Small World, Big Hearts, Strong Art

and the Team of Belka, Dawson & the Brothers Simmons

Aron Belka and Rosario Dawson with Alturist painting at Miami Art Basel Two powerful stories about the resilience of African people and the involvement of U.S. nationals in African crises are part of the background of the 2015-16 Bombay Sapphire Artisan Series. One involves actor Rosario Dawson; the other, visual artist Aron Belka.

Rosario Dawson's African travel has led to a project that uses art and design for the social and economic empowerment of African women. Aron Belka's recent portraiture series is inspired by the work of a courageous epidemiologist during the Ebola outbreak in West Africa.

Aron Belka painting from Contact Tracing seriesSeveral years ago Dawson took a trip to the Congo as part of her board member service for V-Day, an organization working to stop rape violence against women. After meeting many African women who were skillful, dress and craft makers, Dawson and global marketing specialist Abrima Erwiah founded Studio 189, a social enterprise that promotes and distributes African and African-inspired fashions and assessories thorough pop-up shops in various places and on an shopping website.

And now Rosario Dawson combines art and public service by teaming up with media mogul Russell Simmons, Aron Belka and two other winners of the 6th Annual Bombay Sapphire Artisan Series to create large scale, public murals in LA, Miami and NYC in May and June 2016.

Aron Belka painting from Contact Tracing seriesLaunched in 2010 by Russell & Danny Simmons’ RUSH Philanthropic Arts Foundation and Bombay Sapphire Gin, the annual Artisan Series program is a nationwide search for the next big name in visual arts, with a focus on emerging multicultural artists. 

Aron Belka painting from Contact Tracing seriesThe Simmons brothers’ “multicultural” concept covers a broad swath and has an infinite potential because it can refer either to the content of the work or the ethnic identity of the artist, or both.  

Each of the top three artists from this year’s Artisan Series competition (announced during Art Basel this past December) will partner with a local arts organization to create a large-scale public mural in the community. 

As creative mentor of the Artisan Series program, Dawson is personally collaborating with the 2015 grand finale winner — Aron Belka — to develop a public mural installation in New York City in June 2016.

Aron Belka, AlturistAron Belka comes to the Artisan Series with an intertwined Africa-U.S. story that is very inspiring. He won the competition with his painting Alturist from his "Contact Tracing" series. Altruist is a painting of Belka’s wife, Lina Moses, PhD, a field epidemiologist who does research on a disease called lassa fever in Sierra Leone. 

Belka explains that in 2014 Moses spent nine months in West Africa on the front lines of the Ebola response leading surveillance teams into remote areas to identify contacts of infected individuals. These contacts were then monitored for symptoms in an attempt to stem the tide of the epidemic.

Aron Belka painting from Contact Tracing series“I painted the Altruist as a response to the work that Lina and many others were doing during this humanitarian crises and to pay tribute to the significance of that work and dedication,” says Belka. “ ‘The Contract Tracing’ portraits for example are of individuals that were monitored for Ebola by my wife’s team.” These Belka portraits were exhibited at the Artisan Series venue at the SCOPE Art Fair in New York City in March 2016.

At the time of his April 2016 interview with IRAAA, Belka and Rosario Dawson were conferring via phone to plan the mural. These calls have been “very exciting and insightful,” says Belka.  “I look forward to seeing our ideas come to life.”  The NYC site for the mural had yet to be determined at that point. 

Michael Savoie, 2015 Houston mural unveilingBelka will execute a mural-sized painting of singer/composer/pianist/producer Allen Toussaint who had a monumental-scale talent. The influential jazz and R &B figure from New Orleans died on November 10, 2015.

Belka has never done a mural but he already paints large works in his studio and should be easily able to expand to mural dimensions. 

Ti-rock Moore, 2015 New Orleans mural unveilingHe envisions his challenge for the mural to be working with different materials.  “Normally, I use oil paints which dry slowly and allow me to work wet paint into wet paint. The mural will use exterior paint that dries at a faster rate, so there will need to be some adjustments to my style.”

Belka received a BFA from Utah State University but says that much of his development in painting came after school through his own research and exploration. He found out about Artisan Series national competition through word of mouth, had entered it before, and this time won the top prize!

He explains how the Bombay Sapphire Artisan Series affords extraordinary opportunities the artists:

“It has not only given me incredible exposure but has ushered me into the contemporary art scene on a national and international level. I am extremely grateful to Rush Philanthropic and Bombay Sapphire for awarding me the solo booth at SCOPE New York and providing me the opportunity to collaborate with Rosario Dawson. (The series) has provided me with career boosting opportunities and given me a platform to exhibit and speak about my work on a level that otherwise would have been very difficult to attain on my own. Meeting Kasseem Dean (Swizz Beatz) at SCOPE NY and talking with him about my paintings is a perfect example — it was brilliant.” 

San Francisco mural designed by Kristine May, 2015In addition to Belka, the top three winners in the current series are: Becky Rosa and Shawn Warren whose respective murals will be in Miami and Los Angeles. 

Since its inception, the Artisan Series has provided more than 20,000 up-and-coming artists the unique opportunity to showcase their works on a national and regional level and has sold works totaling more than $230,000 in value. In 2012, Chicago finalist Hebru Brantley sold his finale piece to Jay Z for $20,000 during Art Basel.  Brantley went on to paint Lil Wayne’s skate park, and was commissioned to create a custom piece for Swizz Beatz in 2013. In 2014 national winner Kristine Mays' intricate wire sculpture was purchased by Star Wars film director George Lucas and his wife Mellody Hobson at the Bombay Sapphire Artisan Series solo exhibit at SCOPE NYC.

— Juliette Harris

Note: Enlarge Aron Belka's paintings to fully appreciate the nuances and brush strokes of his vibrant technique.

Related IRAAA+ articles: RUSH Philanthropic Arts Foundation raises $1.2 Million  

George Lucas and Mellody Hobson at Bombay Sapphire Artisan Series solo exhibit, SCOPE NYC