At Utah’s Museum of Fine Arts on the second floor towards the back is a room labeled Arts of Africa. It looks like a period room. Quite honestly, period rooms can be boredom rooms. But this one was intriguing because almost all of the art in there had no name on it. The artist was unknown for each artifact. Why?
The street sign fell from it’s post
The assistant director of the Goddard School of Kennesaw in Georgia
The vice president of advocacy and development for Oakmont, a high school in Akron, Ohio at the National Summit on Education
“When Angel was born,” Tree recalled, “he had really bad eczema.” I was standing in Zambo Aroma listening to Tree Alexander speak briefly about his business.
“The doctors gave us some prescriptions which only caused more discomfort. So, I created our eczema care cream and rubbed him down four times a day, and his skin cleared up in six weeks. When the eczema care cream worked for Angel, everybody else wanted some and that started the snowball effect.”
As I stood there, I enjoyed the aroma of the large spacious shop on 3848 White Plains Road in the Bronx. Smells of faint incense, sweet fragrance and woodsy herbs created a sense of tranquility. My eyes wandered throughout the homely lit shop and took in the images of the prominent Black figures.
The popular photo of Victorian era, Ida B. Wells with her natural hair pulled up into a bun is framed and sits on the ledge of a shelf. There’s also photos of Dr. Carver Washington, Dr. Sabi, and Madam C. J. Walker. There are holiday decorations up and as if playing Finding Waldo, there are many mini figurines of Black Santas, standing erect in several corners.
Towards the front of the shop sit two decorative love sofas and a small coffee table. There is a little girl swinging her legs back and forth as she looks down at a tablet. Along the wall are wooden shelves holding all sorts of products: plastic wrapped naturally made soaps, soy candles, sweet smelling scrubs, skin care cream, fabric sprays, and even handmade laundry detergent.
It was the day before Thanksgiving and the shop buzzed with Tree’s family members. Besides the little girl, Tree’s sons sat nearby playing video games and Tree’s father, Darryl, who was visiting from the city of Chicago, walked about putting smiles on people faces.
Tree Alexander, who is a parent of 5, and a social worker by profession, went to school for cosmetology. However, it was only when his son, Angel, was born that his dream of soap making as a profession began to flourish.
“Business is really good,” Tree says with a smile on his face.”We started this business without a funder, investor or loan. We used all of our pocket change.”
Tree spoke while pulling soap samples out of a jar and stuffing them into a clear plastic bag that held my previously purchased soy candles. He gave me bits and pieces of his story as a business owner and as a Black American.
“I stood outside of this building when it was empty and sold soap on the weekends to save up enough money to get into this space.
Just like Ida B. Wells, Tree traveled, investing in his art before settling down in a new city as a Social Worker.
“I moved to New York when I was 19 and after spending all my money trying to become a broadway star, I practiced social work for ten years. After I brought my first property and the kids started to come, I decided I wanted to work for myself….and this is what I always wanted to do…”
I don’t own the property but that is my next step.”
“Currently, We are doing very well. We have orders from up and down the east cost. We get a lot of business from Georgia and North Carolina. In addition, a lot of my products are made with ingredients from CSA’s and Black owned farms. We get shipments every day from Connecticut and New Jersey.”
Sitting on the counter are flyers of community activities that take place at the store. I take a card for a book club and this reminds Tree of the other side of his business.
“In addition to skincare, we host, paint and sips, book clubs, and Zumba classes. There was no way I was going to start a business and not include the community!”
Tree looks at the soaps sitting on the shelf and put more gifts in my bag.
“This is a gift.” He says while wrapping it. “It’s a wild oats soap. The bar is made with olive oil, oatmeal and activated charcoal…. It’s a very conscience business I want to provide. Our mission is to provide health, healing and education…Not only are our products naturally made but all of our soaps have quotes or affirmations on the labels.”
I pick up the soap bar I purchased, Naja Warrior bar, It reads: Purify and stimulate the conscious mind, memory, and mental performance.
