After getting more Black art into Kansas City spaces, Natasha Ria El-Scari looks to expand her reach
The gallerist and curator has kept busy during the pandemic, and has big plans for the rest of 2023 — she wants to finish two books and has her sights set on building a women-focused recording studio.
A Renaissance woman, Natasha Ria El-Scari — gallerist, curator, poet, spoken word performer, educator and life coach — has surrounded herself with art throughout her life.
However, as the Kansas City native watched her hometown’s art scene flourish and thrive, she noticed not everyone was included.
“As the city started to change, and the Crossroads was starting to grow, I was realizing, ‘Wow, I don’t see any poor artists here. I don’t see any African American artists here.’ I saw us not even in the margins — I didn’t even see us on the page,” El-Scari said.
El-Scari took matters into her own hands, founding Black Space Black Art, or BSBA, which displays art from local African American artists at local businesses; primarily Black-owned businesses.
“I thought to myself: ‘White people don’t have to show our work. They’re not required to do that, but we have our own spaces. Why don’t we use what we have? That’s what we’ve always done,’” El-Scari said.
Though BSBA has since expanded to include a wider variety of businesses, El-Scari started with just three barber shops and three beauty salons — and a goal to reach a vast socioeconomic cross-section of individuals in the Black community.
“We all go to the barber shop and the beauty salon,” El-Scari said. “That’s a multiclass, multi-income area in the African American community. I thought: ‘This is a great way to put artists in front of everyday people who don’t even know they’re missing Black art. They don’t even know that they need it in their homes.’”
El-Scari works with individuals interested in buying art by offering flexible payment plans, she said, to ensure equitable access.
“To be able to really be at the forefront of that movement, to get art to feel like it was normalized and something that we needed, I am super proud of that,” El-Scari said. “Before that, it wasn’t something that people felt like they deserved, or that they had access to, or that they could afford.”
Now, after five years of “incredibly explosive and wonderful” growth, El-Scari sees the work of African American artists displayed much more broadly throughout Kansas City.
“Now when I am going through the city, I see Black-owned businesses that are not my Black Space Black Art partners that have the work of local artists, and particularly African American artists, in their businesses,” El-Scari said of the organic sightings of Black art across the community. “We didn’t have that five years ago.”
Find your honey
Around the same time as the inception of Black Space Black Art, El-Scari opened the Natasha Ria El-Scari Art Gallery, of which she is the founder and curator, inside the Center for Spiritual Living in Midtown.
“I grew up around so much visual art and I’ve always loved it,” El-Scari said. “I loved going to the (Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art). … When I was a high schooler, that’s where I spent a lot of my Friday nights.”
“There weren’t a lot of young people there,” she continued. “There definitely weren’t a lot of African Americans there, so I definitely stood out. I wasn’t always welcomed, but I didn’t care. I knew I belonged.”
Though El-Scari doesn’t create visual art herself, her work as a gallerist can be traced back to her childhood, she said, when she watched her paternal grandmother and aunt create what she called “domestic arts,” such as clothing or curtains.
Her grandmother, now 101 years old, also did watercolor and oil paintings and portraits, El-Scari said, in addition to selling homemade dolls that “reflected the beauty” of African American women.
“By the time I was born, my grandmother was a full-time artist at 55,” El-Scari said. “She had retired, and so I only knew her as this vibrant, creative artist. She really did live her life as an artist.”
El-Scari took that familial inspiration and began writing daily around the age of 10, she said, initially prompted by a teacher who gave her a journal just so she would be quiet.
“I thought everybody wrote after school,” she said. “I thought everybody spent time writing in between playing and riding their bikes. I just thought people would wind down by writing," she said. “It wasn’t until I had a friend who said, ‘You write every day for fun?’ that I started realizing, ‘Oh, I should probably take this seriously.’”
From there, she began performing in speech, forensics and debate in middle school. El-Scari also began writing and performing her poetry, eventually connecting with Jazz musicians to collaborate on spoken word.
Now, she’s fresh off the release of her fourth spoken word album, “We Found Us,” which she performed with her fiance, Kevin Church Johnson.
“It’s pretty cool to be able to create with your honey,” El-Scari said. “We were friends first, and we are both fans of each other, so it’s pretty special to be able to work together.”
‘I love getting artists what they’re worth’
El-Scari described herself as having a split brain: one side focused on artistry and creativity, the other on business and education.
As a result, she works as a certified life coach, and a lecturer at the Kansas City Art Institute, where she has led a course called “The African American experience” in the fall semester since 2021.
El-Scari, who taught for one year after graduating from college and worked for 12 years at UMKC for the college preparatory program Upward Bound, said she has enjoyed getting back in the classroom on her own terms.
“I love teaching students things that they never knew, that they never were introduced to, that they never understood,” she said. “Because of that, I create a space that’s safe enough to be wrong. … We are here to learn, so this is a safe place. Establishing that is really powerful.”
“We send students to school to pretend like they know everything, and I’m like: ‘You’re here to learn,’” she added. “I think there’s something that relaxes when people understand that we’re all learning.”
El-Scari also teaches artists the business side of art, she said, so that they can make their art profitable on a part-time or full-time basis.
“I love getting artists what they’re worth,” she said. “I love putting artists in places that they haven’t been.”
El-Scari extends that educational lens to new art buyers and collectors, going into their homes to help them arrange artwork properly.
“We started going into homes and rearranging people’s art for them and showing them how the art can live in the space,” she said. “I just love watching that lightbulb go off for people. I love that part. That’s the educator in me, who really enjoys when people get their ‘a-ha moment’ for what they like artistically.”
When the portal opens
Looking ahead, El-Scari still has big plans for the remainder of 2023, saying she hopes to publish a long-in-the-works book, in addition to a chapter book version of “We Found Us” that includes some extra poems.
She would also like to create a women-focused recording studio and art space, she said, with the aim of providing a more flexible and welcoming atmosphere for female artists.
“Our recording studios are very male-focused, and those spaces can often be not great spaces for women,” El-Scari said. “It’s not anything that men are purposely doing. It’s just that those are typically masculine spaces.”
“That is not something that I can fund solely by myself,” she continued. “I have the space, but the space needs to be renovated, and I want to do it a certain way.”
Beyond that, El-Scari will keep her options open, she said, noting that opportunities always seem to find her at unexpected but ultimately correct times.
“Nothing great has ever happened for me when it was convenient,” El-Scari said. “I have always had so many other things happening in my life when the beautiful stuff has been happening … but I just still move forward anyway.”
“I don’t try to limit what the spirit has put in me,” she added. “You’re not going to get called to do something that you can’t do. When your portal is open, more can come through it, and so you get more opportunities because you’re open to the flow and changes. I am open to life’s excitement. I am open to creativity. When you are walking and you just have a wide net, you’re going to catch a lot more.”