Artist Couple Thrives in Climate of Racial Unrest and Economic Uncertainty

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By Beverly Hunt
Special to the AFRO

What is it like to continue to thrive as an artist in the Washington Metropolitan Area in this pandemic age?  There is plenty to be inspired by, but how do artists continue to make a living with closed galleries, with collectors on furlough from their jobs and with an unprecedented season of racial unrest?

Meet James Terrell and Zsudayka Nzinga, a local artist couple with three home-schooled children, who are paying their bills by telling the stories they witness.

The couple met eight years ago at one of Nzinga’s art shows shortly after she arrived in D.C.  “After they met, James invited me to one of his shows.  We began hanging out and painting together and fell in love,” she said when asked about their early years. “It was always an interesting journey getting on one accord.”

A local couple’s exhibit, “The Colored Section,” is on display at the Anacostia Arts Center at 1231 Good Hope road, S.E., through August 28.

Terrell pointed out that in spite of the couple being opposite in personality and lifestyle, “we always connected on the love of painting.”

“He’s a highly educated artist; I am self-taught,” Nzinga explained.  “He’s very conservative and I am a free spirit.”

The couple agreed that living with another artist allows for constant critique, study and discussion of not just their own art, but art they see outside their own world.

When asked when they realized the country was about to go through a financial upheaval, Nzinga, the business manager of their individual and collective enterprises, said they were blessed to see in advance that a financial upheaval was about to happen.

It was that insight that allowed them to create a plan.

A local couple’s exhibit, “The Colored Section,” is on display at the Anacostia Arts Center at 1231 Good Hope road, S.E., through August 28.

“I’m a nerd,” said Nzinga.  “I study trends and trends were predicting a recession for 2020. We decided to take over printing and to distribute as much of our merchandise as we could. About a month before the shutdown, we started printing and so when they started talking about closures, we were oddly ready. It was a matter of perfect timing. My dad always said, ‘Stay ready, so you don’t have to get ready.’”

The Terrells mention that it is impossible to live amid racial unrest and not have this experience affect their art. “It’s changed the messages. Being impacted by the things we’ve been watching and seeing happen leaks into the art,” said Terrell. Nzinga said she agrees, “Watching with our children the police beat peaceful people on tv makes you want to do something.  Art is a perfect way to make a social statement and impact.”

Despite the economic upheaval that has devastated many artists and galleries, Terrell and Nzinga remain busy. Their current exhibit, “The Colored Section,” is on display at the Anacostia Arts Center at 1231 Good Hope road, S.E.  It closes August 28.  The couple will also host a Socially Distant Soirée in September at their studio.

In addition to the exhibit, individually and together the couple invests a lot of time in their work. Terrell is an art teacher with Friendship Charter Schools and will be embarking on teaching art virtually. Nzinga is the curator for Bloombars, a D.C. based organization that unites communities through the arts and is also currently working with “See My Color-A Social Justice Call for Art” exhibit presented by the Women’s Caucus for Art of Greater Washington.  Collectively they will be leading virtual workshops through their website, “Terrell Arts DC,” throughout the year.  This past year found the husband-wife team exhibiting in area museums.  Next summer, the couple will be showing solo exhibitions.

Nzinga said the key to creating a sustainable and relevant brand is to know what people want and how to speak to them in what you create. Once that is figured out, an artist has:  “a strong product that you can stand behind and that is unique.”

The couple also advised other artists.

“Be creative in how you use your art skills,” said Nzinga.  “Demand your worth,” she continued.”

“Look at the needs people have for art and create a space for yourself to film that need.  Create from the rawness of what is happening,” Terrell added.