“The Naga Warrior bar tells the story of the African civilizations which are found in South East Asia. These communities are connected to the foundation of Buddhism. They historically traveled on the monsoons between Africa and Asia. This is our most popular soap.” Naga bar which goes for $10.00 a bar on their website.
“Our lavender deodorant talks about the American southern route, which was like a trade route for Black people.” When asked who did the writing, Tree acknowledged his team. “Carlton, my partner, is the writer, he makes everything possible virtually, he does all the websites and social media and I am in the kitchen”.
Showing his generosity, he adds more soaps to the bag.
Tree, “I think that’s enough now,” I said laughing.
“Well, just in case you have friends!” He responds.
While Tree does most of his business in the northeast; his humble beginnings started in the Ida B. Wells projects in Chicago.
Tree was born in the heart of Chicago, in Brownsville. The town named for the people who lived there. The same town Harlem Renaissance writers like Gwendolyn Brooks, Countee Cullen and Langston Hughes wrote about in their poems.
Tree lit up while talking about the history of his hometown. “Brownsville is in the south side of Chicago and runs directly into the Ida B. Wells projects and that’s where the clubs were back in the day. That’s where you went shopping and went to church! Aretha Franklin’s father was associated with that area so you know, the churches were packed! All kinds of stuff happened there!
As a child, Tree’s father taught him about his roots in Chicago through family stories and Black literature. He was exposed to writers like George Schuyler, Richard Wright and Langston Hughes.
“I read Black no More in the 6th grade. I would never forget that story. I now, reread the stories my dad had me read as a kid, I always find something new.”
When I mentioned that I’ll look up the books on Amazon, he offered to lend me his books pulling them out of his library.
He continued, “I love my city. I would definitely go back to do business and networking. But I don’t think I would go back to live. Brownsville is a lost neighborhood now. Most of the stores are closed and boarded-up. It almost looks like other lost American cities. It’s rough. It’s not the same as it was before.”
His father, walked into the shop and stopped by the counter to join the conversation.
“Brownsville?!” He shouted in a teasing manner. “What you know about Brownsville?” Where you from?” His father asked me, making me laugh.
“I am from the Bronx.”
“Where is your family from?”
“My mother is from Gloucester, Virgina which is-“
“Oh, don’t tell me. I’m from Hampton Roads too! I know about Hampton and Norfolk. I was in the service down there! I was at Langley – you know the movie Hidden Figures? about the Black sister with the math? I was at Langley Hampton and I ate at that same cafeteria Taraji ate at in the film!”
Tree’s Father spoke fast and comical while sharing his very serious story about being a Black man in the service. His son looked on and smiled.
“I can’t believe you had your son reading Richard Wright when he was in the 6th grade sir!” I said when I could squeeze a line in. “I can’t even read Richard Wright without shivering now!”
He took a breath and in a serious, teaching tone replied, “Well, It’s important. Every Black boy needs to know about Bigger Thomas. They need to know that eventually you get caught for your dirt. That image needs to be embedded in their minds.”
Perhaps its true images that are embedded into Tree’s mind which are still carrying him today.
Sometimes images of pain and dispair can help create images of health and hope.
No doubt, fundamentally, Tree’s images are connected to his roots which enable him, as a practicing cosmetologist, to use his psychology skills as a community builder. I am almost certain these Images are connected to Brownsville, Bigger and the Bronx which helps him persevere as a business man.
Perhaps those images seem like one large piece work of art – moving, yet still- and even though it can be difficult at times to pull apart Ida from Chicago or separate nostalgia from the future, bringing them all together is what matters because its the root of the mixture that creates the Zambo Aroma.
A Black family taking pictures with posters outside the Ethel Barrymore Theatre after watching
The Piano Lesson, a 21st Century remake of 1930’s play by August Wilson.
The Utah Museum of Fine Arts is concerned about air, as we all should be.
Visitors walk into a spacious foyer and after check-in, education about Salt Lake City’s poor air quality begins.
