Exploring Project Row Houses — the artist community that helped save Black history from being erased.
WORDS Sabina Sysantos
Photography Supplied by Project Row Houses
In 1993, a group of seven Black artists bought a block of shotgun houses in Third Ward to protect it against the gentrification of Houston, Texas. James Bettison, Bert Long Jr., Jesse Lott, Rick Lowe, Floyd Newsum, Bert Samples, and George Smith purchased and refurbished a block of 22 shotguns with the intention of providing a safe space for members of underrepresented communities to share resources and build support.
Shotgun houses are narrow buildings (usually no more than four metres wide) with rooms arranged one behind the other and a door at each end. They are believed to have acquired their name from the idea that, if a bullet shot from the front door, it would pass through each room of the house and exit through the back door without hitting anything. Shotguns were the most popular style of house in the Southern United States from the end of the American Civil War through the 1920s.
The artists saved the shotguns from being destroyed, as preserving these buildings meant preserving Black history and culture. Where others saw poverty, the artists believed in the potential to form a community-based around creativity. Project Row Houses was established in one of Houston’s oldest African-American neighbourhoods, with the intention of exploring how art could be a resource to a community and catalyst for social transformation.
In its initial stages, the project primarily housed single mothers who were artists that needed the resources and support for their work to flourish in the ways it deserved. The idea was to bring together groups and pool the resources of artists, young mothers, small businesses, and Third Ward Residents to allow for Black people to carve out their own space in the art world.
Nearly three decades on, and the houses continue to welcome marginalised groups to create and present their art. The ethos of Project Row Houses is to support these people and their ideas, so that they may be provided with the tools and capacity to then do the same for others. It stems from Joseph Beuys’ concept of art as “social sculpture”, the idea that art is about its potential to transform society.
The work of Project Row Houses has allowed for representation to exist in a world of cultural arts institutions whose systems inherently lack opportunities for people who are not white men. By highlighting the importance of community, the houses do away with the idea of the “genius artist” as a god-like figure and counteract the ideas of art as inaccessible.
Project Row Houses reaffirms how valuable these celebrations of African-American art, history, and culture are to society. As the events of 2020 have further proven the importance of African-American people to dictate their own narratives, the houses work as a cultural artefact of Blackness and the South that work to keep their stories alive.
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