Rosario Dawson Talks Art, Philanthropy, and Growing Up in New York
You may have seen Rosario Dawson on the big screen, stealing scenes in movies like Rent, Sin City, and 25th Hour, or maybe on the news introducing Bernie Sanders during his campaign rallies earlier this year. Perhaps you’ve seen her pitching in at one of her near-and-dear nonprofits such as the Lower Eastside Girls Club, Save the Children, the National Geographic Society, Conservation International, and Doctors Without Borders.
In December 2015, we first connected with the 37-year-old Dawson at Art Basel Miami Beach, as she was invited to return as guest judge and mentor for the 6th annual Bombay Sapphire Gin Artisan Series after she attended for the first time in 2014. In collaboration with Russell and Danny Simmons’ Rush Philanthropic Art Foundation, Dawson’s role was to assist in selecting one overall winner out of 12 finalists—alongside the tent-full of attendees who were given a chip to place in their favorite artist’s voting bank.
“I’m grateful for Russell’s vision to be able to create space like that for so many people to come together, to do what they love, and support each other in that,” said Dawson. That night, the New Orleans–based artist Aron Belka was awarded first place for his large-scale artistic creation—a heartfelt painting of a woman in Africa, Belka’s wife, assisting with emergency medicine during the Ebola outbreak.
“For me, as an actor, emotion is a key part of my creativity and a key element to storytelling. It’s really beautiful when you can look at a static visual and feel emotion, and feel like it’s being captured as well,” said Dawson of the work. “There’s an intensity to it that I think people really gravitated to.
“For me, his piece was just so personal,” she continued. “You could feel that there was this intense emotion in it. There was a lot of love, there was a lot of pain as well, and it was really stirring.”
Belka went on to show a solo presentation at SCOPE New York last March with Bombay Sapphire, and after months of plotting with the help of Dawson to create his large-scale mural to appear, he debuted it in June in New York City. Allen Toussaint, now painted on the side of a building at 188 Lafayette Street, shines in front of a sophisticated blue.
“I strive to collaborate with programs that are personally meaningful to me and that will make a significant impact on the next generation of artists,” said Dawson. At a young age, she developed an interest in art while growing up in New York, when her community and family were an “an interesting mix where you really didn’t think about people being an actor, dancer, painter, or artist—everybody came together in this big city, this cauldron of spirit and energy and creativity and poverty and wealth, and it was just so much that I think I’ve always had an eye on it.”
Her grandmother, Pena Bonita, originally from New Mexico, was an inspiration for her, as Bonita has been involved with many museums and organizations such as the Wilmer Jennings Gallery, the American Indian Community House Gallery, and the Smithsonian Institution. Dawson’s uncle, Shannon Dawson, also had a band named KONK, in which Madonna was his go-go dancer, and her uncle Frank Jump created photographs that represented New York as a city that was a fading advertisement—some of which she still owns.
Over the phone a few months ago, Dawson told us about the art she has boxed up, ready to hang on her new home’s walls. She’s a big proponent and collector of her friends’ and family’s work, and she has a variety of interactive pieces, photographs, and tidbits from unknown artists. “It’s interesting. My friend Weston Woolley is an artist and he gave me a piece, and also my friend Jordan Betten, who does paintings and huge murals in the city, as well as individual pieces using old snakeskins and all types of different things for people like Lenny Kravitz and Sheryl Crow,” said Dawson. She says that she has also commissioned pieces from the artist Guillermo Bert, who created two six-foot-tall horses and a three-dimensional elephant made of six elephants and a poem—an homage to her grandmother. She also gathers pieces from around the world when she travels to “places like Africa and the islands,” she said. “I really like to get stuff that is very natural—made with natural things that tend to have multiple uses, like instruments.”
Dawson is making art, too, but for her, it’s a bit different. Along with co-founder Abrima Erwiah, Dawson is the originator of Studio 189—a social enterprise that is headquartered in Ghana and the United States that uses fashion for social change. Studio 189 works with artists who work in varying disciplines like cloth weaving, glass beadwork, and sewing, and who may not have otherwise had an opportunity to create something for profit.
And just before the end of our conversation, Dawson divulged her favorite art fairs, including Frieze London, Art Basel Miami Beach, and SCOPE. She says you’re able to see artists that are possibly “on their way up in the ranks, so it’s an opportunity to maybe buy a piece that is affordable at the moment that might not be in the nearby future.”
This article appears in Whitewall‘s fall 2016 Fashion Issue.