by Rose Miyonga
Andrea Pippins is an artist, illustrator and designer from Washington, D. C., whose work seeks to inspire a generation of women. Her first book, I Love My Hair is a colouring book that invites people of all ages and colours to celebrate their hair for its unique beauty. Her second book, Becoming Me, is a glorious exploration of what it means to be a young woman of colour. It asks us to doodle, scribble and write our own investigation into ourselves.
I spoke to her about beauty, creative arts, and the importance of self-expression.
I spent my early years, from the age of six months to four years, in a sewing studio in the Georgetown neighbourhood of Washington, D.C. The studio was run by a French woman named Solange Cody and was occupied by a team of four women who spent their days constructing, hemming, and altering clothes. These ladies, except for one African American woman, were all immigrants—including my mother, who’s from Brazil. While my mother was sewing and fitting clothes, I would be drawing and colouring for hours. I believe that space planted the seeds for my own creativity; my love for textiles, patterns, and colour; and my desire to become an entrepreneur. But that all would come together much later.
I didn’t really know about graphic design until I saw Halle Berry playing the role of Angela in the film Boomerang. Angela was an art director and artist, and it was my first time seeing a woman of colour doing that kind of work. Even though it was fiction, it blew me away. But it wasn’t until I started applying for college that I really learnt about careers in graphic design, or what was then called commercial art or graphic art. I applied to Tyler School of Art at Temple University, and though it took several tries because of a lacklustre portfolio, I was finally accepted into the design program.
After working as a graphic designer at companies like Hallmark Cards and TV Land/Nick@Nite, I returned to Tyler and graduated with an MFA in Graphic and Interactive Design, so I could teach design at a college level. Eventually, I decided to take a leap of faith and pursue a path as a full-time freelance designer and illustrator. Currently, my work is transitioning from graphic design to a focus on art and illustration. I’ve always solved design problems with illustration, not realising that that is where my skills and talent flourish.
Aside from my mother, I would say the media heavily influence my perception of beauty. My mother had a subscription to Essence magazine, and I remember absorbing those pages filled with beautiful women. But I always saw it as a publication for adults. Where was the magazine featuring little girls who looked like me or had hair like me?
As a teen I loved Seventeen magazine, but honestly, at the time those pages didn’t show anyone who reflected me. So it was difficult to find style, hair, and makeup advice.
As a kid and teen I watched a lot of TV, and thank goodness it was during a time that black TV and film was doing so well. From TV shows like Living Single and A Different World to movies like Love Jones and Boomerang, I did have a lot of positive references that influenced my ideas of beauty. There could have been more, but having those showed me more of a range than what I see today.
I Love My Hair happened when I met an art director at Random House and sent her some ideas for a colouring book last spring, none of which had anything to do with hair. After looking at my artwork, she responded asking if I’d be interested in doing a colouring book about hair, and I said, “OMG, of course.” I didn’t have a specific plan of what to include, I just knew that I wanted it to be fun and that I wanted to show a wide range of hairstyles and ideas of hair. There were 84 pages to fill, so it was a creative challenge to figure out what would be interesting and what would work in terms of filling it with colour. Because “hair” is so specific, and because I didn’t want it to be just about hairstyles, I had to be creative in my interpretations. So I explored abstract representations, lettering, and accessories and tools related to hair.
I don’t know the numbers, so I can’t speak about the gap in the market for books celebrating women of colour, but I can speak about what stories are being celebrated and highlighted. I do think there is a gap in the kinds of stories that are told about women of colour, and a huge gap in what gets recognition, awarded, written about, etc. I assume that fewer of us get opportunities to write books, but also wonder if it’s really that fewer of us get recognized. Or a combination of both. Either way, it is frustrating.
Because of my family and community, I’ve always had a pretty strong sense of self. But in certain areas of my life, I can be a perfectionist, and at times this results in high expectations and me being hard on myself. In the last few years, I’ve learned to surrender, be easy, and give myself a break. This also means not working so much and allowing myself to just be.
I would tell twelve-year-old Andrea to always be herself. That who she is enough, and that life is too short, so to not take things too seriously.
I am a strong believer that image is power. Whether it’s in propaganda, a story being told, or an advertisement, an image really drives the message. The people behind media understand this and use images to tell how us how to see the world. And until we get people of colour behind the wheel as directors, producers, cinematographers, artists, and designers, we won’t be able to control how we are portrayed or the stories that are being told about us. In this way, we can give all people access to visual expression, which is important. The beauty, though, is that we live in a time when the tools to create images and tell stories are readily available. And people are taking advantage of it. We can already see how the media is shifting because of that access.
But on a micro level, being able to understand what you see is just as important as being able to read. So regardless of your level of interest in art and design, you need to be able to interpret the millions of messages being thrown at you everyday. You need to be able to decipher and question the intent behind an image. And with the arts being eliminated from our school programs, people aren’t developing that skill.
Having access to the visual arts is about self-expression AND developing a form of literacy.
My favourite artists are also people who inspire me, such as Emory Douglas, Kerry James Marshall, Sister Corita Kent, Frida Kahlo, Malick Sidibe, and Nina Chanel Abney, among many others.
Follow Andrea on Instagram
Featured image by Danielle Finney, all other images courtesy of Andrea Pippins
Posted by Kay.
Gabrielle Smith is used to telling stories. Whether through graphic design, curated content or moving imagery, her work with global companies such as Adidas, TEDx and ITV has led her to channel her creative storytelling skills into the award winning cultural platform, The:nublk, now in its seventh year.
