In East Austin, high-rise apartments and newly built complexes are signs of gentrification in the historic area. But nestled inside the ever-evolving district is RichesArt Gallery, a Black-owned creative space that aims to redefine American history with a new exhibit.
On the gallery’s walls are the faces of Malcolm X, Maya Angelou, Jean-Michel Basquiat and other iconic Black figures. The lively watercolors and oil paintings highlight these figures’ stories as cultural and political trailblazers while conveying a message that transcends their artistic forms.
For Black History Month, gallery owner and painter Richard Samuel gathered 19 Austin- and Houston-based artists for an exhibit titled “American History.” With every filled canvas, the 33-year-old artist wanted to celebrate the contributions of Black figures while opening the hearts and minds of gallery visitors of all creeds and colors.
“The way our history is kind of taught and portrayed, it’s not always correct,” Samuel said. “I feel like what we call Black history is so important to American history, and for anyone that is American, it’s their history, too.
“I feel like a lot of people have helped build America to what it is, and we really only get history from one side. We should appreciate every bit of it.”
Paired with the visual works of Texas artists, the audiobook of Dick Gregory’s “Defining Moments in Black History: Reading Between the Lies” plays in the background to create an immersive experience.
After attending the opening reception of the exhibit, Steven Hatchett, co-founder of Austin-based art organization OF COLOR, said it brought a sense of freshness to the city. He’s certain the art gallery will become a cultural enclave in the years to come.
“I felt solidarity with the type of business that (Samuel) is building for Austin,” Hatchett said. “It’s all about having a safe space for artists of color. And in a brick-and-mortar sense, that’s powerful and something we desperately need.
“We have legacy organizations like the George Washington Carver Museum, but the new energy he brings has been an amazing thing to see.”
From a football player to an artist and entrepreneur
Samuel’s vision for the art space began during his years as a professional football player.
Just before retiring in 2018, Samuel applied the skills he learned from a watercolor class at 18 years old and began creating art pieces again. At the end of his final season in Germany, he held a solo exhibit of his work. It was the first time he sold his work, and from there, his artistic journey “exploded,” he said.
Samuel began renting the space, which was previously a store that sold adult paraphernalia, in May 2021, and opened it as RichesArt Gallery a month later. He got to know others in the local art scene; he said that his space is the only Black-owned gallery in Austin.
Instead of feelings of achievement, Samuel said disappointment set in.
“I was sad because our people didn’t have more space to display,” he said. “And at the same time, I found statistics that showed African Americans were only like 15% of contemporary artists displayed in galleries. Now, I realize it’s that way because Black people don’t own the space. So, this is the way to change that.”
When he first set up shop in the space, his focus was to move his art business out of his apartment building. But after recognizing the lack of Black-owned art galleries, he has been driven to showcase the talents of creative people of color, and to empower them.
Focused on restoring lost culture in East Austin
Samuel’s ambitions have grown stronger, given the shift that’s taken place in East Austin. With homes and businesses disappearing to make way for newer properties, the population of Black and Latino residents and entrepreneurs that once occupied the area has been slowly driven out — and their history with it.
But the gallery will represent the reclamation of the area’s history and culture, Samuel said.
“You can see how people are being pushed out of the neighborhood that they’ve known for forever. And, you know, when gentrification happens like that, your art and your culture tend to leave too,” he said. “But we’re going to display this culture; that’s extremely important.”
Multimedia artist Dre Morris said Samuel has been firmly carrying the baton for Black creatives.
Morris, 31, whose artwork “The Cowboy” is displayed at the front of the exhibit, said Samuel has supported every visual artist who took part in the exhibit and has continued to encourage them.
“(Samuel) is very, very meticulous about what he wants to put out, but he’s very open to everyone, especially of color,” Morris, a Tampa native, said. “He’s given a voice to folks that were voiceless, and he’s been holding up a torch to empower people who have been marginalized.”
Pushing for more local support
Beyond Black History Month, Samuel said his space, as well as other minority-owned businesses, should be celebrated and supported more by Austinites.
In turn, Samuel is hopeful more creative people of color will create artistic platforms for others to shine and give people a wider glimpse into the talent that exists in Central Texas.
As the gallery approaches its anniversary this spring, Samuel said he plans to organize more exhibits and events that spotlight the city’s artists. And in time, he would like to establish more artistic compounds on East Sixth Street and continue to provide a haven for creative expression and influence in East Austin.
If you go
Where: 2511 E. Sixth St., Unit A
Hours: noon to 8 p.m. Monday-Saturday
The “American History” exhibit will run through Feb. 28. For more information, visit richesart.com.