by Maya Kay
The show opens in 1963 at the height of the Civil Rights movement amidst the dreams of integration.
From the Spiral art collective devoted to, and composed solely of African-American artists founded by Romare Bearden, Charles Alston, Norman Lewis and Hale Woodruff; to Just Above Midtown (JAM), there have been pioneers who have dedicated gallery space to exhibit African-American artists and works by people of colour. From Betye Saar to Barkley L Hendricks, this latest retrospective of works from one of the many pockets of the African diaspora explores two decades of America’s eclectic and unquestionably talented African-American artists.
Comprised of 12 rooms, 150 works, and 60 artists: consumed by marginalised art, created by marginalised people, highlighting the differences in differences. Additionally, all of which demonstrate the delightfully diverse – assemblage, abstract expressionist, photography – also reflective of the people the art stems from and represents.
Often labelled as ‘colourful’ and ‘vibrant’, yet all stereotypes aside there is something so much more about black art that is magnetising and goes beyond these hackneyed adjectives. Art that is empowering. Art that is electric. Art that’s under-represented yet simply can no longer be overlooked.
At the entrance we are greeted by the harmonious, household voice of Dr Martin Luther King in the familiar black and white footage commanding the audience’s attention at the podium, during the March on Washington. We then slowly stroll through the unforgettable slice of history that is a cacophony of violence, hatred, propaganda, bloodshed – brows furrowed, we wondered if it is in fact history or what we are experiencing today with Black Lives Matter and high profile police cases at the forefront of widespread media and numerous platforms.
Back then in a myopic milieu, these artists longed for public acknowledgement as well as recognition and out of necessity created their own galleries and exhibitions to showcase their work – it would have been inconceivable to consider being displayed at the Tate Modern, though fast forward to the modern day and you find an increased demand on an international scale, exciting a global audience, sought after by numerous galleries from London to New York, and for discerning collectors, with collections that have vacuums that require filling; yet another reminder of the familiar sitting side by side with the unfamiliar.
The cover art for the exhibition, and one of my personal favourites is the 1969 painting titled ‘Icon for My Man Superman (Superman Never Saved Any Black People – Bobby Seale)’ by Barkley L Hendricks (16 April 1945 – 18 April 2017). Another favourite and key piece of note – and resonates for those of us that have been in the shops in search of “skin colour” hosiery – is Senga Nengudi’s work: made entirely of stretched and mangled nylon tights, direct reference to African-American women who wore tights in so called, ‘nude’ and ‘natural tones’, in order to mask their colour or “appear white”.
Soul of a Nation is a multi sensory experience that allows for posthumous recognition after years of unending yearning for due credit. It is a significant and profound exploration of how to define what a black artist is, what black art is, the impact of society and politics on this definition, emphasises pivotal moments in history that influenced the artists and their art, and skips between the familiar and unfamiliar in a somewhat haphazard manner.
What is unclear is the lack of continuity, what remains clear is that the social and political matters that prevail are as relevant now as they were then, and have a far reaching impact not only to black people, but to all. These artists wanted a chance to be viewed publicly by Americans, now all the world can see.
So what does it mean to be a black artist? It depends.
Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power until 22 October 2017
Tate Modern, Bankside, London, SE1 9TG
Tickets available here.
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
I met London-based artist and designer Zakee Shariff about ten years ago through a mutual friend who was wearing one of her designs.
Zakee’s worked on a variety of collaborations across music, fashion and books. Whether on ethical clothing brand People Tree, the much-loved book ‘Fashion A To Z, An Illustrated Dictionary’, art directing with Sam Hardaker of band Zero Seven for their album ‘Record’ , to creating a piece for women for International Women’s Day, 2012 for The W Project, it’s clear that Zakee’s career is based on her interests and where her instincts have taken her.
Taking inspiration from her signature artworks, Zakee has created limited edition clothing, interior, design and art pieces that are exclusively available online. Where possible, all designs are made using products and materials from the UK/Europe (each Limited Zakee piece is named & numbered & with a certificate of authentication) and printed by hand.
