Portrait of Derrick Adams with I Shine, You Shine, We Shine, 2022. Courtesy of the artist.
Multidisciplinary artist Derrick Adams is a master practitioner of the Ubuntu philosophy. An ideology woven all throughout the African continent, Ubuntu most commonly translates to “I am because we are.” Though interpretations vary, the philosophy is widely understood as an assembly of values and practices that make a person a genuine human being—which people of African origin believe is integral to larger and more meaningful relational, communal, social, environmental, and spiritual worlds. A person who embodies Ubuntu, as Adams does, is influenced, if not defined by, the greater collective. The Baltimore-born, Brooklyn-based artist’s life and 30-year career have been an ongoing exercise in building community, bolstering the collective, and creating a new narrative around cultivation and care.
Adams’s latest community-focused endeavor is a collaboration with Tiffany & Co. The iconic jewelry brand invited Adams to participate in its new social-impact platform Atrium. His new work I Shine, You Shine, We Shine (2022) is inset into the Atrium logo and will be sold in a benefit auction in partnership with Tiffany & Co., which takes place on Artsy from July 27th through August 10th. One hundred percent of proceeds from the sale will go to Adams’s artist residency program, The Last Resort Artist Retreat. In the thick of ubiquitous uncertainty, chaos, and loss, Adams reminds us, “The piece represents our never-ending pursuit of love and the hope of shared compassion for one another.”
Though Tiffany & Co. has always had ongoing philanthropic initiatives, with Atrium, the jewelry house seeks to advance opportunities for historically underrepresented communities, specifically to create a more diverse, equitable, and inclusive jewelry industry. “We wanted to partner with an artist who understood those same values and goals,” said Mary Bellai, Tiffany & Co.’s chief of human resources. “There’s great synergy between Derrick’s social impact work and our aspirations for Atrium,” she explained. Tiffany & Co. Adams gave full creative control to develop the logo for Atrium. “He certainly mastered the mix of textures and included a beautiful subtle homage to Tiffany blue, and to the heart, which is about compassion and care,” Bellai added.
The title I Shine, You Shine, We Shine comes from the lyrics of a 1995 Mary J. Blige song, “I Love You (Remix).” That phrase became a popular point of reference in hip-hop dialogues centered on collaboration and partnership. “The title highlights the importance and mutually beneficial impact of giving love and allowing yourself to receive it,” Adams said, “as this is what growth and development are truly about.”
The artwork, an abstract collage composed of both acrylic, fabric, and collage paper, is an offshoot of the artist’s 2017 “Mood Board” series, which was inspired by designer and collagist Patrick Kelly and exhibited at The Studio Museum in Harlem. Adams tapped into Tiffany & Co.’s historical lexicon using the brand’s signature design: the heart. He created a motif that includes repeating bisected hearts which symbolize openness and sharing, coupled with floral patterns that represent growth and embracing diversity as our superpower. (The work will be on view in New York from July 27th through August 10th at Tiffany & Co.’s Fifth Avenue flagship store.)
Though Adams is a multidisciplinary artist, he is best known for pieces featuring multihued, melanated figures in rich tones of pecan, toffee, and hazelnut, which have become the cornerstone of his larger body of work. The people at the center of his work are often enveloped in celebratory ceremonies, representing what Adams calls “radical Black joy.” He believes beingful, present, and happy in the face of systemic joy and daily microaggressions is revolutionary. Adams chooses to illuminate Black people; in his world, they are utterly exuberant. The work serves as a much-needed love letter to Black people everywhere and a reminder to the world over of how dynamic Blackness truly is.
Adams has a long history of creating platforms and communities for fellow artists. Prior to developing his full-time art practice, Adams was the curatorial director of the RUSH Arts Gallery for more than a decade. RUSH Arts was one of the rarefied spaces in New York City where artists of color could have their work exhibited. Adams applied his keen eye for talent by curating a myriad of group exhibitions for emerging artists, and debuting solo presentations for Simone Leigh, Deana Lawson, Wangechi Mutuand Nathaniel Mary Quinn. He created access, opportunities, and a growing network that was integral to curating New York City’s Black arts community. Within the contemporary art arena, Adams is known for encouraging and honing young creatives.
The Last Resort Artist Retreat (TLRAR) is one of Adams’s most benevolent endeavors to date. Based in Baltimore, the residency program operates out of a sun-drenched private home that sits on an acre of land with idyllic foliage. The residence has eight bedrooms, three bathrooms, living rooms, workspaces, aerial balconies, a solarium, and a dining parlor, all enveloped by a 360-degree veranda where participants can settle their minds while sunbathing.
The proceeds from I Shine, You Shine, We Shine will go towards the operations and maintenance of TLRAR, which is in the midst of expanding—adding freight container studios and an art garden to its property. This includes the addition of a pavilion for salon-style talks and public programs for the community, such as gatherings with experts of various disciplines. “Of course, I’m an artist, but I see myself as a facilitator,” Adams explained. “The idea of connecting people, facilitating connection for bigger experiences and bigger outcomes, and how that’s directed to the Black community is what I’m interested in.”
Along with providing respite for Black creatives, TLRAR also partners with locals from Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia—from chefs and life coaches to yoga teachers and meditation instructors—who are committed to offering community members programming, opportunities, and tools to better themselves. TLRAR fosters cross-pollination of community and cultivation—and Adams wouldn’t have it any other way.
Adams believes relaxation, reflection, and replenishment are non-negotiables for artists. Without it, their practices can become compromised and they are vulnerable to burnout and illness. In the contemporary art industry, the health and well-being of artists—both physical, mental, and spiritual—are secondary to the art itself and the inevitable financial outcomes. As writer and activist Audre Lorde once said, “caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation.”
Adams is using relaxation to challenge deeply ingrained ideas about work and worth. As a result of the slave trade and labor-driven working-class jobs for many Black people, there is an extricable link between physical labor and self-worth. With TLRAR, Adams is making space, literally and figuratively, for a demographic that is especially vulnerable, to prioritize themselves and their wellbeing; For many, self-care is counterintuitive.
“I’m giving space for people to exist on their terms,” Adams said. “People can just come to read or to sit and think. It’s about having a space in the heart of the city that’s really promoting how important it is to have these types of spaces.” Adams believes you shouldn’t have to go to the Hamptons to relax and recharge—you should be able to find peace in your own backyard.
Adams is already embarking on his next community-driven venture: the Black Baltimore Digital Database (BBDD), which was recently awarded $1.25 million by the Mellon Foundation. This digital database and physical institution will house the cultural contributions and accomplishments in sports, business, civics, and the arts by local Baltimoreans. There will also be an ongoing oral history archive, which will preserve the personal histories of invited elders from Baltimore.
Rendering of the Black Baltimore Digital Database. Courtesy of Derrick Adams.
True to Adams’s approach, BBDD is challenging how intellectual property is procured and managed. “I’m creating a counter-institution because we don’t want to own your material,” Adams explained, noting that contributors will still retain ownership of their stories and documents. He is looking to innovate on the traditional sterile and inaccessible systems surrounding research and archives. Both independent researchers and data teams are encouraged to use the database to inform their work. “If we create a space that’s in a residential neighborhood, it will be a community space, and may entice people to engage with the database like you would go to a library,” Adams said.
This philanthropic work all circles back to Adams’s modern adaptation of Ubuntu. I Shine, You Shine, We Shine isn’t just the title of an artwork; it’s the guiding philosophy of his life’s work. Through his lens, the individual and the community do not exist independent of each other—to sustain one is to sustain all. As he walks into new rooms looking to include new voices, he continuously props the door open for the many that will follow. Because he is, so many more will be.