The Water Calls

“This is what it means to be an artist,” Malcolm Jackson said. We’re winding up a group conversation about art, design, fashion pop-ups, American Beach and what it means to make art in Jacksonville right now—how cross-platform, neighborhood and presentation models change and evolve and how art can exist at surprising and revelatory intersections.

Dustin Harewood, Malcolm Jackson and Jordan Walter have known each other for about five or six years. They came into one another’s orbit through a shared interest in music, streetwear, fashion, sneaker culture and an elevated, elegant discourse on pop culture. For Harewood, that constellation of interests is manifested in his paintings and collages. For Jackson and Walter, it is epitomized in Bonsoir Southern Flea Market: the limited-edition clothing company that they started with Stan Wilcox. It’s worth noting that Bonsoir was conceived as more than one single thing. Like the fashion industry itself, it operates on multiple levels: design, art, art direction and editorial photography.

Now, the three artists are collaborating on a major art show. The Black Beach is, in many ways, a meditation specifically on the sad fate of American Beach in Fernandina, but in a wider frame—through Harewood’s intervention—it’s a show about encroaching capitalism and the micro and macro destruction wrought by its “growth” imperative. Capitalism being ever-ravenous, it’s always a timely subject.

The first black beach in Florida, established circa 1905, Manhattan Beach was located roughly at what today is parking lot eight at Kathryn Abbey Hanna Park. The site is all sun-bleached sand dunes, but 100 years ago, it was the center of a small and thriving seaside community. Once that land became desirable, however, local segregationist Edward Ball (with help from politician Harcourt Bull) saw to it that a law was passed making it illegal for black people to buy or own land in Atlantic Beach.

Thus, in 1935, Abraham Lincoln Lewis, the first black millionaire in Florida, founded American Beach as a place where the employees of his Afro-American Life Insurance Company could go to enjoy “recreation and relaxation without humiliation.” Almost a century later, the small community is surrounded by wealthy resorts and under pressure from developers who hope to force long-time families out. It’s not a new tale, but it is one that bears repeating, if only to force a conversation about whose stories and traditions are valued in this region. (Here’s looking at you, Confederate monuments to “history.” And you, current owners of Lewis’s historic home who just demolished it).

Jackson says when he thinks of the beach in general, he thinks of American Beach specifically. “That [place] was the beach. I didn’t go to Jacksonville Beach until I was 18.”

Walter, too, says his connection to the actual and mythical space of the beach is rooted in his relationship to the area. There’s also a little bit of nostalgia for things as divergent as church t-shirts, blogs from the aughts, and haute street culture as epitomized by the clothing brand Bathing Ape. “Here in Jacksonville, because we don’t have that ‘one’ person, or even a bunch of different sneaker boutiques, people will find their inspiration from the Internet, and you’ll get a false impression of what that [aesthetic] is,” he said.

Harewood’s connection to the Fernandina community is more tenuous: “The only other time I had heard about American Beach (and I’ve been here since 2004) was from Roosevelt Watson III. I didn’t know anything about it until Roosevelt presented his work [on it] at the library. I credit him.” But so much of Harewood’s work is centered on his life on Barbados and his frequent trips to Japan that the ocean often takes center stage. Though his most recent show (Warm Rain and Electricity) in December focused on large-scale abstracts, his ongoing body of work, 36 Views of a Dying Reef, explores the destruction and rebuilding of giant ocean reefs. Some these will be on display alongside The Black Beach. For Harewood, representing reefs is meaningful because they are an important part of the planetary ecosystem. When they die, humanity dies.

Initially, the exhibition grew out of a recent series of editorial photographs Jackson snapped during the course of Memorial Day weekend in 2019. He’d returned to the beach because “the water calls to me.”

While there, he started to think about all the singular stories that took place there—from James Brown being “uninvited” to play at the nightclub Evan’s Rendezvous (he was too turnt) to ships full of kidnapped Africans sinking off of the coast. He decided he wanted to do something to draw attention to the place, while also blurring the lines between past and present. Jackson conceptualized an editorial photo shoot wherein his models would be wearing clothing styled to evoke the heyday of the beach. “I wanted to bring awareness to the area as a whole … I wanted to do something to try to save it.” The resulting work is a series he calls “Ghosts of NaNa.” NaNa is the great sand dune that sits at the heart of the community. Purchased by the National Parks Service in 2005, it is now a protected part of the Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve.

Talking about his approach, Walter explained, “I did end up doing some t-shirts, but they’re—they’re kind of hard to explain … in all the work I did for the show, I wanted to show my depth as an artist. The pieces are layers upon layers upon layers: the kind of things you have to look at for a while to understand them. I think maybe that’s what I appreciate about design, and more specifically t-shirt design, because [the t-shirt] celebrates life, death, protest—it’s greater than what you see, more powerful than a picket sign, and is accessible.”

In making his pieces, Jordan “sampled” Jackson’s photos in a manner that recalls Harewood’s own sampling of cultures and experiences—from Brooklyn to Barbados, Japan to Disneyland. The method is an outgrowth of postmodern theory and hip hop practice, moving across media, reflecting different materials, and multiplying the points of access to art, fashion and design.

Showing together seemed like a natural fit for the three artists. With elements of pop and fine art wed to the unexpected and deliberate, The Black Beach promises to deliver a meaningful rumination on place, loss and blackness.