Founded and owned by Ephraim and Sheila Urévbu, Art Village Gallery brings the world to Memphis through its thoughtful and diverse range of artistic ventures.
An open, sunny building located at 410 S Main, Art Village Gallery opened its doors in 1991, and has served as one of the core pillars of the South Main Arts District ever since. As the creative community in the South Main area and throughout Memphis continues to grow, we’ve spoken with Ephraim and Sheila to learn more about the gallery and the community it’s helped build.
We strive to connect our neighborhood and the surrounding community to different cultures using the common language of art.
Choose901: What inspired you to found Art Village Gallery?
Ephraim Urévbu: Basically, it was necessity. Right after college, in 1990, I realized the lack of representation for minority artists in the local art scene. The initial idea was to create a space for African American artists to have a place to display their work. It expanded beyond that, however, because I’m from Nigeria, and I wanted to respond to the fact that even my fellow Nigerian artists lack that necessary exposure.
The name Art Village Gallery was chosen purposefully because we wanted to build a global “Art Village” by featuring works from underrepresented artists. We focus on local artists, African American artists, artists from the Caribbean, Latin America, Southeast Asia, and Africa. Our theme is very simple: diversity through art.
C901: Why did you choose to open your gallery in Memphis?
EU: I went to MCA and graduated from the University of Memphis with an MFA. Memphis was home for me since arriving from Nigeria and felt like the most logical place to plant my flag. We actually originally opened the gallery on Beale Street in 1991 as a small studio, before expanding to our South Main location today. It’s currently owned and directed by my wife, Sheila Urévbu, while I focus on my own artwork. We strive to connect our neighborhood and the surrounding community to different cultures using the common language of art.
C901: What kinds of art do you feature?
EU: We feel that the arts can contribute a lot to dialogue. In order to facilitate that, we do present visual art, but we also engage the culinary arts. Each month, we feature an artist from a different country (for example, Portugal is the artist we’re featuring this month), and the artist flies in and then we feature the artist along with a chef from another country (our chef this month is going to be from Colombia). Then we sit right in the middle of the gallery, where we set up a long family style dinner table, and we all have a dialogue at the end of dinner.
I feel like if we can speak face to face, and I can feel your body language, feel your heart, then we will be able to address issues on a one on one basis.
We invite people from the community to come in for these meals: 1) to expose them to the arts, 2) to meet the artists, 3) to meet the chefs, and 4) to discuss issues that we often don’t discuss face to face. Social media has given us a platform to hide and avoid exposing ourselves, but I feel like if we can speak face to face, and I can feel your body language, feel your heart, then we will be able to address issues on a one on one basis. And that’s the diversity we seek to develop through culinary arts.
C901: There’s a small gift shop associated with the gallery as well. What’s your favorite product that you carry?
EU: One of our biggest products right now is our line of candles, which we designed. What we’ve done with the candles is we’ve used very motivational words like love, joy, peace, believe, dream, hope, and paired that with a piece of artwork. The goal is for people to take these candles home, light them up, and see that when the candle burns to where the word is, the word glows. It’s inspiring; we want to inspire people. We’re making them in Spanish and English, instead of just one language, and our goal is actually to expand them into many languages so people can connect with them globally.
But we’ve included this blank card with each candle for people to write something thoughtful as they smell this candle, and then share that message with someone else. Because this candle is to be used for you to pass your peace, express your love, spread joy, fulfill dreams, or find hope. These are things that are very purposeful. Everything we do here is very thought through process, everything focuses on that theme, diversity through art.
C901: As a gallery owner and an artist, how would you describe the arts community in Memphis?
Sheila Urévbu: It’s a very exciting time for our art scene in Memphis. We have amazing artists in our city. I’m not only speaking of the visual arts but the entire discipline. The art scene is really beginning to blossom and it feels exciting. The potential is there for things to really explode, with the right vision.
C901: What advice do you have for local artists at the beginnings of their careers?
C901: Do you think the arts community has evolved in the time you’ve been here?
The goal is to bring works of art from places in the world that people otherwise would not be familiar with, and through this program to expose them to global diversity.-Ephraim Urévbu
C901: Speaking of art’s role in the community, could you tell me about your art leasing program?
Ephraim Urévbu: Basically what we do is place works of art in key spots in buildings around the city, and every six months or so we exchange them for fresh works. The goal is to bring works of art from places in the world that people otherwise would not be familiar with, and through this program to expose them to global diversity. We’ve made a lot of progress with that, and it’s gotten people to be more excited about coming out to the galleries.
Along those lines, I don’t know if you know, but the airport used to be full of cars. I remember coming to Memphis and thinking “What?? Is this a car dealership??” So I did a proposal in ‘91 to start putting art in the community, in the airport, and it took them until 2003 or 2004 to agree for me to do that. The focus was Memphis music, and we did that for a while before it expanded to where it is today.
The reception there has been great–people send these notes and say “thank you,” “I’m just passing through the airport, I can’t afford to own any art but this is so beautiful to see,” “it’s so soothing,” “it calms me from traveling,” and all that. Major airports across the world are doing this, but it took us almost fifteen years to get it approved. But we got it done! So those are some of the things we’ve been able to accomplish in the short period of time we’ve been here. And we look forward to doing more.
C901: What future plans do you have for the gallery?
EU: We intend to expand to develop more “hands on” projects. For example, the white room downstairs is supposed to work as an incubator for young artists who are just coming up. Our goal is to mentor them, to help them move from just the art into the business side of their trade. When I finished college, that’s not something I’d learned about, and that’s still not something that’s really taught in the classroom.
One of the things we’re working on is to partner with some of the colleges around, so that we can have their graduating students come in here and take a course. Outside of campus, we want to teach them hands on, in the real space, and at the end of the course they will put on an exhibition of their own. They handle the whole thing, from promoting it, to invitations, to the reception, to marketing, to pricing– all those things a lot of artists are so scared of. I was so terrified about just pricing my work, you know? What price do I put on it? I don’t know! So I learned over time, and a lot of it is through experience. That’s really what that white room is all about.
This room underneath the main gallery is the theater, and we do a lot there as well. For example, if we have artists that can’t fly in here, we’ll have them on video on artist talk night so we can still create that sense of connection. We also want to encourage videographers to film documentaries, and we’ll show those here. Over the summer, we do a film series based on the arts and we really encourage people to come. We just keep trying at some point, in some way, to connect with the community.
Art is not just what you see, it’s what you feel, it’s food, it’s literary…all of those elements, you have to put them together. That’s what Art Village is all about, and there’s been a lot of hard thought behind everything we do here.