A vast range of the black experience, from the Egyptian pyramids to the urban streets of America, hangs on the walls of Cooper's Originals, a Los Angeles gallery with what appears to be the most extensive collection of black art in the nation.
More than 300 prints, photographs, newspaper clippings and other documents contain images that speak to the beauty and richness of black life as well as the tragedies black Americans have suffered. Photographs of turn-of-the-century sharecroppers hang near images of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. Scenes of segregation coexist with images of fishing and domestic life of the sort that was painted by a Norman Rockwell.
"I didn't know black art galleries existed until I saw this store," said Irving Clement, a regular customer at Dyrus Cooper's gallery at 1427 S. La Brea Ave. "I'd seen a picture here and there, but I didn't know that there were as many artists doing paintings as there are."
In Clement's view, black art is important "because it records our history. Most people don't know our history. Some people think our history began when we were freed."
Cooper's gallery sells mostly high quality reproductions of the work of artists such as Ellis Wilson, Charles White and Ernie Barnes. It offers affordable works to those who want black art but don't necessarily have thousands of dollars to spend on an original painting. It also serves artists who want to make their work widely accessible but also make a living.
Artist Ollie Thompson, who sells prints of his work at Cooper's Originals, said: "It was getting difficult for me to market my images to the average guy. Before Cooper came along, there was no affordable black art to black people."
Painter Ray Batchelor is also glad to have an outlet for his prints. "There's no way in hell I could afford to sell originals for a few hundred dollars," he said. "I would starve."
A tall, silver-haired man with an easygoing manner, Cooper, 71, is quick to tell anyone: "I'm no artist. I was just trying to make a living when I started."
Cooper's is a no-nonsense approach to the art business. A sign hanging from the ceiling of his gallery announces "No Damn Checks--Thank You." Another sign warns off those who would complain about the cost of artwork: "If you can't afford my prices. Don't buy," it reads.
"He has his rules, and he doesn't change them for anyone," said Carmen Henderson, the manager of Cooper's Originals. Unlike many galleries, Cooper's does have a lay-away plan.
Cooper took a circuitous route to the black art business.
Born in Chicago and raised on a farm near Athens, Ga., by his grandmother, a former slave, he came to Los Angeles in 1944. After 25 years as a welding supervisor at the Long Beach Naval Shipyard, Cooper decided to go into business.
His first venture was selling hanging lamps of his own invention with built-in stereo speakers. Next he sold velvet paintings from Mexico. During the mid-'60s, he became known as the dashiki king. At one time, four seamstresses were needed to keep his shop stocked with the colorful African-inspired tops.
When the dashiki fad died out, Cooper turned his attention to selling black art, "something I picked up as a sideline when I was selling dashikis." And when customers came to his store in the early 1970s expecting to pay $125 to $350 for original paintings, he said he realized that there was a market for affordable art by black artists.
In response to customer demand, he sought out work by black artists to reproduce. Today, patrons pay from $18 to $200 for framed prints at his store, a price customer Clement describes as very reasonable.
The gallery has become a gold mine for Cooper, who says he grosses $200,000 a year. He supplies more than 1,900 art galleries across the country. He has sold art to set designers of such popular television shows as "Amen," and "Frank's Place." An Ellis Wilson print of "The Funeral Procession" from Cooper's gallery hangs on the Huxtables' living room wall in "The Cosby Show."
In 1985, he opened a second gallery in Inglewood at 1043 N. La Brea Ave., and he plans to open a third.
"When I started, I wasn't making anything," he recalled. "I used to sleep in the back of my shop. For two years, I ran this place and I couldn't afford electricity. I had one pair of shoes that were so torn up, I was walking on my ankles. People used to laugh at me, but I smile at them now."
Although he is concerned about profits, preserving black history through art is also a strong issue. As he stood near a section of black-and-white photographs, newspaper clippings and documents entitled "The Black Holocaust," he nodded toward a 19th-Century document advertising "Negroes" for sale at $1,200 a head.
He moved his eyes to images of black men hanging from trees and the charred remains of others. "Some people don't believe this happened," he said, pointing to a photo of 19-year-old Michael Donald, who was lynched in 1981, to emphasize the contemporary reality of racism.
For black artists such as Ollie Thompson, Cooper's is a way to share their vision. "My initial impetus to do black art was to . . . glorify black people and black features that people say are bad to have . . . thick lips, curly hair," Thompson said. "I wanted to put a dent in the image of what people thought was beautiful. I wanted black people to understand a more natural way of looking at beauty, rather than the projected way on TV screens or on . . . billboards."
Alice Patrick, a former elementary school art teacher whose work includes the well-known painting "Women Do Get Weary," said she has mixed feelings about the label black art. She said she likes it only if it will sell paintings.
"I could never figure out what black art meant," she said. "It tends to put you in a bag, a circle or a box. I am an artist."
But Patrick has no reservations about Cooper's. "We definitely need more places like Cooper's. If he hadn't been there, I probably would still be selling T-shirts at Venice Beach."