Portrait of Derrick Adams with I shine, you shine, we shine, 2022. Courtesy of the artist.
Multidisciplinary artist Derrick Adams is a master of the Ubuntu philosophy. Ubuntu is an ideology woven across the African continent and is most commonly translated as “I am because we are”. Although interpretations vary, philosophy is widely understood as a set of values and practices that make a person a real human being – people of African descent believe that they are an integral part of larger and more meaningful relational, community, societal, environmental and spiritual worlds are. A person who embodies Ubuntu, as Adams does, is influenced, if not defined, by the larger collective. The Baltimore-born, Brooklyn-based artist’s life and 30-year career has been an ongoing exercise in building community, empowering the collective, and creating a new narrative through cultivation and nurturing.
Adams’ latest community-focused venture is a collaboration with Tiffany & Co. The iconic jewelry brand invited Adams to contribute to their new social impact platform, Atrium. His new work I shine, you shine, we shine (2022) is embedded in the Atrium logo and will be sold at a benefit auction in partnership with Tiffany & Co. running July 27-August 10 on Artsy. One hundred percent of proceeds from sales will go to Adam’s artist residency program, The Last Resort Artist Retreat. Amidst the ever-present uncertainty, chaos and loss, Adams reminds us, “The play represents our never-ending quest for love and hope for shared compassion for one another.”
Although Tiffany & Co. has always had philanthropic initiatives, the atrium jewelry house seeks to foster opportunities for historically underrepresented communities, specifically to create a more diverse, equitable and inclusive jewelry industry. “We wanted to work with an artist who shared the same values and goals,” said Mary Bellai, director of human resources at Tiffany & Co. “There’s a great synergy between Derrick’s social impact work and our aspirations for Atrium,” she explained. Tiffany & Co. gave Adams full creative control over the development of the Atrium logo. “He certainly mastered the blending of textures and included a beautiful, subtle tribute to Tiffany Blue and to the heart, which is about compassion and caring,” added Bellai.
The title I shine, you shine, we shine comes from the lyrics of a 1995 song by Mary J. Blige, “I Love You (Remix)”. This phrase became a popular reference point in hip-hop dialogue that discussed collaboration and partnership. “The title underscores the importance and mutual benefit of giving love and allowing yourself to receive it,” Adams said, “because that’s what growth and development is really about.”
The artwork, an abstract collage of acrylic, fabric, and collage paper, is an offshoot of the artist’s 2017 Mood Board series, inspired by designer and collagist Patrick Kelly, and exhibited at The Studio Museum in Harlem. Adams tapped into Tiffany & Co.’s historical lexicon with the brand’s signature design: the heart. He created a motif that includes repeating bifurcated hearts symbolizing openness and sharing, paired with floral patterns that represent growth and embrace diversity as our superpower. (The work will be on view in New York at the Tiffany & Co. flagship store on Fifth Avenue from July 27 to August 10.)
Although Adams is a multidisciplinary artist, he is best known for pieces featuring multicolored, melanized figures in rich tones of pecan, toffee, and hazelnut, which have become the cornerstone of his larger body of work. The people who are the focus of his work are often shrouded in solemn ceremonies that represent what Adams calls “radical black joy.” He believes being cheerful, present, and happy in the face of systemic oppression and daily micro-aggression is revolutionary. Adams decides to light blacks; in his world they are absolutely ebullient. The work serves as a much-needed love letter to Black people around the world and a reminder to the world at large of just how dynamic Blackness really is.
Adams has a long history of creating platforms and communities for fellow artists. Prior to developing his full-time art practice, Adams served as the curatorial director of RUSH Arts Gallery for more than a decade. RUSH Arts was one of the rare places in New York City where color artists could exhibit their work. Adams applied his keen eye for talent, curating a variety of group shows for emerging artists and presenting debut solo shows for Simone Leigh, Deana Lawson, Wangechi Mutu and Nathaniel Mary Quinn. He created access, opportunity, and a growing network that has been integral to curating the Black Arts community in New York City. In the contemporary art scene, Adams is known for nurturing and nurturing young creatives.
The Last Resort Artist Retreat (TLRAR) remains one of Adams’ most benevolent ventures to date. Based in Baltimore, the residency program operates from a sun-drenched private home set on acres of idyllic greenery. The residence features eight bedrooms, three bathrooms, living rooms, work areas, air balconies, a solarium and a dining room, all surrounded by a 360-degree veranda where participants can sunbathe and unwind.
The proceeds from I shine, you shine, we shine will flow into the operations and maintenance of TLRAR, which is in the midst of expansion, adding cargo container studios and an art garden to its property. These include the addition of a pavilion for salon-style talks and public programs for the community, such as B. Meetings with experts from different disciplines. “Of course I’m an artist, but I see myself as a facilitator,” Adams explained. “I’m interested in the idea of connecting people, facilitating the connection for greater experiences and greater outcomes, and how that addresses the black community.”
In addition to providing recreational opportunities for Black creatives, TLRAR also works with local people from Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia — from chefs and life coaches to yoga teachers and meditation teachers — who are committed to providing programs, opportunities, and tools to community members to empower themselves to improve yourself. TLRAR encourages cross-fertilization of community and cultivation—and Adams wouldn’t have it any other way.
Adams believes that relaxation, reflection and replenishment are non-negotiable for artists. Without it, their practices can be compromised and they are vulnerable to burnout and illness. In the contemporary art industry, the health and well-being of artists – both physical and mental and spiritual – are secondary to the art itself and the inevitable financial results. As the writer and activist Audre Lorde once said, “Taking care of myself is not excess, it is self-preservation.”
Adams uses relaxation to challenge ingrained ideas about work and worth. As a result of the slave trade and labor-intensive blue-collar jobs for many blacks, there is an inseparable link between physical labor and self-esteem. With TLRAR, Adams is literally and figuratively creating space for a particularly vulnerable demographic to prioritize themselves and their well-being; For many, self-care is counterintuitive.
“I give people space to exist on their terms,” Adams said. “People can just come to read or sit and think. It’s about having a space in the heart of the city that really underscores the importance of having those kinds of spaces.” Adams believes you shouldn’t go to the Hamptons to relax and recharge refuel – you should be able to find peace of mind in your own backyard.
Adams is already launching his next community-driven project: the Black Baltimore Digital Database (BBDD), which recently received a $1.25 million award from the Mellon Foundation. This digital database and physical institution will house the cultural contributions and achievements in sports, business, civics and the arts of local Baltimoreans. There will also be an ongoing oral history archive that will preserve the personal stories of invited Baltimore elders.
Rendering of the Black Baltimore Digital Database. Courtesy of Derrick Adams.
Following Adams’ approach, BBDD questions how intellectual property is acquired and managed. “I’m starting a counter-institution because we don’t want to own your material,” Adams explained, noting that the contributors would retain ownership of their stories and documents. He wants to renew the traditional sterile and inaccessible systems around research and archives. Both independent researchers and data teams are encouraged to use the database for their work. “If we create a space that’s in a residential neighborhood, it’s going to be a community space and entice people to engage with the database like you’re going to a library,” Adams said.
This philanthropic work dates back to Adams’ modern adaptation of Ubuntu. I shine, you shine, we shine is not just the title of a work of art; it is the guiding philosophy of his life’s work. In his view, the individual and the community do not exist independently—to maintain one is to maintain all. As he enters new rooms to record new voices, he constantly holds the door open for the many to follow. Because it is he, there will be so many more.