Ball State alumna launches development firm GANGGANG to invest in artistic 'people of culture'

Newfields' exhibit "#DRIP: Indy’s #BlackLivesMatter Street Mural" will open at the Indianapolis Museum of Art from April 16 to Oct. 3. The exhibit will showcase the 18 artists who took part in painting the #BlackLivesMatter street mural in August 2020. The exhibit is included in general admission to Newfields.

On a Thursday night in June 2020, Mali Simone Jeffers, a 2004 Ball State alumna, and her partner, Alan Bacon, brainstormed ways to support artists and entrepreneurs who are “people of culture” in Indianapolis. 

The couple came up with the idea of GANGGANG, a cultural development firm, to invest in artists and entrepreneurs, with an emphasis on Black people and people of color. 

“2020 was this explosion of tension that begged for something like GANGGANG as its revival,” Jeffers said. “I thought about what Indianapolis needed right after the thick of being in a race war and a pandemic and realized it was culture. If we focus on what cities love most and what humans are connected by most, we not only repair humanity, but also we progress cities and repay people of color for what they've contributed most to America.”

Jeffers named the firm GANGGANG after the original definition of the word “gang:” to go on a journey. Because the word “gang” has been used over time as a way to criminalize groups of Black men, Jeffers said, GANGGANG dismisses this way of thinking and instead celebrates the beauty of its real meaning — people going on a journey together. 

Nathaniel Rhodes, one of GANGGANG’s artists, holds up his piece, “Power” at a Black Lives Matter protest in Indianapolis, IN on May 31, 2020. Rhodes said his work is social commentary to the public and that he hopes his art can rid people of their ignorance.

Jeffers and Bacon, who met in 2014 during a leadership exchange in Nashville, Tennessee, spent “every waking minute available” creating GANGGANG and reaching out to leaders in their network to bring their idea to life. In July 2020, the couple pitched GANGGANG to the Central Indiana Community Foundation — an organization they knew would understand why GANGGANG should exist, Jeffers said. 

“We set up meeting after meeting to pitch this stellar new idea and to find support,” Jeffers said. “That initial seed round lasted six months, and now we’re collaborating on major projects while still fundraising. The process has been exhilarating, non-stop and full of great lessons.” 

Ellen Neiers, an employee at Pivot Marketing and leader of GANGGANG’s public relations and branding efforts, partnered with Jeffers and Bacon in September 2020 to help them prepare for GANGGANG’s launch to the public in November 2020. 

“[Jeffers] is one of the coolest people I know — she radiates creativity in all the best ways possible,” Neiers said. “When [Jeffers and Bacon] first told us about GANGGANG, you could hear the passion and excitement for what they were starting. There was no doubt in my mind the success that GANGGANG was going to be.”

Nathaniel Rhodes, an Indianapolis-based artist, met Jeffers and Bacon at a Black Lives Matter protest in Indianapolis in May 2020. While painting one of his art pieces at the Soldiers' and Sailors' Monument entitled “Power,” Jeffers and Bacon approached Rhodes and asked to purchase his work.

“[Jeffers said], ‘I love that. How much do you want from me? Can I buy it from you?’” Rhodes said. “I [said], ‘Well, right now, I'm still using it to spread my message and convey how I feel about this movement in this pandemic and social injustice. But, when I am ready to sell it, [I’ll] put it on my Instagram, and I'll let you know first.’”

Later that summer, GANGGANG was asked to take part in Newfields’ — a 152-acre art and nature campus where the Indianapolis Museum of Art is located — gallery exhibition called “DRIP: #BlackLivesMatter Street Mural.” As a guest curator, GANGGANG was responsible for deciding what was included in the exhibition, the title of the show and what viewers would learn while attending the exhibition. 

Having stayed in contact with Rhodes, Jeffers asked him to take part in the two-day project of painting the mural, where each artist would paint one letter. The first day, Rhodes said, it started raining as he was halfway through painting the letter “B” in the “#BlackLivesMatter” street mural. So, he and the other artists had to cover up their progress the best way they could with any available tarps and trash bags. Even after it had stopped raining, the concrete was too wet to paint, so they returned the next day to complete the street mural. 

“For [Jeffers and Bacon] to quit their jobs and put all of this into us as artists — the things that [they] have done for me and the other 17 artists who were involved in the mural — we really feel like we should have paid them,” Rhodes said. “They haven't asked for anything in return. They're very humble, and they constantly remind us that they're doing this for us — the artists — and the culture. It's not like they ask for any praise or any recognition. They're just very humble and very inspiring.”

While there’s representation of people of color in certain sectors, like hip-hop, rap and basketball, Rhodes said, he believes this can make ethnic individuals feel boxed into these particular areas. So, he plans to continue advocating for GANGGANG for “the long run” as the cultural firm works to change this issue. 

When it comes to art, Rhodes said, there aren’t a lot of famous artists who are people of color who are world-renowned. Jean-Michel Basquiat and Kehinde Wiley are who come to mind for Rhodes as individuals who grasped “a once in a lifetime” opportunity as artists. 

“GANGGANG is trying to change that,” Rhodes said. “[Artists of color] just have to get [their work] where people can see it and purchase, admire or appreciate it. The right people just have to see it, and GANGGANG is making that possible.” 

Currently, GANGGANG is working with Visit Indy — Indianapolis’ tourism website — to identify an artist to create cover art for the spring/summer visitors guide. GANGGANG is also curating more than 200 performances throughout March Madness. 

Jeffers said some of her goals for GANGGANG this year are to raise $1 million dollars to fund their affiliated artists’ work, invest in a cultural entrepreneur and produce high-quality, cultural programming to activate the creative economy in Indianapolis. 

Because of GANGGANG’s positive reception from the public so far, Rhodes said, he believes the cultural firm can increase tourism in Indianapolis and make the city a cultural spot for minority artists. 

“It doesn't matter if [you’re] Black, Hispanic or Asian,” Rhodes said. “These people, whose art probably wouldn’t be held to the highest regard and used — I believe those people can come to Indianapolis searching for opportunities. Those opportunities will be brought about because of GANGGANG’s efforts.” 

Contact Sumayyah Muhammad with comments at smuhammad3@bsu.edu or on Twitter @sumayyah0114.

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