Narkita Gold did not know what it meant to be Black in Denver when she set out to create a portrait-and-interview series called “Black in Denver” in 2018.
“I didn’t even know what it meant to be me,” she said on the eve of her exhibit’s Nov. 19 opening at the Arvada Center. “I was definitely embarking on a journey of self-inquiry to find out who I really am.
“And I am still on that journey, honestly.”
The expedition started in 2015, when the Nashville native decided it was “time to paint something new.” Not with brushes. With her life. So she came to Denver on a spiritual mission to find purposeful work and to live an authentic life.
Chicago might have been a more obvious choice. New York. Atlanta. But it was a short-lived public relations job that brought her instead to Denver, a city whose population is just 10% Black. “There were moments when I wanted to leave,” she said. “I was looking at moving to other cities that would be a bit more diverse and have different cultural offerings. But then I met some really cool people, and I started creating my own intentional communities.”
That’s communities, plural. For Gold, 33, that first meant building a community of women. “Then it meant my yoga community, my writing community, my arts community, my dance community, my spiritual community,” she said. “It meant building a community that honors every single part of me.”
Gold did not necessarily set out to find her Black community, though it was her discovery of a Black-owned wellness center called Urban Sanctuary that became her entry to all others. Also because, as her exhibit strives most to communicate, Denver has no single Black community or Black identity. “Black in Denver” is a robust anthology that seeks to illustrate, in photos and words, the vast diversity of experiences, careers, attitudes, values and skin tones that make up the Black diaspora.
The result is a colorful mosaic that is meant to be considered both for its 90 individual pieces and as a singular whole. She sets each of her portraits against a rainbow of warm and vibrant background colors intended to accentuate each face at its most joyful, introspective or seasoned. The repetition of these background colors is meant to convey both the interdependence and independence of each portrait – and the real person each one depicts.
And then taken as a whole, the viewer is meant to be struck not necessarily by Blackness but instead by the overall explosion of color. One that reinforces the spectrum of the Black experience, as evidenced by her subjects’ widely varying skin tones.
“I wanted to explore the entire color spectrum because Blackness is a spectrum,” she said. “That’s why you have all these background colors that run from cool to warm. There are as many types of Black people as there are colors.”
For the Arvada Center exhibit, which will be free and open for socially distanced walk-throughs through at least Dec. 27, the portraits will be displayed in a variety of groups, sizes and formats, including a video reel. But Gold has handpicked nine primary oversized portraits that will be positioned so that when you stop, you will be looking right into the subject’s eyes. That, too, is intentional.
“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had a white person who won’t look at me as they pass,” Gold said. “I hope that when you stop and look into the eyes of these people that you see a reflection. Maybe you’ll see yourself and realize that we are all connected.”
It is perhaps relevant to point out here that Gold is not a professional photographer. The camera, she said, “is just the tool that I had at hand.” And yet, the undaunted amateur set out to undertake perhaps the most daunting of all photographic ambitions: “Capturing the soul of a person through a lens,” as she puts it.
“I never set out to take the best photo ever,” she said. “I know that I am untrained, and that I lack in some areas. But this is how I wanted to express myself.”
In looking at the series as a montage, sharp-eyed visitors might be quick to pick out Denver Mayor Michael Hancock, State Rep. Leslie Herod or perhaps local activist Suzi Q. Smith. Gold would rather you not look for recognizable faces, but rather simply span the panorama of faces and note the nameless dancer, the teacher, the model, the hustler, the RTD bus driver. (And that’s all just one photo subject – a strong, gay Black man named Antonio who tells Gold he is happy to feel masculine one day and feminine the next).
Just as crucial to Gold’s creative process is the interview that accompanies each portrait: The stories behind the faces. “My creative process is really through conversation, especially when it comes to capturing someone’s essence through a camera,” she said. “I usually start out with a really big question like, ‘Tell me about yourself.’ And that starts them out a journey of their own. And then I dig into all these pieces that make up a person. And after all that, I say: ‘OK, with all that in mind: Who are you? What does it mean to be you?’ You have to ask a lot of questions to get a person, far removed from everyone else, to finally define themselves for themselves.”
One of her subjects is Denver stage and screen actor Kristen Adele, who was irresistibly drawn to Gold’s artistic intention.
“Narkita’s work is so important because it connects the present moment to the past and the future in such a beautiful way,” Adele said. “Denver’s Black community has been vibrant for centuries, and Narkita reminds us that we are a part of a continuum of vibrant, complex humans who have chosen to make the Mile High City home throughout the years.”
Most essentially, Gold asks each subject to answer the question she’s also asking of herself: What does it mean to be Black in Denver? To Herod, it means the ability to make systemic change. To the dancer, it means to be overlooked. To the travel blogger, it means to be introspective. To the Kabbalah student, it means freedom.
When things get difficult for Mayor Hancock, he told Gold: “I remind myself that we as a people have seen worse and we have to persevere through it. I have to persevere through it. If my ancestors can come through what they endured, I can certainly meet the challenges that I have here, which don’t even compare.”
“Black in Denver” will be, of course, open to all. But Gold finds meaning in that it will be displayed in the tumultuous year of 2020 in a predominantly white city like Arvada. At first, she said, the police murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd made her want to quit. Then they steeled her resolve.
“When I set out to create the series, it was never meant to share with white people who we are,” she says. “I used to ask myself, ‘Why am I doing this?’ But now, after everything that has happened this year, it’s like, ‘Oh … yeah. This work needed to be seen here in order to possibly make a change.’” Gold came to see the possibility of her series serving as a kind of antidote to some of the hostility that Black people face on a daily basis.
“I have some mixed emotions about that,” she said. “But if it can help in any way … If I can inspire people to do some self-inquiry … If I can change the narrative around the fact that Blacks are not homogenous … That we are many different things … If I can cause awareness that helps you find out who you are, and loving who you are, and believing who you are, then I’m here for that. All day.”
Gold calls herself a woman of many names. “Narkita Gold” is actually a chosen name. Narkita is for a family aunt. Gold, appropriately enough, is a color she finds to be bold, beautiful, powerful and precious. As her spiritual journey culminates with the opening of “Black in Denver,” she says she has grown and healed. And learned for herself some of what it means to be Black in Denver.
“I have come to know more about myself than I ever thought I would ever know,” she said. “I have found myself in this world that I never thought I would be in. I’m really, fully embracing who I am and loving it and hoping to inspire other people to do the same.”
Black in Denver
• A portrait-and-interview exhibition by Narkita Gold
• Nov. 19-Dec. 27
• Arvada Center for the Arts and Humanities, 6901 Wadsworth Blvd.
• Free and open to the public, but a reservation is required at arvadacenter.org
• Social distancing guidelines and mask wearing are required.
• Information: 720-898-7200
John Moore has been covering the Colorado arts scene for 20 years. He is currently the founder of a journalism content agency called Moore Media. One of his clients is the Arvada Center. He is also the founder of the Denver Actors Fund.