Local Arts

‘Lone wolf’ Dammit Wesley wants to help fellow artists of color showcase their work

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Charlotte Arts Guide 2019-20

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We should start with the name, which is both in your face and enigmatic.

Dammit Wesley’s parents didn’t name him that. The artist formerly known as Jimi Thompson no longer goes by the name he was given at birth. Even his mom has come around to calling him Dammit, a name he adopted in 2011.

Wesley, who’s pensive and soft-spoken, has also referred to himself at times as “the North Korea of Charlotte.” He comes across as thoughtful and just a little shy; it’s his art that’s brash.

Why Dammit? “It derives from a joke on ‘Black Twitter,’” he said. And that’s all he’ll say. #BlackTwitter isn’t separate from the social media outlet where other people share their thoughts. A quick review of the hashtag reveals Tweets about being black and late to church, black hair, Beyoncé, #BlackLivesMatter and, because he’s everywhere, President Donald Trump.

Speaking of Trump, Wesley’s Instagram account — he has more than 8,000 followers @dammit_wesley — has recently switched up the president’s “Make America Great Again” tagline with Ku Klux Klan nomenclature — specifically the Grand Dragon. In a series of posts featuring a Klan hood, a machine gun, a torch and other paraphernalia, all set against a red background, is the slogan: “Make America Grand Again.”

If it makes you uncomfortable, that’s the point.

Dammit Wesley recently opened “Exciting Times,” a solo show at BlkMrkt CLT, the Camp North End art gallery/studio he co-owns with photographer Will Jenkins. In 2020, he plans to focus on exhibiting work by women of color. ALEX CASON

‘Exciting Times’

On a hot July day, Wesley was preparing to open “Exciting Times,” a solo show at BlkMrkt CLT, the Camp North End art gallery/studio he co-owns with photographer Will Jenkins, known as @simplisticphobia on Instagram. A “frantic creative” is how Wesley described himself, although he didn’t seem the least bit frenzied — even as he was readying for his solo show and the two-year anniversary of his gallery.

The show contained some of Wesley’s recent work, which deals with “consumerism and blackness,” he said.

“I was a luxury-branded item when I first came over on slave ships,” he said, using the first person to refer to African ancestors brought to America as captives. “Many people still have an affinity for luxury products. It’s a sick circle.”

The pieces in Dammit Wesley’s “Exciting Times” exhibit deal with “consumerism and blackness,” he said. ALEX CASON

He mentioned Aunt Jemima, whom he points out is really a slightly altered version of “Mammy.” Uncle Ben of rice fame? “That’s Uncle Tom,” he said. It’s offensive for these products to still be on grocery store shelves, he said — and he’s painted them brightly and faux-happily with cartoon images onto canvases to make the point. The happy colors belie the dark subject matter.

BlkMrkt CLT provides what Wesley said had been missing in Charlotte — a place where artists of color can showcase their work. Wesley said artists find him, and he sometimes finds them. “It’s a symbiotic relationship,” he said.

He’s a known quantity in the local black arts community, he said, from the days when he teamed up with DJ Fannie Mae for “Dammit Fannie,” a series of showcases he started in 2015 that feature music and visual art. “I developed relationships with visual and performing artists,” he said. “And that laid the groundwork for a DIY approach to putting on and facilitating my own art exhibitions.”

DIY strategy

The need for a DIY strategy is also borne out of his blackness.

“Growing up black in America — people are critical of you,” he said. “I didn’t have a lot of resources growing up. So, I ended up with this mentality that I need to do everything myself for myself and my people.”

Indeed, he’s more than a visual artist. He’s an artistic impresario who’s started podcasts (“Let’s Talk Dammit,” which he hosted with sister, Jessica Thompson), worked on an arts and music festival (Durag Fest), and held what he calls “unconventional art events” that are more than just openings. He describes the arts showcases he’s hosted: “People come in, the music’s blasting, the art is vibrant. I’ll be live painting on stage with the DJs. There were a lot of performance aspects to the visual art.

“It’s the opposite of the traditional gallery experience,” he said. “You’re caught up in the event.”

Dammit Wesley’s art displayed in his “Exciting Times” exhibit intersects pop culture, consumerism and race. ALEX CASON

Nearly everything he does is meant to encourage young artists of color and get them exposure. He’s even started a speaker series to coach young artists on the resources available to them — the things no one told Wesley about when he was younger.

“I’ll find a resource and bring them in so people could ask questions,” he said. “I had someone from the Arts & Science Council come in to talk about grants, and some of the people who attended didn’t know what grants were. That led to a conversation about residencies, and that blew some people’s minds. ‘They just pay you to create?’ they asked.”

The DIY approach has been necessary for another reason, Wesley said, describing Charlotte’s traditional arts institutions as mostly unavailable to local black artists.

“There’s definitely a gap between communities of color and the institutions in Charlotte,” he said.

Lone wolf

“I never had any intent on being in museums or galleries,” he said. “I’ve always had very much a lone wolf mentality. I went into this venture as an artist with this idea that, ‘You’re going to be alone, and you’re going to have to build up everything yourself.’”

The “lone wolf” feeling has been with him since his youth. Growing up in Greenville, S.C., Wesley said two of the worst things you could be were “black and weird” or “black and creative.” He fell into both categories.

“Growing up, you don’t see myself reflected in the environment around you,” he said. “So, a lot of times, you feel like an outcast. Your friends don’t understand, your family doesn’t understand (your pursuit of art), and it’s not a very stable career choice.”

Although it’s one that’s working out for him.

At 32, he considers himself “the old guy.” And he could be sort of an elder statesman, a patriarch of the black arts community. He talks about a desire to groom the people who are “just a couple of years younger” than he is. He remembers he didn’t see anyone who was “black and weird” like he was and doesn’t want up-and-coming artists to feel the same way.

A brightly painted cartoon of a racial stereotype is overlayed on top of a slave scene in this work by Dammit Wesley. ALEX CASON

In 2020, his gallery will present work by primarily women of color.

“We’re not asking for handouts,” he said of the black artistic community. “We just want to be recognized — to have the establishment say, ‘We see you.’ ”

Wesley’s work tackles big themes that feel urgent now. Racism, for instance, shows up in his work. How could it not? “My grandmother lived in the Jim Crow South,” he said. “She’d have to worry about running into the Klan on her way home from cleaning houses all day.”

BlkMrkt CLT may be a gallery run by an African-American and featuring work by artists of color. But Wesley hopes people of all colors will stop in. “I would love,” he said, “for people who don’t look like me to come in my gallery.”

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