Showcasing contemporary creatives with a focus on Africa’s huge diaspora, Gabrielle’s keen collaboration brings inspiring and often untold stories to an international audiences. I caught some time with Gabrielle to find out more about her influences, her drive and her connection with the international art community to leverage artists of African decent.
I started The:Nublk back in 2008 but for at least two years before that I’d been wanting to explore the ways in which a person’s cultural heritage can impact upon the work they create. It began as a personal exploration project, during the final year of my Graphic Design degree, to challenge myself to make Black History Month in the UK relevant to me as a creative of Afro-Caribbean descent. For 30 days I posted culturally-relevant images, quotes and videos as well as reaching out to people who I knew or whose work I admired to ask them about their creative journey and to showcase their work.
In terms of connecting with the international art community, I’ve got to give credit to my incredibly supportive network of friends and readers who embrace what The:nublk is about and make me aware of artists, events and other cool things that are happening.
I’m shifting the focus of The:nublk towards events/experiences. Having started the site as a personal challenge to expose myself to global arts and culture it’s definitely grown in ways I’d never have thought. The site won a Black Weblog Award in 2011 and has been featured on many other sites. This global recognition has lead to other opportunities such as speaking at Social Media Week Lagos and Google as well as becoming a fellow at the Royal Society of Arts.
I’m super excited about the latest incarnation of The:nublk. Over the past few years I’ve curated some really well-received events from exhibitions on Black Fatherhood, to the 25th Anniversary screening of ‘Do The Right Thing’ that Spike Lee himself applauded. While the blog has been an integral part of The:nublk experience, getting the chance to bring people together on a global scale to connect, collaborate and inspire is a challenge that I’m passionate about and I’m always on the look out for new opportunities.
It’s interesting that, although I’m based in London, the majority of The:nublk’s readership is located in the States. Although I feel more aware and connected to creatives here than before, it was initially harder to identify work created by artists of African descent in the UK than it was for the US and or African countries.
Often, gaining US recognition for their work seems to mark a tipping point at which their visibility to a more mainstream audience takes off. It’s a shame that this has to be the case but it’s improving – more people are taking initiatives to highlight areas which they feel are unseen and creating their own platforms to share it with the masses.
There are an increasing number of sites and organisations like ARC Magazine, Repeating Islands, 4 Corners, African Digital Art and the AACDD that do a really great job of being go-to creative hubs showcase the work of artists from Africa and diaspora communities. Instagram and Tumblr over the last few years have also become good platforms for spotting emerging talent.
My experience as a graphic designer has been a positive one. It’s something I was encouraged to embrace from a young age. I’d always wanted to be a designer and I’ve been lucky enough to have had the opportunity to hone my craft through work for companies like ITV News, Adidas and TEDx. Looking back the path I’ve taken is an exciting one although at times I’m so focused on what’s coming that I don’t always take the time to fully appreciate the moment.
A motion graphic designer is responsible for transforming graphic elements (text, images, video etc) into moving/animated visuals.
I spent almost seven years as a designer for ITV News which is specifically broadcast design but you’ll find motion graphic designers working on anything from music videos, film title sequences, TV ads and also live events such as award shows and concerts (I’m usually the person paying more attention to the visuals than the actual performance itself!).
For me, collaboration is very important. Whether it’s sharing ideas or creating a physical product, collaboration helps foster a way of thinking that encourages you to build with others and tap into resources or skills you may not already have. This is something I’ve been able to build on by not only forming collaborative partnerships with likeminded platforms such as Caribbeing and fellow designers including illustrator/author Andrea Pippins but also using my skills as a graphic designer to consult on projects, something I was able to do whilst working with actor/philanthropist Gbenga Akinnagbe on his socially conscious clothing label Liberated People.
Massively. The digital landscape has changed a lot since I launched The:nublk but of the blog’s success has been due to the accessibility that the Internet has allowed.
I do empathise with artists who may not have a prominent social presence or those who want to focus more on creating work rather than being ‘seen’. The digital world has definitely created a pressure that didn’t exist before. For the most part though, the Internet has been an enabling tool.
Children of the Gap was inspired by a series of photos featuring Ghanaian-American artist Kojo Owusu-Kusi called “Too Black for Brooklyn, not African Enough for Accra” in which he references being ‘a child of the gap.’
The exhibition, which launches on March 25th in Hackney, will delve into the many ways in which a new generation of artists explore and experience cultural duality. The show will provide a space for creatives who often find themselves in a state of limbo between their experience of being born or raised in the West whilst also being part of a more distant, but no less rich cultural heritage.
We first featured Kojo’s work on the site in 2011 so it’s great to have been able to stay connected with what he’s been doing and to work on this project in London!
This is an interesting question. I think representation is incredibly important especially as a child as it helps you see the possibilities of what you can become in life.
I know for some artists (particularly in the UK -even though aspects of Black culture are popular in society ), choosing to identify as a ‘black artist’ can be translated as limiting to a certain extent. This is challenge I’ve had to face when promoting the site.
I feel filmmaker Cecile Emeke’s quote in our interview with her sums up the complexity of identity and its influence on a creative’s work: “I wouldn’t say I intentionally frame my films around blackness, womanhood or any other socio-political issue, but those issues frame and centre themselves around me and my existence; I merely respond to them.”