CALL OF BEAUTY
Interview with blackpowerbarbie
NEWEST COVER FEATURE
ILLUSTRATOR & ANIMATOR
When we were thinking about how to illustrate our theme Rupture for the cover, an image of Kali kept coming to mind. Kali is the Hindu deity of death and time. She is the most powerful form of Shakti and despite her fearful form, she is considered a strong maternal and sexual figure and a divine protector of nature.
Canada’s very own, blackpowerbarbie’s thoughtful artistry, anger with societal acceptance of racial inequities, and peaceful beauty exuded what we hoped to convey.
NEWEST Tell us about your journey towards being an artist?
blackpowerbarbie ‘blackpowerbarbie’ is a pseudonym that was born before I began sharing my visual art. It was through a lifetime desire of telling stories to arrive at the medium I work in now.
That desire to storytell manifested through performance art until I was about twenty-one. I spent my whole life acting, singing, and dancing. My life’s passion was to become a theatre actor. I loved expressing myself through drama because I felt I couldn’t express my own emotions and voice. I sought out the device of telling stories through other people’s experiences, to purge those emotions.
You know when you’re seventeen and you have no foresight? I was passionately applying to all these schools. I think my faith in myself was not missguided because I was accepted into NYU. It was this big deal for me, my classmates, my teacher and my family. I had to make the decision to either go into a $200 000 student loan debt to learn how to become a theatre actress in New York City or stay my ass at home and go to the fallback school. I was really depressed having to make that decision. I needed to find a way to sustainably incorporate a meaningful creative practice into my life.
It's really hard to create opportunities and have control of narratives in theatre since you’re a vessel to tell other people’s stories. As it turned out, I was less interested in ‘front of the camera’ and loved everything that was happening behind the scenes in digital media.
I was introduced to animation through the Digital Media program at Ryerson U. I started off doing stop-motion animation with clay puppets in sets that I had built myself. That’s also where I started writing and telling my own stories. I was really lucky to have a Black professor (shout out to professor Chris Alexander) who introduced me to this side of my creativity, and really encouraged me to do it as often as I could. For the first time in my life I realized that I was really good at this, this was my superpower. I had to tell myself not to let the pragmatism of everyday life discourage me from following through.
Around 2016, I changed my handle to blackpowerbarbie. It was not tied to my art as much as it was tied to the voice I had discovered inside me. I was now ready to share my visual art with the world. I only started animation to bring script to life and saw illustration as a way to convey these stories.
In terms of subject matter, my work is very personal to me and very connected to my mental health and how I see my community represented. So, everything that I make is in some way a response to that. Peeling back the layers of who I am to make it easier to share with people.
NEWEST Can we talk about the concept behind the cover?
blackpowerbarbie I was trying to get out feelings of anguish. When you think about someone’s emotional experience or how the universe works...a lot of things have to break before they can grow. Similarly, it sometimes feels like I have to break down in order to create. That’s how I approached this cover.
On a micro level, the work depicts someone in the act of an emotional rupture, exhibiting anguish in the throws of their own mind but positioned in a celestial landscape because the universe’s evolution is predicated on the necessity of rupture as well.
I positioned this larger-than-life, angry, person/deity/whatever as the figure of balance amidst two beheaded figures. Exemplifying destruction and growth but also the expansion of the universe, was my way to contextualize the piece and articulate the relevancy of what all this is. It’s always important for me, especially as a Black woman who draws Black figures that are meant to be read as Black, to make sure that things are beautiful. There is so much beauty to be found even in the cyclical lifespan of certain emotions.
NEWEST As a Black woman painting, drawing and animating Black people, you carry some pillars in your work. What do you feel as a Black woman, representing Black people, and some of the things you consider?
blackpowerbarbie Having honesty, respect, and acknowledgement of the person/people that I am representing in that instance. Sometimes when people ask me to present my artist’s bio, I tell them I try to represent Black femmes and queer people under a loving gaze. Going back to the importance of what I consider to be beautiful in my work, my activity as a creator is in direct response to misrepresentation of people like me and who I care about in the larger media landscape.
Even when I’m drawing people who don’t look like me or aren’t meant to represent me, I’m always checking in with myself and asking if I’m drawing this person in a way they would be happy with or are there things about them that I am focusing on more than others or that I’m trying to hide? Why am I doing that? How would it make me feel if I were in their shoes?
blackpowerbarbie Honestly just trying to do my subject’s justice and have respect for them while I’m doing the work. I’ve had other people draw me in the past and part of the reason why this is so important to me is because....have you ever had someone illustrate/draw you and your first reaction is “um, is that what I look like? Is that what you see?!”
I forwarded the picture to a couple people I trusted the last time it happened to me and asked them for honest feedback. I didn’t know my smile looked like that. I didn’t know my eyes looked like that. Is my face really this crooked? Wow. I think the artist wasn’t really considering me, they were just trying to get features down on a page. They weren’t thinking about me as a whole person and what my ethos is? What is the feature in my face that holds my essence?
Especially when I’m working on music videos and art that is meant to represent a specific person, I feel like I spend so much time trying to recapture the likeness of someone because I respect them. I want this to be a positive addition to the representation of who they are and how they come across to themselves, and the public.
NEWEST We are already so critical of ourselves, I wonder if it’s impossible to not have either person’s lens affect the work?
blackpowerbarbie I mean, there can appear to be some level of vanity to it. To be honest, I just want to look out for people. Maybe they’ll like it, maybe they won’t. But I will make it my best effort for the work to be an honest representation of who the subject is while also making them look good. As a dark-skinned Black woman, it’s so frustrating when you see people try to represent marginalized identities. Their own biases on what they think makes those identities look beautiful shows up in the work. They’ll lighten your skin or straighten your hair and stuff like that. For me, especially when I draw people with different backgrounds, body types, and gender identities than me, it’s important to make sure that we’re not subconsciously perpetuating negative ideals.
