Baltimore revels in its underdog mentality — it’s the edge that helps shape so much of the city’s character. But still, in recent years, the city has been identified as one of the best underground arts ecosystems, partly due to its natural eccentricity. From music to film and visual arts, Baltimore has a plethora of quality representation on the world stage. And this week, there’s more reason to celebrate that legacy.

For the past 17 years, Chicago-based arts nonprofit United States Artists (USA) has been an avid supporter of artists with varying practices throughout the country. Each year, the organization selects for their annual fellowship program individuals whose work has either made significant impact on their communities or pushes their practice forward. These fellowships come with unrestricted $50,000 cash awards. Last week, USA announced its 45 fellows for 2023, and, delightfully, two of those artists are born-and-raised Baltimoreans.

Abdu Ali — a good friend and one of the more decorated artists to come out of the city’s underground scene over the past decade — was one of four selected in the discipline of music. In late 2012, Ali released their debut project, “Invictos,” an invigorating cyclone of Baltimore club, deconstructed club music, rap and ballroom. From there, they’ve gone on to curate scene-shifting party series, perform on big stages, garner major press and venture into curatorial pursuits in the visual arts.

“Receiving this fellowship is a major honor! To be nationally recognized in this way, not only affirms that the work I’ve done is special but it is also important to the overall American artistic canon,” Ali said in an email. “Timing is everything, too, and I believe becoming a USA Fellow on the tail of ten years of me pursuing an artist practice is super profound as it’s the perfect time to take my practice to higher heights and gain the support I deserve to make even grander work.”

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Krystal C. Mack, well known in the city’s design and culinary scenes, was selected as part of the fellowship’s architecture and design practice. According to her website, she is “a self-taught designer and artist using her social practice to highlight food and nature’s role in collective healing, empowerment, and decolonization.” Through her social design studio, In Absence Of Design, she’s curated dinners and made community-informed cookbooks. That work, like Ali’s, has also been the subject of major national press from outlets such as The New York Times. What’s most exciting about Mack‘s selection is that it’s historic for USA: She’s the first artist that works with food to become a fellow.

“It feels kinda surreal just because I never really made work with the intention of being on any artist lists,” Mack said. “I see myself as an artist but I understand the art world has a very institutionalized view of what art is or what can be art, especially from Black artists. I did not go to college or an arts high school. I didn’t really have anyone in my family encouraging the arts like that — we did crafts and stuff. So, my first experience with the arts were through the way it shows up culturally in the Black family, like cooking and crafting.” That intimate and intuitive introduction to the arts is what informs Mack’s work to this day.

Awards like these don’t come around often, and when they do, they tend to help propel artists to a more sustainable future for their work and personal lives. So it’s a joyous occasion for two artists from Baltimore to be honored in this way, and it will be exciting to see how this new set of resources informs what comes from them in the years ahead and how it could influence more institutions in this city to find new ways to support homegrown artists.

“We often have to leave Baltimore to get work, and I’m tired of that. I’m more likely to be hired in New York or L.A. — anywhere out of this region — to make food work or to make an installation,” Mack said. “What I’m hoping for after receiving this award is more local support. The local support has gotten me here, but I’m thinking of deeper investments, larger installations. There’s space for this work. It would be beautiful to be acquired by The BMA or The Walters. If my work were to show up there, in a collection, how would that change people’s minds about food art?”

Lawrence Burney was The Baltimore Banner’s arts & culture reporter. He was formerly a columnist at The Washington Post, senior editor at The FADER, and staff writer at VICE music vertical Noisey.

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