Left: “Egg Shells” Photo by Cornell Watson Right: “Crowning Glory” Photo by Samantha Everette

Samantha Everette and Cornell Watson: No Ordinary Love | On display through July 1 | Bright Black Candles, Durham

Tiffany Griffin of Durham’s Bright Black Candles describes Black love as an “extraordinary phenomenon.”

When she and her husband, Dariel Heron, opened their business in 2019, they did so with a strong sense of purpose. Sharing positive narratives about the Black experience is central to Griffin and Heron’s mission—and every aspect of their studio and showroom pays tribute to that. This includes a zero-commission gallery wall that acts as a canvas for artwork that showcases Black stories. This is where No Ordinary Love will be on display through July.

When Griffin began visualizing the concept for the exhibit, she approached Cornell Watson and Samantha Everette, two local photographers whose work often showcases the complexity and nuance of the Black experience, about a potential collaboration. A reference to the Sade song of the same name, the exhibit is a celebration of Black love in all of its many forms.

Everette has a background in shoe design, having worked with brands like Vince Camuto, Jessica Simpson, and Nordstrom. During a business trip, she began a travel blog to document her adventures. When her company was sold during the pandemic, she leaned into her passion for photography and decided to create a business entirely on her own.

Watson’s photography journey began after a nearly decade-long career in the HR world and was inspired by his desire to document moments in his newborn daughter’s life. What began as an outlet for capturing family memories soon inspired him to record snapshots of his community as a whole. His unique ability to document the beauty of Black culture in the most everyday moments shines through his work. His series “Tarred Healing” is currently on display as a solo exhibition at the National Civil Rights Museum.

Griffin initially approached the two separately, unaware that Watson and Everette have a professional connection. 

“There’s definitely a strong community in the Durham area of photographers, but there’s not a very large community of Black photographers here,” Watson says. “I thought that it was really important to have this relationship with Samantha so that we could both navigate this world together.”

Watson believes that the conditions that Black love has to overcome make it particularly powerful.

“Love within the Black community is always a love that happens ‘in spite of,’” Watson says. “As I read [Griffin’s] vision, I thought of all that Black people have endured and achieved in spite of. I think about how many systems have been put in place to deny love to Black people—but that love just happens regardless.”

One of the many pieces that showcase enduring love in spite of the unimaginable is Watson’s “Egg Shells,” shot in his hometown of Weldon, North Carolina.

“The photo of the queer couple standing next to the Confederate monument was really powerful to me—especially because Black love is such a tool of liberation,” he says. “That love is almost an act of defiance in the face of white supremacy. And with their kid being in that shot with that Confederate monument—it’s reclaiming the power of those tools that have been used against us.”

The 12 displayed photos are powerful tributes to the various dimensions of the exhibit’s theme, from the divine to the everyday. Everette’s ethereal portrayals of Black womanhood, motherhood, and sisterhood sit beautifully alongside Watson’s intimate shots of community and fatherhood.

“You have all of these different facets,” Griffin explains. “You have this tribute to the ancestor through the hoodoo pieces, this tribute to sisterhood through the ‘Crowning Glory’ piece. There’s also this honoring of self-love, a love of culture, and the beauty that exists in the everyday.”

Much like the photos themselves, Bright Black’s candles are poignant tributes to the Black experience. Each one tells a story, whether by honoring the Black diaspora or musical genres spearheaded by Black artists.

Crafted with a blend of vegan coconut and soy waxes and featuring scents custom-designed by Griffin, every detail of a Bright Black candle is rooted in “the intention of love and positivity,” she explains. 

Located in Durham’s Lakewood Shopping Center, their brick-and-mortar storefront opened in 2022 after the couple outgrew their at-home studio. Situated among mission-driven neighbors like El Futuro, a bilingual mental health nonprofit, and the Durham Scrap Exchange, Griffin and Heron say they have experienced the power of community firsthand. 

“A lot of people will come in and say, ‘Oh, I was driving by after visiting the Scrap Exchange, read your mission statement in the window, and decided to stop in because I felt like I’d be welcome here,’” Griffin says. “We’ve actually experienced that a few times.”

A testament to Griffin and Heron’s community-centric vision is the inclusion of a “mini makers” table at the exhibit’s opening reception. The table is front and center within the space and features a number of hands-on sensory activities that children can engage in. Griffin and Heron are parents to a six-year-old daughter, which influences their business philosophy.

“Bright Black is this space where a lot of different people can come together,” Griffin says. “We want to communicate with children in a very welcoming and egalitarian way, not just a ‘be over there in the corner’ way.”

Exhibitions like No Ordinary Love form a symbiotic relationship with the business and speak to Griffin’s love of community. She hopes that the No Ordinary Love exhibit is just one of many that showcase work featuring a common vision at Bright Black.

“People stopping in to see an exhibit can stumble upon Bright Black and discover our products. Not everything has to optimize profit to the detriment of community and connection. That model has benefited us and is why a lot of our customers resonate with what we’re doing.”

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