Two years ago, longtime Minneapolis scenester Teqen Zéa-Aida decided to shift gears after running the multicultural modeling agency Vision Management Group for 20 years. He opened an gallery in the space where his headquarters and photo studio had been, at 1506 Nicollet Av. S.
“I thought, “Man! I’ve got these walls and these windows. I’m sitting on a gallery,'” he says. “I felt that I could offer a different perspective to the local art community. Not anything necessarily better, but just something different.”
But the gallery has closed because of a redevelopment project, so Zéa-Aida is taking another leap: a campaign for Minneapolis City Council.
His challenge to Lisa Goodman, who has held the Ward 7 seat for two decades, is prompted by the issues he faced as a gallery owner — gentrification in particular. The building that had been home to him as well as his gallery is scheduled to be torn down in September to make way for a housing development.
The developer, Dominium, whose past projects include the Pillsbury A-Mill and Schmidt Artist Lofts, plans to put in an “affordable housing” development with about 160 units, he said: “Affordable to these people who have 60 percent market rate, which isn’t really all that affordable.”
City Wide Artists gallery never made much money — usually just enough to fund the next exhibition — but he felt it made an important contribution to the art community. “Definitely by way of diversity of artists, and fighting for artists to value themselves appropriately,” he said.
Openings were packed with a young, fashionable crowd, typically more diverse than the average Twin Cities art event. That was in part because the artists featured on the walls were often emerging, local artists of color.
Trouble loomed, however. Like many private galleries, City Wide Artists offered complimentary alcoholic beverages at openings, and that drew the attention of the police and the city.
Friends encouraged Zéa-Aida to reach out to Goodman. “She said pretty much right away, ‘That sounds like racism,’ he says. “And I said, ‘Well, I’m waiting for you to say that. I don’t want to say that.’”
It was during their conversation that Zéa-Aida learned that his building was going to be sold and demolished.Though his troubles with the city over the complimentary alcohol, or “courtesy practices,” were tabled, Zéa-Aida decided the business couldn’t stay afloat financially, facing an impending move and various city license requirements to stay open.
Meanwhile, the 2016 presidential election happened, which threw Zéa-Aida for a loop personally. As someone with multiple marginalized identities, it was a painful experience.
He was born in Bogota, Columbia, and abandoned on the street as a baby. He was taken to an orphanage, where he lived for about a year (“we don’t actually know how old I am,” he says). He was eventually adopted by a family in Forest Lake, where he was raised with three other adoptee siblings by his Scandinavian and Canadian parents.
Growing up in Forest Lake was tough, because it was hardly diverse.
Before he was 5 years old, a cross was burned outside a nearby house. Some of the painful experiences of his childhood welled up after the election.
“When this new administration came to power, we saw this outburst in elementary schools chanting 'build the wall' to immigrant children,” Zéa-Aida says. “It was extremely triggering for me. It reminded me of my childhood. Once I got over the shock and outrage of it, that’s when I started to get involved in policy.”
In the spring, motivated both by national politics and the issues facing his neighborhood, Zéa-Aida went to his precinct caucus. “I almost got up and left,” he says of the experience. “I was the only African-descended male in the room. I believe I might have been the only Latino. Had there not been a couple of other African American women there, I would have been alone. And from my storefront, looking out at 15th and Nicollet, that’s not what I see. I see a diverse community.”
Zéa-Aida talked himself into staying, and ended up helping form the biggest sub-caucus in the room. They were an undecided group, and so were able to spend a lot of time with their ward candidates.
“Almost nothing I heard resonated with me or any of my friends and neighbors around me,” Zéa-Aida says. “There was a lot of pandering.”
Zéa-Aida says he wasn’t hearing about issues he felt were important, like gentrification, equity, jobs, police brutality and “the disenfranchisement of our POC communities and most definitely our immigrant communities.”
At the same time, he noted the DFL’s diversity and inclusion statement. “They want to engage people of color, minorities, immigrant communities, GLBTQ people,” he says. “I thought to myself -- ‘Hey, I’m most of those boxes.’"
Eventually, he approached a fellow delegate, Katie Drahos, telling her he was considering running his own campaign. She soon agreed to be his campaign manager.
Besides gentrification, Zéa-Aida wants to take on high property taxes, police reform and environmental sustainability. He also expressed concern about workers rights, especially for immigrants and marginalized communities.
Of course, getting into the race so late into the game, Zéa-Aida is pretty behind on fundraising.
“But we are a grassroots, grass-fed campaign,” he says, and results will depend on getting out the vote. “We have to mobilize the disenfranchised: people of color, immigrants, workers, bikers, artists, creatives. The people that don’t necessarily have the time and luxury to involve themselves in caucus politics.”
As he pursues his goal, Zéa-Aida looks to other “modern expressionist” candidates, his phrase for forward-thinking, intersectional folks. Andrea Jenkins, Phillipe Cunningham, Ginger Jentzen, and Samantha Pree-Stinson are City Council candidates whose races he’s watching with interest.
“We are looking at having the most POC, LGBTQ and A, intersectional progressive, modernist, expressionist City Council in maybe the history of Minneapolis,” he says.