Artists from Senegal to Richmond ‘merge the gap’ at annual art exhibition

Catalyst Studios founder Thomas Chatman (left), co-owner Chandler Gillikin (center) and director Kendahl Bell (right) at its annual exhibition featuring mixed medium art from Virginian and Senegalese artists. Photo by Paige Bell.

Lelia Contee, Contributing Writer

Photographers, fashion designers and visual artists from Virginia and the Republic of Senegal were featured at Catalyst Studios’ third annual art exhibition on Saturday, April 6 at the Residences at the John Marshall.

Catalyst Studios is an art gallery with a mission to connect local and Senegalese artists to a global stage, fostering talent through exhibitions, charity auctions and cultural exchange, according to the Catalyst Studios website

Thomas Chatman, the founder and CEO of Catalyst Studios said he felt inspired by Senegalese artists in Senegal. He visited Senegal to take photographs for his aunt, who had recently moved there. He then saw artists face many struggles, but they were still determined to work on their craft from sun up to sun down, Chatman said. 

Being born in Richmond and invested in the community, Chatman wanted to connect artists from Senegal to the art scene in Richmond, he said.

“Catalyst started because seeing the artwork in Senegal and seeing those artists that were struggling just to make a dollar to just put food on their plate, and then coming back here and seeing how big of a scene art has on Richmond,” Chatman said. 

This year’s theme is “Ego,” where the Catalyst Studio team wanted to dig deep and find their “why” and the answer to who they are as individuals, Chatman said. He wanted to push audiences and artists to think beyond the theme, dig deep into their own “ego” and create powerful messages in their art.

Chatman loves that art is a form of communication — it speaks different languages, comes from varieties of cultures with many different perspectives and fosters a sense of community in Richmond, so he wanted to give back to the local community and Senegal, he said.

Catalyst Studios was not always called Catalyst Studios. In 2021, it was a brand called VSN, standing for the middle letters of lover, loser and loner, signifying Chatman and his friends’ personalities. Then it changed to staykoolinn, Kendahl Bell’s photography name, the gallery director and host of Catalyst Studios, who is a friend of Chatman, according to Chatman. 

After leaving Senegal, Chatman realized he wanted to focus on art and “ignite that flame within people,” thus Catalyst Studios became official. 

“I really am inspired to keep going because of what I know can come from this,” Chatman said. 

“Going to Senegal, being the catalyst for those artists and getting their artwork here and providing that platform, that space, providing that representation for them and also being that for other artists that are local.”

Just being around other artists is inspiring and encouraging, according to Briahna Switzer, a featured photographer in the exhibition from Newport News and owner of Photography Breeze. 

Switzer said she enjoys conceptual photography where different artists express themselves and she tries to capture the everyday essence, beauty and individuality of each person, but with a twist  — utilizing a perspective focused on editing, poses and location to capture beauty in a way that makes people see it and feel great about it. 

“Photography was a powerful outlet for me,” Switzer said. “Just having that avenue and that platform to create representation and tell people’s stories was really empowering to me.” 

Switzer wants her photography to inspire conversations, representation and empower everyone, she said. When it comes to the media, there are not always different skin tones, hair or body types being represented.

“I just want to empower people to find beauty in their own selves and just connect to the art and whatever way that they see fit,” Switzer said. 

Cameron Dorsey, a featured photographer in the exhibition, creative director from Newport News and owner of Parago Studios, said he does world-building in his photos. He hopes it will invoke feelings of nostalgia within people. 

“What I usually go for is like something that you’ve seen before, but you haven’t really captured that feeling since seeing that thing,” Dorsey said. “I’m just trying to take things from my childhood and things that I’m into from the past and just kind of recontextualize that.” 

Dorsey showcased four different pieces that will display his range, such as abstract shots and something that “speaks to the soul.” 

Yosef Woods, a featured fashion designer in the exhibition from Chesapeake, said he was looking forward to this event because he wants to network with other creatives at VCU, around the world and in the area. 

He found that collaboration is great for business and opens doors for growth and different experiences, Woods said.

Woods featured a jacket, which he designed with no preparation, but operating from a place of “pure confidence” in his craft. He also included a few collections from his clothing line, “Righteous & Eagerly Determined,” which was also featured in a separate fashion show, “Vêtement De Rue,” at the Hippodrome Theater, he said.

“I’m just all about pushing boundaries and you know kind of just escaped in the limits that you create for yourself and the limits that other people may create for you,” Woods said. 

Modou Diongue, a featured Senegalese visual artist in the exhibition and founder of Pixels Squad, said that meeting the Catalyst Studio members gave him a chance to express his art in a way he never expressed before.

“Since my childhood, I have always been passionate about the arts. I learned to draw on the walls of the family home,” Diongue said.“I am constantly inspired by the duality of the human experience and how it can be portrayed through art.” 

Diongue wants to “merge the gap” between different cultures and traditions, connecting people on a spiritual level with his work, he said. He wants audiences to feel awakened and share reflections of his journey navigating between reality and imagination. 

“I am grateful to have had the opportunity to work with such talented and passionate artists,” Diongue said. “I am excited to see how our collaboration will be received by the public, and I hope that our shared work can evoke emotions and reflections in those who discover it.”

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