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
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
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.
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
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
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.”
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