Fa’al Ali, the owner of the soon-to-open street-art hub ILA Gallery, isn’t trying to be Denver’s next best curator. He’s a single father; an entrepreneur who started Eazy Media; a former owner of a co-working spot in Five Points; and a land prospector looking to grow hemp or hops in southern Colorado. But when he bought ILA Gallery, on the south end of the Art District on Santa Fe, his mission was clear: to provide a platform “for all my homies,” he says.
Those homies are movers and shakers of Denver’s thriving hip-hop scene — mostly graffiti and street artists, but also DJs, poets, chefs and other entrepreneurs.
Ali originally came to Denver for the snowboarding but stayed when he started hanging out with this crew of artists. When he was younger, his friends called him a “toy” — a term for someone who vandalizes with unskilled tags, a wannabe graffiti artist. His first connection to the scene was with Jolt, a notorious street artist who heads up the Guerilla Garden crew in Denver. The two immediately hit it off, forming a friendship that helped Ali find acceptance within the often territorial street-art scene.
An entrepreneur to his core, Ali put his passion for videography to use for the artists he was starting to hang out with. He replaced the spray paint and markers of his youth with cameras and editing software, creating everything from full-length documentaries for the Urban Arts Fund to recap videos for the street-art festival Crush Walls to small clips for personal social-media accounts.
As the years went by, Ali started talking to his friends more about their needs as artists. “'We need to get paid' — that’s what they were saying,” says Ali. “And so that became my goal this year: Get the homies paid.”
With that, ILA (pronounced “eela”) Gallery was born. The name is Ali’s last name backward, but it also stands for “I Love Art” and “I Live Authentic.”
“Mostly, it’s about authenticity,” explains Ali. "I would go to art shows all the time, and I would see my culture for sale, but I wouldn’t see us represented in the room. I felt that kinda made it corny or lack authenticity. ... I want people of my culture — black people, brown people, anybody who gets a passport to the culture — to come and have a place that represents that. And I want them to make money off of it.”
Even though Ali just signed a four-year lease for the small gallery on January 6, the schedule of monthly exhibitions already stretches into April 2021. The main curator behind that jam-packed timeline is Lorenzo Talcott, a local arts advocate known for organizing shows at Dateline Gallery in the RiNo Art District.
Ali and Talcott have designed the space for fast turnovers between exhibitions. Following most of the rules of a white-cube gallery, it’s a no-nonsense space. But the dreams Ali and Talcott have for exhibitions will make it different from other contemporary art spaces in town.
“I’m trying to empower my community. Being a black minority in Denver, I just want to empower everybody that I can but keep where I come from in the forefront of my mind and my business,” says Ali. “Hopefully, we’ll be able to teach people to appreciate art and use art as an investment and as assets. That’s what people with money do, and so we're focusing on educating our community about that side of art.”
The first exhibition at ILA is all about black identity. “Fa’al wanted a black artist for Black History Month, to represent,” Talcott explains. So the curator invited Hiero Veiga — a Massachusetts-born, Miami-based artist who started his career painting graffiti in alleys — for a two-week solo show, from February 22 to March 6.
Called “Uppity” Live in Color, the exhibit includes pieces that represent different people of color who have pushed the boundaries of their genres. Veiga’s skill with portraiture — although displayed worldwide on enormous buildings — transfers to smaller canvases beautifully. And “Uppity” Live in Color will allow fans of Veiga’s murals to buy something of his to take home.
“I want to have a place that’s safe for graffiti or street artists, but a lot of these guys are transitioning when they aren’t painting the streets,” Ali says. “But they get looped into that genre where it’s only graffiti, when they are so much more and have different ways of expressing themselves.”
The gallery's schedule, which hasn’t been fully announced, will include works by regional artists including Casey Kawaguchi and New Mexico-based artist Jodie Herrera. The space will host other events, from a daytime party celebrating art, music and food to kid-friendly family gatherings and an event where artists give back to the community.
“Hopefully, we can put some art in people’s homes and put some money in people’s pockets and keep the vibe and authenticity of the culture and the scene and keep a stakehold in it before it gets completely taken away from us,” says Ali.
ILA Gallery, at 209 Kalamath Street, Unit 12, will be open from 2 to 6 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays starting March 6. RSVP to this Eventbrite page for a sneak peek of work by Hiero Veiga from 5 to 10 p.m. on Saturday, February 22.