When Kani Saburi Ayubu started the Black Art Depot, he ran it out of the bedroom of his home. It has since grown into a successful arts dealership that provides quality Black art and merchandise to customers and offers Black artists an opportunity to promote their work.
Ayubu’s journey as been one of determination and ambition rooted in the street-level entrepreneurial spirit of his past.
“I was that person that, back in the day, you could say was always selling something” Ayubu said. “I was selling T-shirts, I was selling clothes, anything you could think of as far as product. I sold at flea markets, I sold mix CDs at the gas station, I sold T-shirts out of the back of the car, and that was kind of my origin. I always wanted to be some type of self-sufficient entrepreneur.
“I used to tell people all the time when I started the Black Art Depot that I didn’t really have a marketing degree, but I had a flea marketing degree.”
While growing up in Durham, N.C., Ayubu, now 42, stumbled upon a Black-owned bookstore where he developed a deep appreciation for Black history and culture. His interest in art came much later and stemmed from his interests in Black studies.
“The arts kind of came later when I started seeing visuals attached to history and culture. I was very intrigued by the fact that I could see African-American representation, characters or African-American imagery or things that came from other cultures from other regions of Africa” Ayubu said.
“Embracing the culture and artifacts of [Africa] kind of drew into my love of art, specifically a love of seeing things inspired by the African experience.”
Ayubu’s humble beginnings as a street entrepreneur led to an interest in internet marketing. At the peak of the dot-com boom of the late ’90s to early 2000s, Ayubu cultivated a knowledge of computers and online marketing practices. Later, he landed a job working as a technician. When the dot-com market crashed, Ayubu lost his job but continued his street-level entrepreneurship with a new focus on online marketing, particularly for Black businesses.
“I wanted to do things on a bigger level but didn’t necessarily have the means at the time and I was kind of big on owning my own business,” he said.
That time came in 2004, when Ayubu started the Black Art Depot in Atlanta. The business combined Ayubu’s appreciation for Black arts and culture with his knowledge of internet marketing and his instincts from street-level entrepreneurship. Through building a online marketing presence, Ayubu established a virtual art gallery. “I was trying to find an intersection between my passion for art, history and culture and my love for entrepreneurship, my belief in black owned business, as well as my thirst for this subject called internet marketing,” Ayubu said.
The business was small, but with the help of his father, the business started to grow. African-American art, collectibles, greeting cards, African masks, and many other cultural items became a part of the Black Art Depot catalog. These were products that embodied the Black experience and connected customers of African descent to that experience.
Bringing African and African-American cultural products into the minds and homes of customers who normally may not have access to them became a core goal of the Black Art Depot. More importantly, the depot honors the value of Black art and what it can do to improve the lives of people. True to his passion for Black history and culture, Ayubu believes in the power of art to educate and inspire people of African descent, to motivate ‘lost souls.’ One is affirmed by images that reflect the African experience and invokes a sense of belonging. “Sometimes, looking at a picture of an icon or transformative figure when it comes to the African-American cultural experience can help that particular person get their life back on track,” Ayubu said.
“You have all of these things around that make you feel connected to your people and your culture. That is kind of what we mean when we say turn houses into homes, motivate and inspire lost souls.”
Ayubu’s background in internet marketing allowed the Black Art Depot to be a place where Black artists could sell and promote their work in the Black community. “One of the main ways we like to contribute is by giving exposure to these artists who people would only be able to have access to if they went to an art show” Ayubu said.
“We handle the marketing part of it, the promotion part of it and through that, we like to engage artists of African descent and give an opportunity to have a lot more control of their artwork.”
In the art publishing world, many artists rely on publishing companies to sell their work to distributors. An art publisher is a company that buys original art pieces in order to reproduce them in books, magazines or prints to sell to art collectors. Artists sell their original works to the company in exchange for a small cash advance and a royalty percentage. But traditional publishers often make artists sign contracts that exploit them. The artists’ works are brought in bulk usually at low price and artists don’t always get their royalties.
The depot pays artists more for their work by buying a limited quantity of works for a higher price without the royalties. By paying for works on a per-piece basis, The Black Arts Depot is able to buy at a higher price point, where a traditional art publisher would purchase work in bulk for a wholesale price. Because the depot is paying what each individual piece is actually worth, the artist ends up often making more than going through a traditional art publishing company. The depot’s promotional services drive customers to the artists’ name and work and sometimes facilitate direct sales for the artist. Where traditional art publishers have the power to decide how an artist’s work is presented, the depot allows more creative space and control by working in partnership with the artist on how they want to reach customers.
“That’s where we kind of step in. We give those who want to self-publish and maybe make a little bit more — or a lot more, in some cases — per print” Ayubu said. “We give them an outlet to reach customers because now they can use the internet, whether it is through us or through themselves, to get more money on a per-piece basis.”
Artist find that working with the depot is beneficial to them and helps them grow a following particularly among Black audiences. Black artists are also glad to work with a Black organization that understands their work, its value and its relevance in the Black community. Ayubu’s admiration and skill set has helped make the Black Arts Depot a welcomed space for Black artists to get their work out there.
“We work with them by creating a win-win relationship that allows everybody to be successful. We like to think that is why a lot of artists like to work with us. We have had the opportunity to generate exposure for artists who wouldn’t have that exposure.”
You can view the Black Art Depot’s online collection at https://www.blackartdepot.com/.