Arts & Culture

Laying Groundwork

As They Lay creates space for Black, queer artists.

Over the last almost decade, Abdu Ali has been a mover and shaker here in Baltimore, from their Kahlon dance parties to their drumBOOTY podcast to their avant-garde club and rap music that’s helped put the city’s DIY scene on the map.

But as curator of As They Lay, a new groundbreaking platform that focuses on Black, queer, and woman creatives, Ali (who uses gender-neutral pronouns) has officially arrived as a leader of the local arts scene.

“The idea had been brewing for quite some time, but I finally just accepted it like, okay, this is my vocation, this is what I’m supposed to be doing,” they say.

Launched last fall, As They Lay acts as a sort of nomadic art gallery, with multi-disciplinary events based on themes such as legacy and imagination taking place at venues like Old Goucher’s Waller Gallery, Station North’s Trophy House, and the Baltimore Museum of Art’s Lexington Market location downtown. In June, its first-ever exhibit, The Softer I Feel, The Freer I Be, featuring photography, poetry, and collage, launched virtually through the new BMA Salon initiative.

Inspired by the likes of Brazilian philosopher Paulo Freire and poet Nikki Giovanni—the platform’s name is a reference to elders who paved the way—As They Lay seeks to create a space for deeper discussion and understanding of Black creativity, community, and liberation.

“After having some experience with arts institutions around Baltimore, I found myself disappointed in recognizing how much power they have, how outdated that power is, and how serious the problems are when it comes to supporting Black and brown artists,” says Ali. “We need new ideas and these old institutions are just not cutting it.”

Part of that response arrives in As They Lay’s fluid nature, addressing a shortage of inclusive, innovative arts spaces by simply creating their own. “It’s to our benefit to conjure our own platforms without having to depend on others,” says Ali. “It gives us more agency and autonomy.”

This spring, in line with its mission of creating agency for marginalized artists, they also launched a series of microgrants for those affected by COVID-19 through the Black Legacy Arts Fund, which Ali hopes to expand to foster long-term mutual aid. The platform’s future commitments lie within the next generation, as shown by the addition of recent MICA grad Karryl Eugene as co-organizer.

“The spirit of As They Lay is to establish a sense of self-worth,” says Eugene. “We really want to help young artists realize that they’re doing good work and that they deserve it. It’s been a point of pride for us to make sure that they are paid and represented well.”

“These young people come at things so unapologetically, with all this humility and vulnerability, tapping into the deepest parts of their emotions, and being able to communicate that through their work,” says Ali. “It’s a symbiotic relationship. They’re teaching me a lot.”