A Talk with The Neo Collective, Yale’s First Black Arts Collective

Left: Oluwatoyin Salau by Sonnet Carter '23. Right: Untitled by Tobi Makinde '23

The Neo Collective is the name we gave to the Black Arts Collective that will run for Black Yale and New Haven Artists. The goal of our collective is to encourage art as a community endeavor. We, at the Neo Collective believe that Black Art and Black Narratives should be plentiful.

How did this Collective come about and why?

Nyeda S, PC ’22: I began this Collective in the fall of 2019. It came from a place of restlessness and confusion about where I fit in in the Black community here. I used to go to Black Students Alliance at Yale (BSAY) meetings and Yale Black Women’s Coalition (YBWC) meetings, but I felt like that type of environment didn’t really resonate with me. I’m also a member of the Heritage Theatre Ensemble (HTE), Yale’s undergraduate Black theater group, but I was looking to broaden my horizons of art since I’m also a visual artist. 

I was also frustrated with Yale’s art culture, or lack thereof. Yale has a heavy theater culture, acapella culture, and poetry culture. But for visual art, there is nothing that I can think of. I was really upset my first year because art studio access is a little bit confusing. I don’t understand why there isn’t a central art studio on campus. You also have to pay for all of your art supplies. I wasn’t sure about how to go about being an artist on this campus when it didn’t feel like there was an established space for us. So, I felt like I had to do something for myself and for people like me. 

I decided to start a Black artists collective in hopes that it would connect Black people on this campus who are not just visual artists but also singers, writers, dancers…any type of artist. I imagined it as a space that wasn’t institutional, but rather as a space that was community-oriented and defined by the people instead of a certain type of leadership. I wanted to make a space that really felt like family. Sophomore year became hectic though so I couldn’t lead meetings anymore. That’s when Sonnet and Tobi took over. 

Sonnet Carter, PM ’23: The week after the baton got passed on to me, everyone was super busy so whenever I held meetings it was just me, myself, and I in The House. Somehow Tobi and I managed to get it together and I think the pandemic helped in terms of getting people to come on board because everyone had time on their hands. I wanted to keep this community going because Yale’s environment didn’t resonate with me. Everything’s so corporate here. It’s like: I’m doing this so I can get a job for XYZ Corporation or hold XYZ position in office…which is fine but it’s a very different type of experience than what I was used to. I felt like within this community, I’d be able to exchange ideas and work with other people who I don’t necessarily see that often.

Have you run into any difficulties in trying to establish the collective?

SC: Yes, plenty. Initially, we had a lot of meetings with a lot of people in the administration. Again, things here are very corporate,  so you have to go through one person to get to the other. It was sort of tough doing it my first year, because I didn’t know and still don’t know who to go to for what. Tobi and I solved it but then the pandemic happened so everything was up in the air. 

Was there anything or anyone that made the process of establishing this collective easier?

SC: Shoutout to Dean Nelson. She laid out what we had to do very clearly and she made it known that we had her support. Also shoutout to HoC Davis. He was very willing to give us access to space in Pierson to create.

Can everyone go around and say what their artistic medium is and how they think this space will help them develop as an artist?

NS: I’m a writer. I write plays, poems, and political pieces. I’m also a visual artist. I think this space will help me develop as an artist because since it’s not an organization like other ones, I feel it’s allowed me to express myself in a more free way. Being in institutions like these can be frustrating in ways. In art classes here during critique, I’ve had experiences of making political work about Blackness, and receiving no feedback from my classmates, just stares. Moments like those don’t help because as an artist I need to be challenged. I’m really happy that this space exists outside of the parameters that Yale has in place because we understand each other. And it will help me find power in my voice and in my work.

Cassidy Arrington, SC ’23: I’m a sophomore in Silliman. Silliman pride! My mediums are poetry, photography, and film. The main thing I was hoping to get out of the collective was not feeling tied to one medium and learning to express myself in more fluid ways. I also wanted to gain substantial knowledge of other mediums because for a really long time poetry occupied so much space in my identity as an artist. I also like the idea of being in community with other artists. It’s not something I’ve had an opportunity to do for a pretty long time. 

Kadiatou Keita, BC ’22: I am a junior in Branford. One of the reasons why I joined was because I recently switched from STEM to Humanities. I wanted to put my work out there. Iwork in memoir, non-fiction, and fiction. I like having people critique my work, like Nyeda said. I’ve had a professor say, “Oh, I love the urban style your writing has.” And I’m just like damn that’s crazy because I’m writing about the village in my country. You know what I’m saying? Professors would try to box my writing. And the writers that they would recommend are mostly white writers. I wanted to be surrounded by Black writers who are pushing their own narratives, especially since I want to pursue this as a career in the future.

Sam Oguntoyinbo, ES ’23: My mediums are written and spoken poetry as of right now. I’m kind of new to accepting the idea that I’m an artist; it pretty much started when I got to Yale. One really important thing on my journey was turning from writers like T. S. Eliot to rappers. They are poets. They’re all such amazing spoken word poets. It shouldn’t be weird when I talk about Earl Sweatshirt, Billy Woods, and Kendrick Lamar in my American literature class. All the kids are like what? I mean, are you serious? They are poets. So yeah, rap is really important to me. 

NS: I really feel that. Over the summer, I started looking into different types of poetry. And I started reading rap lyrics, which allowed me to redefine poetry and admire the genius of these rappers. 

Amara Mgbeike, ES ’22: I’m a junior in Stiles. For me, being in the collective is a way to collaborate with other artists that I wouldn’t normally get the chance to collaborate with and to do something that’s out of my field. Like Kadi, I’m STEM, so to explore my artistry in a collective is something that’s pretty special to me. My medium is music production and songwriting. Usually with that I’m all in my head but being able to collaborate with people gets me out of my own head. 

Tobi Makinde, PM ’23: I’m a sophomore in Murray. I mainly do photography but I’m getting into mixed-media. The biggest reason why I sought out this space was because I have wanted to have a space where I can be a creative and an artist. I think a lot of spaces on campus are so uptight and that wasn’t the place that I wanted to create art in. I’ve made it my mission at Yale to allow myself to be inspired by people. The Neo Collective is a great space to do that. I also wanted to take art seriously, so being around people who are also taking it seriously motivates me to also take it seriously.

SC: I’m a sophomore in Murray. I’m a visual artist; I create my spin on portraits — whatever that means — and graphic design. I’m also getting into photography. I thought this would be a great space for me to have conversations since most of my inspiration for art comes from people. And I like putting concepts onto paper. Sometimes I get in my head too much, and I think that being in a group of people could help me release that. I also like feeding off of people’s energies. I missed that so much because you don’t really work that much in art classes and the art studios are often closed. I’m also interested in exploring music as a new medium. 

What’s in the works for the future of this Collective?

SC: We’re planning on officially being sponsored by The House. We’re thinking about having open sessions where we give feedback to artists. We’re definitely thinking about reaching out to the New Haven community. And last but not least, we’re planning a virtual show for this semester. Everyone look out for that!

Follow The Neo Collective at @theneocollective_ on Instagram for more.

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