Beyond art: William H. Thomas Gallery is a bastion of urban art and culture

Staff Writer
Columbus Alive

A $200 investment by Chief Baba Shongo Obadina in 1976 became a priceless expression of Columbus urban arts and culture, the William H. Thomas Gallery. Obadina bought the house at 1270 Bryden Rd. to help fulfill the needs of indigenous urban artists looking for a place to show, discuss and embrace their art and culture.

Two years later the house/gallery was incorporated as the Urban Cultural Arts Foundation, but it wasn’t until 1989 — after years of hard work and thousands of dollars of renovations to the property — that the William H. Thomas Gallery was open to the public. Now it exists as a beacon for positive thinking as much as a gallery to display art.

“The goal and mission is to create heaven on earth here and now by way of virtue. You start with your individual self and use virtue as your guide to go from there. We watched the politicians and see how they sold us out. The preacher, he was the first pimp. We watched the militants just get killed off. So there must be a better way. We do it through art and culture to help bring about a positive change for people in the world,” Obadina said, standing in the foyer of the gallery in late September.

William H. Thomas Gallery hosts four exhibitions a year, which feature emerging artists as well as legends like Aminah Robinson (who also has a couple permanent works housed there). The upcoming exhibition, “When My Soul Speaks,” guest-curated by Antoinette Savage and featuring Yolande Berger and Gwendolyn Bonaparte, has an opening reception Oct. 19.

William H. Thomas is responsible for more programs and outreach too. The gallery is the epicenter for think-tanks to discuss issues relevant to the community, and holds workshops led by experienced artists regularly. It’s also the foundation for the Annual African Village Arts Festival, which takes place across the street. The gallery is open to the public during events and exhibition receptions, and by appointment all other times.

It’s rare that a gallery so embodies the mind and spirit of a person, but such is the case with William H. Thomas Gallery. Obadina oversaw the complete makeover of the building every step of the way — even adding his wood-carvings throughout the interior. Whether it’s the foyer floor made of wood from a tree that had to be cut-down on the property, or the three handmade fireplaces, or the giant Dragon Sculpture in the backyard — or any aspect of it all — it was Obadina’s hand, along with those of other artists, that made it happen.

“One of the things that makes this distinct is that was built for and by artists,” Obadina said, speaking of the artists who helped him with renovations along the way. “And of course I’ve been the glue that’s holding everything together, so I guess I would be the other thing.”

While Obadina uses the term “glue” to describe his role at William H. Thomas Gallery, heart may be more accurate. Walking through the house, one directly feels life radiating through the walls — the space itself is a like a living, breathing work of art, as every room is adorned with beautiful pieces, from Africa and stateside.

After nearly 30 years of dedication, Obadina, 68, has accomplished his original objective of giving the urban community a home for its art and culture, but said he can’t do it forever and is looking for someone to “step up.” Whoever it is has some big shoes — and soul — to fill.

Photos by Meghan Ralston

William H. Thomas Gallery

1270 Bryden Rd., Olde Towne East