Art, Revolution and Trying to Keep the Doors Open at South Dallas's Oldest African Art Gallery
A year and a half ago, the owners of Pan-African Connection Bookstore, Bandele Tyehimba and his wife Akwete, found out their building was being torn down and replaced with a dentist's office. They'd been at the location at the corner of Marsalis and Jefferson for more than 21 years. "I guess we weren't part of their future," Bandele says, chuckling.
Photos by Anna Merlan Bandele Tyehimba at the art gallery and book store he's run for decades in various locations
The couple rallied and found a new location on Fourth Avenue, in the shadow of Fair Park. But times were tough, and business for the bookstore and art gallery was slow. Barely two months ago, they were facing eviction yet again. "The people didn't have their paperwork, and it was tossed out of court," Bandele says. "We made a personal agreement with the landlord. And so we're trying to see if we can keep to that agreement to stay in business."
On a recent Tuesday morning, Bandele was sitting on the front stairs of Pan African, trying to juggle an interview and a constantly ringing phone. Around him were racks of shell jewelry, drums, books, beaded bracelets and shelf after shelf after shelf piled high with ornate wooden sculptures; on the floor in the back room, there were a few rusty leg irons, just next to a rack of bright dresses. The whole store smells like warm leather. Pan African was just coming out of the Kwanzaa and Christmas season. Every night for the past week they'd had programs and presentations in the upstairs meeting room, which at some time has hosted most every progressive organization in the city. "Every night we had a packed house," he said, pausing to answer the phone again.
Pan Africanism, as Bandele will happily tell you, is a philosophy that refers to "the total liberation and unification of Africa under scientific socialism." A few weeks ago, a group of "Europeans," he said, were holding a meeting in the upstairs room. They couldn't stop arguing. "Stubbornness is not an aspect of African culture," he recalls telling them. "You shouldn't practice stubbornness. It's an anti-revolutionary tendency."
Bandele would rather discuss art or history or politics than rent troubles; he brushes off questions about how the new arrangement with the landlord is going and points out some recent acquisitions: a ram mask representing "strength, humility and wisdom," a king's helmet decorated with birds. "Birds represent women," he says. "Before a ruler makes a decision, he seeks the advice of power, dangerous forces." Meaning women.
Art buyers would be smart to do the same thing. "A lot of my customers want to be arrogant, and they say, 'I'll buy this piece,'" he says. But they don't check with their wives first, "and two weeks later, they're back. You have to make sure the piece fits for the family."
Recently, he's been on several buying trips to Ghana, whose history he appreciates. "Martin Luther King went to Ghana in '57," he says, "For their independence celebration. That's what took him to another level. He found out the struggle had worldwide significance. He saw black men becoming presidents, bank operators, captains of industry. A lot of black people in America still believe we can't have certain things."
At one time, Bandele says, "Thirty percent of my customer base was European. Twenty years ago, black people weren't buying African art. They were disassociated with Africa. Now, they're starting to find themselves and connecting back, returning to the source of their existence." He's seen people come in the store and head straight for a piece of art that, as it turns out, is from the part of Africa their ancestors came from. "They just go right to it," he says. "It's something inside them, like unfinished business."
But some things, to his dismay, haven't changed much. "We don't have black people owning their own businesses in South Dallas," he says. He's well aware of the current boycott of a Korean store owner who community leaders allege is both racist and violent (a charge the store owner denies). "There's a disrespect" that some businesses have for the community, he says. He's unhappy too with how many people he sees out on the streets in his neighborhood "just sitting around and openly drinking. That's a very negative, self-hating type of reality."
Pan African's goal is to stay open and stay in South Dallas. "I'm at war with bad ideas," he says. "Like Malcolm X said, the enemy took the chains off our feet and placed them on our minds. We have to free people through their ideas. We have to use economics and politics to try to move humanity forward."