Gallery profile: William H. Thomas Gallery

  • Photos by Joe Maiorana
From the December 27, 2011 edition

To passersby in the part of Olde Towne East known as African Village, the building at 1270 Bryden Rd. looks just like the other renovated 19th-century homes on the block. But those who visit the house-turned-art-gallery are greeted by both an intricately carved relief-sculpture door and the door’s creator, Chief Baba Shongo Obadina.

Once Obadina lets them inside the William H. Thomas Gallery, visitors feel like they’ve entered an artistic wonderland. Each window is surrounded by wooden carvings of humans and other creatures. Black and white drawings and vibrant paintings by black artists from around the world grace the walls. New Orleans sculptor MaPo Kinnard-Payton’s undulating figures, with nary a straight edge or right angle, rest on the floor near the entrance.

The pieces are part of the current exhibit, one of four shown this year. Obadina will change out the hanging art again in February in honor of Black History Month. Much of the art in the house, though, is there permanently — the wooden shutters, the carved banister, a pattern of tiny circles on the floor created from chopped-up timber.

Two staircases, one wrapped in a neon, space-inspired mural and the other featuring hanging art, lead up to a second floor with several rooms full of other works. In the hallway, a pair of paintings by Aminah Robinson — one of which shows women carrying chickens home from the East Market (there used to be a public market for each part of town) — are part art, part history lesson. And an unusually long hand drum is displayed on its side to show off the painting on its shell that illustrates the history of slavery.

In the backyard, a 30-foot-long dragon built by Obadina stands guard over a series of colorful panels created during past African Village Arts Festivals.

Obadina, a plumber and pipe fitter by trade, purchased the dilapidated house in 1976 and rebuilt it piece by piece. It took 13 years and more than $100,000 of his own earnings, and the building has since become an important part of the neighborhood.

The house is his artistic composition, stocked with work by friends and people he admires as well as his own carvings. Some of his sculptures are collaborations with other artists — they draw the designs, and he carves them. And some, like his vibrant “Yoruba Version of Creation,” which frames a doorway in the main room downstairs, depict tales that hold meaning for him.

“I’m carrying on the tradition of telling stories, through woodcarving,” he explained.