In Profile

Arnika Dawkins

BY Sarah Schmerler, May 4, 2017

The Cascade Heights neighborhood of Atlanta isn’t where you’d expect to find a gallery specializing in contemporary photography, but there it is. Tucked among the lovely homes and lush vegetation is a cream-colored 1930s cottage that Arnika Dawkins renovated five years ago. In five pristine, well-lit rooms, she represents a mix of emerging and mid-career artists, including Jeanine Michna-Bales, who traveled some 2,000 miles documenting stops along the Underground Railroad; and Allen Cooley, whose close-ups of single flowers on the stem pop with clarity and color. Bales, who recreates what it might feel like to be a fugitive from racial injustice, is white; and Cooley, who is known for his fashion and commercial shoots, is black; they are united by an unmistakably strong aesthetic sense. “I always show work that resonates with me,” says Dawkins, “but I also love discussing the work and the lessons we can learn from it. I find it very interesting that Jeanine, though this is not her cultural background, shows us that there are many paths along the Underground Railroad. What I take from her efforts is that ours is a shared history, and it’s about people seeking a better life.”

Dawkins spent her childhood in northern Florida – in Tallahassee until the age of nine, and then in Jacksonville, where her father opened the second-ever black-owned State Farm Insurance office. After high school, she attended Florida A&M University, representing the fourth generation in her family to do so (Dawkins’s great-grandmother was a student there in 1908, when it was called the State Normal College for Colored Students). She majored in marketing, and took an internship at IBM in New York City after graduation in 1983. But Dawkins soon left New York to move to Atlanta when her fiancé (now husband, Stephen) entered medical school. By 1987 the couple (with a new infant) came north again, settling in New Jersey. Stephen was a resident at Columbia and Arnika worked at IBM; they took frequent trips to Manhattan’s museums and galleries and began collecting art. “That was the defining moment for me,” she says. “Before that, art was about making – as my grandmothers, who were creative women, had always impressed upon me – but now I was an art consumer.”

Returning to Atlanta in 1991, Dawkins, now a mother of three, stopped working and threw her energies into volunteering. In 2007, she earned her masters degree in digital photography from the Savannah College of Art and Design. She interned at Jackson Fine Art, and by 2011 she was ready to open her own space. Arnika Dawkins Gallery opened with four artists, all of whom are in her stable to this day: Builder Levy, best known for his documents of the communities of Appalachia; Titus Heagins, whose documentary work has taken him to Cuba and Asia; Allen Cooley; and Marlene Hawthrone, a talented SCAD MFA student who tragically passed away in 2012. Hawthrone focused her lens on miniatures less than an inch high – blown up large. “They were about her memories as a young girl, growing up. You live your life and you get older,” says Dawkins, “and you have a different prism to view the world.”