.”

“Detroit is the nucleus…. Everything else has grown around Detroit,” says Kemba N’Namdi, who suggests that while the suburbs were not created for diversity of culture, a city, by necessity, must be diverse. “A city is cosmopolitan or it fails,” she says.

The gallery director says Detroit has all the elements to be a cosmopolitan center, pointing to the city’s musical legacy and speaking with pride of Detroit’s “very strong creative, cultural base.”

When the first people traverse the pedestrian corridor next fall, it will be the culmination of a vision that has spanned several decades and two generations. When asked about the future of the city her family has committed itself to, Kemba N’Namdi responds enthusiastically, “I just feel good about it.” – Nick Sousanis
G.R. N’Namdi, Tues-Sat 11am-5:30pm; Sun 11am-5pm 66 E. Forest Ave. Detroit, MI 48201. Call (313.831.8700) Arts League of Michigan – (313.870.1680)
<<back to archives
©2003 thedetroiter.com