The exhibition, curated by Whitney Tassie, is a community cry. The art lifts up the voices of people from all over Salt Lake and beyond.
The first room is filled with air and three murals. Each mural by the local artist evokes memories from the beginning of the Pandemic. El Sol Sale para todos, which translates to The sun shines for everyone is by Zully Davila and Evelyn Haupt, celebrates the transformation of Latina women during the pandemic. Blackness Brings Forth Life is by Vaimoana Niumeitolu, a social activist from Tonga, who also resides in Utah. Niumeitolu seeks to tell the narrative of Utahns during the pandemic and food access. The last mural, Mokopuna, (which translates to grandchild or descendent) is by Bill Louis. It speaks about human protection during the pandemic.
There are four more rooms, each one adds a layer of community concern. Will Wilson, photographer and trans-customary artist who is a citizen of the Navajo Nation, shares a triptych that conveys a traumatic history of people and land. The wall panel teaches the history of the ‘racist energy production that continues to…harm the…Diné people’. The history dates back to the 1940’s with Uranium mining on the Navajo Nation land. The energy companies tested their bombs and after the cold war, left ‘toxic material to disperse in the air, soil and water.’ Till this day, the people are dealing with this issue.
There is an AIR lab (Autoimmune Response Laboratory) also created by Will Wilson that sits in the middle of the first main room. AIR Lab is a futurist idea mixed with sankofa implications. It’s a replica of a greenhouse, taken from the sacred Diné dwelling, which shows how to remove heavy metals and toxins from the soil (grow the Four Corners potato and certain plant species) .
Across the room, the voices of politicians are heard.
The exhibition builds and tells the viewer how this problem isn’t only Utah’s problem but also an international problem.
There is a Smog Map next to plates created by Kim Abeles of California. The map and the plates are hosted on a grayish wall (as opposed to the previous art which is on a white wall). Each plate has a world leader (covered in smog) and one quote about the environment. Pictured here are Indian Prime Minister, Modi, Brazilian President, Rousseff, President of South Africa, Zuma and President Trump.
Prime Minister Modi quote reads, “Ultimately, for success, moderating our lifestyle is necessary and possible, for a low carbon future…”
President Rousseff says, “Brazil is one of the few developing countries to commit to an absolute goal for emissions reduction. In spite of having one of the world’s largest populations…”
President Zuma’s quote reads ” Various regions of the world have different views on the issue, simply because they are affected differently by climate change. However, for most people in the developing world and Africa, climate change is a matter of life and death. We are always reminded by the leaders of small island states that climate change threatens their very existence.”
President Trump’s quote reads: ” The United States…will continue to be the cleanest and most environmentally friendly country on Earth…We’re going to have the cleanest air [and the] cleanest water.”
The next three rooms are interactive. In one you look up and see clouds created by UMFA Community Members and below positioned neatly against the wall are books with titles like Some Days I breathe on Purpose: Learning to be a Calm, Cool Kid by Kellie Doyle Bailey and William Bryant Logan’s, Air. There is a room for meditation and Yoga. There are more installations of art like lithographs by Diego Romero and Merritt Johnson’s sculpture of an oxygen tank.
In the middle of both rooms is a film by Julianknxx entitled, Black Corporeal (Between this Air). The room is extremely dark and something about the atmosphere is frightening but sweet. There is a choir that fades in on the huge screen singing one word, breath, mingled with moving images of lovers breathing with and into one another. Without knowing you are thinking about Mr. George Floyd, your mind wanders to memories of the summer of 2020 and the events around ‘I can’t breathe’ cries.
The last room is also empty except for one tremendous plastic sculpture which highlights the housing situation in America. The Chicago based artist, Michael Rakowitz, turned his focus on the impacts of the health of ‘houseless community members.’ The plaque read ” A 2020 University of Utah study found that nearly 90% of individuals without housing in Salt Lake County had sought medical attention for a condition related to air pollution.” With instructions of how to make one at home…or in the classroom. It tells the viewer, you have read our story and you see how you are intertwined in it, now go back to your community and do something about it.