More than anything else, LeXander Bryant’s artwork shares love.
The artist’s love for his hometown since 2016, Nashville.
His lifelong love for the South.
More recently, a love for his own work.
“I had to stop comparing myself to other artists. I had to stop thinking that for it to be good it had to look like this,” Bryant told Forbes.com of falling in love with his own artistic creation. “When I started photography as a 23-year-old black man in Alabama, back then, the focus was on streetwear, it was on fashion, sneakers – it didn’t affect me l I had to take a step back and stop trying to find inspiration in the things that big city photographers like, that wasn’t my experience.
His experience growing up in Jackson, Alabama – population 5,500 – required a personal approach.
“Once I faced reality and focused on real life, the things I know – the South and the family, the people, the conversations – I was able to just get into my bag and show the best of what I had to offer,” Bryant said. “I was able to find my true, authentic voice, and once I did, I knew it. I fell in love with it.”
Visitors to the Frist Museum in Nashville will likely be too. Bryant’s first solo exhibition at the museum, “Forget Me Nots,” opens January 28 with multimedia works including a sculpture, photographs, murals and a new video.
“It’s the food, it’s the weather, it’s the way people talk, it’s the way we dress, the way we treat ourselves, it’s the way we celebrate spirituality , the way we celebrate love,” Bryant (b. 1989) says of his love for the South.
It may be surprising to hear from a black man given the historic and ongoing racism and violence against African Americans that traverses the region. Bryant recognizes this.
“It’s definitely something that can’t be overlooked or ignored, but as a black man, I don’t think I can escape these types of injustices just by moving a few states north or a few states west. “, he says.
The South earned its reputation for systemic and deadly hostility toward African Americans perpetrated by white people. What has long been unfair to the region is that America has scapegoated it by isolating it from the rest of the nation in this behavior.
Not to be forgotten, Boston saw much of the worst racial discord following the enforced segregation of public schools in the 1970s. Oregon was founded as a whites-only state. George Floyd was murdered by white cops in Minneapolis, not Montgomery.
Racism in America doesn’t end where sweet tea is no longer served in restaurants.
Bryant’s work addresses the challenges of the black experience, but he does so through celebration. Tribute to black children. Tribute to black families. Celebrate black culture.
In doing so, he hopes to explain his love for the South.
“We haven’t had this (telling) of the full story of the South and so I think that’s why a lot of people on the outside might not understand why I love him so much,” says Bryant.
Beyond that, Bryant also hopes to set an example for other artists in the South by proving that they can achieve their professional goals without moving to New York or Los Angeles.
“Growing up, you always look at these big cities thinking they have everything we need – the stores, the media, the clothes – over time… I’m able to look back and the experiences, the people, the places, the conversations, I can say that the South has everything we need, and I have to honor those experiences, those people, those places through this work,” he said. “We’re not in a position where we have all the resources we need, but as far as the essentials go, we have it here in the South, right here in Nashville, right in Alabama, Birmingham, Georgia, Mississippi, there’s enough where we can create an ecosystem for other artists to thrive and survive through their work.
Nashville could pave the way for Bryant’s vision of pan-Southern artistic flourishing.
Tennessee’s capital has been one of the country’s “it” cities for 25 years. Investment dollars, professional sports, a booming music industry, low cost of living and hospitable climate acted as a magnet for young professionals and new businesses. The city’s metropolitan area grew by 21% between 2010 and 2020.
“Nashville just has something going on right now where it’s like the hub, I think it could be the center of the South,” Bryant said.
Nashville’s growth has accelerated to the point where getting it under control may be the city’s biggest concern amid strained infrastructure, a lack of affordable housing, and sprawl unheard of in the South outside of Atlanta.
Bryant was drawn to Nashville after graduating from Alabama A&M University, an HBCU in Huntsville, AL, two hours south on Interstate 65. He had no art background, but always found himself attracted by the images.
“My first inspiration for photography was hip hop music,” Bryant said. “I was listening to songs and trying to recreate those scenes in my head, or thinking, ‘What could I do to make this video better? What could I have done to make it a better move? I would challenge my mind on how to create ideas. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was actually manifesting ideas in my head before I even picked up a camera. I was able to take those visions and turn them into images.
In the Frist exhibit, nearly four dozen snapshots of daily life make up what Bryant calls a “memory wall” documenting characters and stories that collectively refuse to be forgotten.
This main theme continues in the show’s focal point, a suspended slab of cracked concrete from which bloom blue forget-me-not flowers. The installation echoes the sentiment of the late rapper Tupac Shakur’s poem “The Rose That Came Out of the Concrete” and honors survival and growth despite seemingly impossible circumstances.
Bryant’s use of the material is inspired by his father who owned his own concrete company. LeXander’s first job was helping his father during the summers, and his father had hoped that LeXander would eventually take over the business. It shouldn’t be.
Although the business was not passed on, the lessons were.
“The attention to detail my dad would always put into the job, back in our little town he’s the best, if you want it done you call him cause you know he’s gonna do it right,” Bryant said of what he learned from that dad. “I’ve always wanted to take the same approach in my work. I want to have the same respect when it comes to what I do. When people talk about my work, when they talk about photography, when they talk about black art in Nashville, I want them to be able to put my name in the conversation, just like they put (my father’s) name in the conversation when they raise construction and build a house.
Father and son came together on a concrete project for one of LeXander’s friends in Nashville who needed a sunken patio in 2020.
“It went well and at that point I was like, maybe I can do this, maybe I can get the business back in Nashville – it was like the first thought, l Adrenaline is pumping and I think I can do it,” Bryant recalled. “Two weeks go by and I think it’s actually hard work! I need a full team. I need workers. I need to know where can I get the concrete. I turned away from that idea and focused on how I can use (the concrete) to tell one more story and that’s when the concrete slab with the cracks and the flower going through came to me in mind.
Recent exhibitions at Frist have highlighted the work of Albrecht Dürer, Picasso and Frida Kahlo. Sharing his work in these same spaces got Bryant thinking.
“I think it’s about legacy. This is a big milestone for me as I have been doing photography for 10 years last year,” he said. “For me to be in the Frist in my tenth, eleventh year means I’m doing something right.”
This means that the Frist is also doing something good.
Asked about the people he photographs and how many of them he thinks have ever been to an art museum, Bryant replies, “Not many. Not much at all.
Bryant hopes his work will change that.
“One of the reasons I’m so happy to have the show is because a lot of people say to me, ‘I can’t wait to come to the show, I can’t wait to finally come to the first one’ , he said. “I’m like, ‘yo, you’re from Nashville, you were born here, and you’ve never been there?’ They’re like, ‘No, I never really thought I had a reason.’ The fact that I can be their sanity says it all.
LeXander Bryant “Forget Me Nots” will be on view until May 1, 2022.