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Atlanta's Art Activists

on the frontlines

By Michael C. Robinson

In the throes of a global pandemic and national division, when humanity most needs community, there are artists, right here in Atlanta, on the cultural front lines battling to restore the collective psyche. Whether they are writing, painting or making music, these are the voices of our community that are helping to foster healing at a time when social media and our cell phones work to keep us connected—but don’t always connect us. As part of an upcoming mini-documentaryNEXT-Atlanta and filmmaker Melissa “Phyllis Iller” Alexander will showcase the artistry and activism of four Atlanta artists who are using their creative expression to create social change. (Watch the full trailer here).

The great musician and activist Nina Simone once said an artist’s duty is to reflect the times. “We will shape and mold this country,” she said, “or it will not be molded and shaped at all anymore.” By giving life to struggle, endurance and triumph in their work, these Atlanta artists are among those leading us all through one of the most trying times in history. By so doing, they are showing us how to create the future.

Mixed media artist Angela Davis Johnson gives an artist talk at the NEXT 2019 art salon.
Poet, storyteller and activist Jon Goode prepares prior to his performance at the National Black Arts/NEXT arts salon.
Okorie "Ok Cello" Johnson performs with Cleveland P. Jones at the 2017 NEXT salon's Living Room series.

For these artists, the latest class of NEXT creatives, their artistic mission is as personal as it is a charge to serve a community in crisis. Okorie “OkCello” Johnson, Carlos Andres Gomez, Angela Davis Johnson and Jon Goode are all keenly aware of their role as art activists during these unprecedented times.

Nearly a decade ago, cellist-songwriter Johnson, aka ‘OKCello’, renewed his connection to art after leaving music for a more traditional career path. For him, the journey started with a revelation and a commitment to the journey. “There are just all these ‘practical’ reasons not to invest in art if you are listening to conventional wisdom,” muses Johnson. “The reason I picked it back up is I realized ‘wow, this is who I am. This is my voice.’”

“I didn’t choose the path so much as the path chose me,” remembers Goode. Now, a world away from the accounting career he had embarked on before he “stumbled into an open mic”, he writes and performs poetry that reminds us who we are and inspires us to think and then to act. His work is at once a mirror and a strident call: “Now is the time to fight!”

Johnson is a painter, mixed-media artist, and ritual performance artist who believes in the value and the power of “letting people in who understand your experience and being able to share through art.” She sees the bigger purpose for art. “It opens up conversations,” she says, “and we’re able to build a community.”

For Gomez, the mission is as relevant today as it has always been. “Artists have, for millennia been the catalyst for liberation, the catalyst of revolution, the catalyst of subverting oppression,” opines Gomez. “When I encounter it, I’m not going to be complacent about it, because I also know that if it’s not checked, it will only amplify.”

Inspired by the cultural engine of movements like the Harlem Renaissance, NEXT Atlanta, seeks to harness the creativity of talented committed art activists on the rise, to create tangible change in our communities.

Our goal is to give artists a platform to express themselves in service of their community,” says NEXT-Atlanta Co-Founder and Executive Director, P. Faith Carmichael.

The mini-documentary showcasing the work of these art activists at this pivotal time in history, is slated to be launched in Fall of 2021 in collaboration with the National Black Arts Festival.

“Now, more than ever, we need their inspiration, their creativity and their activism,” says Carmichael. “We need them to help us heal the present and forge a future.”

To learn more about these artists visit: The Next 2019 Artists

NEXT is a platform for our city’s most aspiring stars in the visual, musical and literary arts aimed at galvanizing the city’s creative class into a potent force for change. To partner, sponsor or volunteer with NEXT Atlanta, visit here.