Walking the streets throughout the Caribbean island of Trinidad, it’s not uncommon to find women rolling split pea flour into golf ball-sized bulbs, frying them and serving with tamarind sauce to folks looking for a bite on-the-go. The uncomplicated street food, including the culture of its production and distribution, is one of the favorite tropical treats for Atlanta-based artist Ajmal Millar, who was born in New York to Trinidadian parents.
“The whole process is kind of raw, and it’s delicious,” said the openly gay Millar, who incorporates the tradition into his upcoming art show, “Painted Bodies + Pholourie,” which takes place at his family’s Caribbean restaurant, Calabash Alley, in Decatur April 28.
“I wanted to kind of invite people into my world, and I always kind of give remembrance to where I come from because it is a big part of what informs my work,” Millar said. “I honor my ancestors, so a large part of it is being proud of who I am and where it is I’m coming from.”
The mixed-media art show, where folks will be able to taste pholourie and other Trinidadian favorites while DJ Enoch IS Real spins metaphysical beats, is the formal opening statement from a young artist who has been honing his voice since 2010. Millar, whose journey began in earnest when his art teacher at Decatur High School included his collage among student work displayed at a local Starbucks, has featured work in art shows across Atlanta and in New York, but “Painted Bodies + Pholourie” marks his first solo show.
While the recognition and acclaim he’s received might’ve opened doors at more traditional art venues, Millar says he’s hosting his debut show on Candler Road for the same reason he shouldn’t have to travel to Midtown for art supplies.
“Why don’t we have art places in the hood?” he asked. “Places like the hood, like Candler Road, and the Hood U.S.A., we need art spaces so we can beautify our neighborhoods, and teach our youth that art is a way to enjoy life and just share who they are, and it can also be a way to freedom. You never know who can be inspired.”
Path of an artist
Millar’s family moved to metro Atlanta when he was 2 years old, but brought with them a part of Trinidadian culture that would become central to Millar’s life and art: Mas (pronounced as in “masquerade”), which is associated with Carnival.
“My grandmother and my mom, out of all of the family members [who moved to the U.S. from Trinidad], they were the ones that held on to the culture of mas, and my sister and I have been doing it ever since,” said Millar, who began creating Carnival costumes when he was 6 years old, and today is known as Mas Man in local Caribbean circles.
Millar tapped into his experience creating the intricate and oversized costumes during his free time as a student at Morehouse College, when he would design illusions and walk in gay balls as a member of the House of Balenciaga. He earned the inaugural scholarship awarded by the House of Blahnik, and through those connections secured a job at an LGBT health center in Buffalo, N.Y.
In 2010, Millar bought some supplies from a Buffalo art store, began toying with a scrap of wood that was leftover from one of his house ball costumes, and created a piece that awakened his exploration of himself as an artist.
“It’s not much – it’s really just like an undulating line with tits,” Millar joked. “But that was it: from then on, every day after work, I would go to the gym and rush home after the gym to create.”
When Millar’s boss at the health center asked him how they could get their young clientele engaged with the nonprofit beyond just picking up condoms, Millar studied the CDC guidelines for prevention interventions and created an art therapy program. The initiative was popular enough for the young artists to produce two shows, where their friends and family members were able to learn more of their perspective as young black gay men.
“Some of the stuff that came out of those teenagers – they were so brilliant,” Millar said with awe.
Millar soon returned to his city of birth, where he eventually received a scholarship to participate in a program at the Art Students League of New York, got a temporary job at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and immersed himself in the art world.
“We basically talked about art all day, and I met a lot of people and got really inspired,” he said. “I started to go back to collage and get more into Romare Bearden, and that opened up doors to see other people I enjoyed and could be inspired by.”
Traveling through vaunted art galleries like the Guggenheim Museum, even while wearing a name tag from The Met, Millar often sensed that he was not supposed to be there, due both to his physical appearance, and the absence of art that reflected his culture and experience.
“We need to be more present in these spaces, physically, as people of color, and we also need to be on the walls more, not just in their collection where they pretty much collect things from around the world from all cultures,” Millar said. “That’s like the strongest representation you’ll see [of non-European art], but why not have more paintings of brown people on the wall to be seen?”