I’ve had so many conversations with white people who draw Black people and their lack of respect for Black subjects is so obvious in the work from their uncertainty on how to draw our hair, our bodies or create colour stories around our skin tones. That’s something we all need to work on, like every single day, if we’re going to create inclusive representations.
NEWEST Do you think that it’s even fair to say that a white person/or person that is non-Black should be creating artworks from the perspective of a Black person? Is this appropriate?
blackpowerbarbie Great question! I don’t believe in censoring people’s art but I do think that creatives whether in design, music, fine art, digital art, whatever it is, are given a platform. You’re offering something up for other people to consume. In a professional sense, you’re asking people to trade what you’ve offered for money. I had a conversation in the beginning of June with a white woman about this and was like “You make money off of your representation of Black people.”
If you’re going to do that, you have to make sure that you’re doing it with so much respect and care, and acknowledgement for a community that you are making money off of. No one’s saying that white people can’t include Black people in their art because that also creates issues of lack of representation when they’re also the gatekeepers. A good example of this is when Lena Dunham didn’t put any Black girls in her show for six seasons. Then she addressed the lack of diversity with one token character, Donald Glover. She didn't even do it right. She’s just doing it to do it.
Non-Black creators have to research us and be active in the communities as an ally. I think white artists need to tread carefully and be totally humbled to the fact that they may just never do it as well as a Black person. A size two person will never make clothes as well for a size 18 person because they don’t have that sensibility. They would have to have so much training in order to get that experience, and so much time spent compassionately considering the needs of other people because of their lack of first-hand experience.
I spend so much time on my pieces to make sure that I am happy and proud of my contributions to Black community. That’s coming from someone as a member of the community. So if an artist is coming from outside, especially from a position of privilege as a white person, they have to put in ten times as much work when drawing Black people.
NEWEST We’re in a political climate, talking about race and BLM, and everyone has opinions. But a common misconception is that this is an American issue. What was it like being a Black female artist in Canada and how do you feel it affected your work?
blackpowerbarbie I felt very invisible at times. Part of the reason why I moved to Brooklyn was because I wanted to create my own community of people who look like me and quite honestly, acknowledge my existence.
There is some level of erasure, disrespect, or suppression of Black womxn voices in every level of life in Toronto. There are so many Black womxn who deserve so much more than what they currently have simply because of all the biases people have around us. Breaking out as artists is more difficult [for us] because it’s really easy for boardrooms full of non-Black people to give the commissions, freelance opportunities, mural, whatever, to white people. It’s so much easier for galleries to deal with people who look like them because we, as communities, just don’t have that type of access.
I have a great community in Toronto but it was so much work for me to get there. It would have made the road a lot easier if I wasn’t a dark-skinned, queer Black woman. The people in Toronto who are successful, are incredibly, incredibly exceptional at what they do. In order to make a good honest living as a Black artist in Toronto, you have to be so exceptional. There are a lot of white people outside of that who have so many more opportunities, while not even having a tenth of that talent. There are people who I can draw circles around but I will never get the opportunity that they have. There are only three times a year that a brand like that will hire me, and at that point, they’re having to pick between hundreds of exceptional Black creatives for this one seasonal placement. We can’t all get it. There’s just too much competition. And those are the facts.
NEWEST What do you think the system could have done to support you better?
blackpowerbarbie Just take a chance, honestly just take a chance.
One of the most frustrating things I have heard throughout my career is that everyone sees the work of creatives who essentially live and operate online. It doesn’t help when someone tells me how many times my name has come up in these conversations or how many times I’ve been pitched, etc. There is a belief in diverse talent but no one wants to be the person to make the first move.
Toronto has an issue of waiting for a larger co-sign before they will take the chance on talent they recognize themselves. That’s harmful to nurturing creatives at all levels of experience and in many ways, that’s contributing to the reason inclusion is taking so long. We need more diversity in workplaces in Toronto because all we need is someone to believe in us but you can’t believe in someone you don’t empathize with.
NEWEST What brings you peace during these times?
blackpowerbarbie That’s incredibly hard to say. I’m not feeling very peaceful or hopeful. I just don’t. I feel very pessimistic and when I think about what I do and how I navigate through society, I have to make stuff. Either I do the work or I do nothing at all…. Now that the work of Black people is being looked at through a different lens, I find myself disengaging a lot. I feel like I’m not going to participate. Which can be stressful.
For me, I find peace and solace in doing what I know and makes me feel good.
NEWEST Yeah.. “the work.”
blackpowerbarbie Yeah I suppose the ‘work’ is what keeps me going. I suppose this is the only way I can contribute to society and navigate myself without completely giving up because this is the one joy that I have. Even though sometimes doing it isn’t always joyous because it is work, this is what I have.
NEWEST Our generation had to have a lot of courage as millennials, to create a creative life for ourselves in the attention economy. We think you are going to be a huge inspiration for young girls.
blackpowerbarbie Ha, thaaanks. It’s always nice to hear but then I always dismiss it like “Y’all don’t know that I’m trash right? If only you knew, you wouldn’t aspire…”
But I guess that’s my conditioning as a young woman to downplay myself.
It is tough and luckily I’ve been able to use this work as a mode of survival. I hope that people in our age bracket will continue to make it easier and less painful for younger generations to seek out these pathways. You don’t know if it’s going to work until it does.
It feels like you go through, especially with animation, three months and twenty-nine days in a shitty and tiring time of your life, doing very tedious work, for the gratification that you get on the last day of the process. And the amount of joy you feel from bringing something into the world makes it all worth it. You almost forget until the next project, how much work it takes to birth honest creativity.