As I was writing out Zakee’s bio for this post, I realised the value of Zakee’s story, how unconventional ubringings, mixed heritage, travel, and a sense of curiosity can-in combination with nurturing and self awareness- lead to earning a living whist being creatively fulfilled.
I was born in Stamford Brook, West London. Then as a baby and a toddler, moved to the heart of London’s West End where my parents had their offices. My Indian Mother (born and raised in East Africa) was a textile/fashion designer and my American, Caucasian Stepfather was a business man, working on the manufacturing of shoes and bags. though my natural father is Indian-born and like my Mum, also raised in East Africa.
We left the UK in 1972 and went to live in Pakistan but left in 1977 because of a military coup, returning to London where we lived In Holloway until I left School.
My first inspiration is my mother Jubilee. She is a shining light of strength, fortitude and talent who always taught me to go for what I believed in and work for myself. To this day she is my champion. Aside from that, compassionate women and men are my inspiration, empowered women of all heritage, people who really wanna give something back to the world and empower, heal and support others.
As a child, I found it hard to express my self with the spoken and written word because I’m dyslexic, so my mum gave me a bag of pens and some paper and told me to draw what I felt, and what I wanted to say.
That has stayed with me ever since. Drawing is something I HAVE to do, if I couldn’t draw I think I’d go out of my mind.
Clearly my mum always knew I was going to a creative of some sort, so she encouraged me to go to art school. My Stepdad wanted me to study law, but he soon came round to it, and now celebrates what I do.
They both always loved and supported young artists and I was very blessed to grow up in houses full of art all around me, which definitely influenced me greatly so my love of music really was born in my childhood too. Growing up with my folks taught me a lot about clothing manufacturing, so I think I have a pretty good business mindset too.
Being a Londoner, my love for the music I heard growing up (my mum and older brother were big music lovers) helped to further instil in me a very creative mind. At 13 I started my own market stall in Camden that gave me an amazing grounding in street culture and those 3 years-every week-was such a huge influence on me regarding my relationship to fashion.
Having mixed parents-in terms of cuture and religion, who both loved travel, literally opened up a whole world to me so naturally, travel has also became a huge inspiration to my work.
My spirituality, also something my mother encouraged me to explore, is something which has evolved through time and age. I started to meditate about 7 years ago and that brought a whole new level of inspiration to my work. I think that side of me has always been there, as I have trained as a healer, life coach and a masseuse which has influenced how I draw and create.
The most common thing people have told me about my work is that they feel an emotional connection with my drawings, so I unconsciously I think my aim is to empower-whatever empowered means to them, to give love and a sense of healing to those who look at my drawings or wear my prints. I never want to dictate, I simply enjoy watching people really feel enlivened by a creativity.
Having studied Printed Textiles BA at Uni, my work was very ‘fine art’ based, and I always thought that when I left college I’d use my fashion contacts to earn a living while I made my art. But when I graduated, Sue Timney (of Timney and Fowler who was my external assessor) told me that I was a fine artist, not a designer, that I’d never make anything of myself in fashion, and that I should just follow
my heart as an artist.
But things kinda evolved differently to her prediction, and I danced between art and design.
I’m a creative, so rather then boxing myself into either art or design I choose to have them co-exist. I couldn’t do one without the other.
My degree was very rooted in drawing and painting, then abstracting from that into design. It was a course that I felt totally alive in. I became obsessed with screen printing and all of what I learnt on that course has stayed with me to this day-I am very lucky and grateful to have my own print room and art studio now that is totally my sanctuary. My sacred space.
I use mark-making and colour to replicate an emotional response and translate experience.
I now want to work directly with my customer/client for a while in an organic way for now that means making limited editions in clothing, art and interiors, collaborating with various friends around the world from different fields. When the idea or concept comes up, I make my drawings using mark-making and colour-the idea is to replicate an emotional response and translate experience. A more traditional, forward order/retail concept is set to be available next year. This is where I’ll mix my business head (from having had a clothing collection in the past) and my design/textile ability.
All in all I just want to create, take people on a journey, share my creations with the world and hopefully touch some peoples hearts along the way.
Shop for Zakee Shariff’s limited editions here
Find out more about Zakee here