Life » Culture



Age: 48
Occupation: Artist & educator
Current residence: Brighton, NY
Hometown: Chicago, IL

Artist and independent educator Ya’qub Shabazz is an unstoppable force. As a cofounder of the 9th Floor Artist Collective, Shabazz has elevated Black representation in Rochester art while actively empowering and fostering community among local Black artists.

But unlike many visual artists, the 48-year-old Chicago native didn’t come from an environment where art was encouraged or even readily accessible. “What separates me from a lot of art teachers or independent freelance artists that are out here is that I come from a cultural perspective,” Shabazz said. “That's not something that I was taught.”

Shabazz’s path to a professional art career was not a direct one. He only began creating his own work at age 29, but the seeds were sown when he would ditch class as a teenager and escape to the Art Institute of Chicago, which he said was a safe haven from the chaotic and counter-productive school environment in the city’s South Side.

Despite the comfort he took in the art museum, Shabazz remembered looking at 19th-century artist Georges Seurat’s iconic pointillist work “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte,” and feeling out of place. The absence of Black faces in the art told him he didn’t belong.

He soon dropped out of high school and sought educational opportunities at Job Corps before earning his GED and enlisting in the Army at the age of 17. After four years of service, he returned to civilian life before being incarcerated.
He is very open about his experience in prison, and used to connect with people as a case manager for those reentering the community after imprisonment in Madison, Wisconsin.

Shabazz still works with individuals who are susceptible to institutionalization in prison, and teaches once a week at a maximum-security juvenile detention facility near Ithaca. Unlike his previous work in this vein, art education is now an important component.

“The art is a part of myself that I used to keep to myself, but now I'm sharing that,” he said. “And it's beneficial. It’s absolutely working. I've not lost one kid in the time that I've been there. I have a thing where I tell them, ‘Don't go to the hole, I want to see you next week.’”

In addition to teaching, Shabazz continues to create new work in Sankofa Studios and develop his clothing brand SKFA — both named for an iconic Ghanaian symbol important to Black culture.

“Sankofa is a bird, looking back at his tail, and there’s a jewel in his tail feathers,” Shabazz explained. “It symbolizes looking back at your history and gleaning the best parts of your history.”

Shabazz says his mentor, Luvon Sheppard, whom he calls “the epicenter for art in Rochester,” is responsible for the artist he’s become. Sheppard — who is 83 and an active art professor at Rochester Institute of Technology for 50 years — became Shabazz’s mentor, providing insight into art history and the legacy of Black art, technical skills in mediums like oil and acrylic painting and linocuts, and giving him honest feedback on his work.

“He is an excellent listener and a person that is teachable,” Sheppard said. “He’s always open to learning things.”

For that, Sheppard credits the younger artist’s intellectual spirit and eagerness to grow personally and professionally.

“He’s inventive, he's creative,” Sheppard said. “But at the same time, he's out there struggling trying to make ends meet for his family, and he sets a good example for his family. To see an African American man like that inspires me and motivates me to do better.”