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James Bartlett on MoCADA, The Fear of Failing and Beating the NYC Grind

James Bartlett on MoCADA, The Fear of Failing and Beating the NYC Grind

Jamesbartlett

James Bartlett has a lot on his plate but you wouldn't know it. His calm coolness suggest he's often the laid back dude among the late night revelers, observing the chaos without being overrun by it. As the Executive Director of MoCADA, The Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts, James is constantly visioning and implementing, along with his tight staff, to showcase new and innovative work within the African Diaspora and create a space that values community outreach and interaction. 

In addition to his work with MoCADA, James is the co-founder of MVMT, "a collective of artists, entrepreneurs, and organizers whose missions align to promote the arts, social entrepreneurship, and collective empowerment." We spoke about the paradox of the New York grind, his epiphany on his last trip to Ghana, and why the process and the present is all we have.

You’re from the South right?

Well, I’m from Louisville, Kentucky, born and raised. My father is, and was, a musician and singer but it just felt like it was a regular job to me. So in hindsight I had a lot of exposure to the arts but it didn’t feel like it growing up. It was just my dad’s job, he played piano and he sang.

Do you play any instruments?

I don’t. I just recently started dabbling on the piano.  Growing up my dad didn’t discourage us from getting into music but he didn’t push us. I think secretly or subconsciously he didn’t want us to go into music because it’s a tough life. I like music but I wasn’t drawn to playing. I was drawn to basketball and played in high school and college. I  came to NYU for grad school and got my masters in magazine publishing and I was bit with the entrepreneurial bug. I liked the magazine world but it was just one potential form of artistic and entrepreneurial expression and I was more interested in the arts in general, so I started exploring the business of the arts.

I stared a company with Terence Nance and Rolando Brown called MVMT. We had our own internal artistic projects and offered consulting services to arts organizations. On our own artistic projects, we settled into music and film. I worked and managed Blitz the Ambassador for about five or six years. I executive produced his first album and worked with him over the course of the next several years. On the film side, I worked with Terrance on his first feature film, An Oversimplification of Her Beauty.

I did the MVMT thing for about six or seven years but we started working with MoCADA as a client about four years ago. I fell more and more in love with the mission of the museum and even developed some projects from scratch like the MoCADA journeys program, a travel program I conceived and produced. Our first trip was to Ghana was in 2012 for about 35 people and I produced a concert featuring Blitz the Ambassador and Les Nubians; about 2000 people came out to the concert. The people that came on the trip from the states loved it. We’re actually planning a trip to Kenya next year.

MoCADA is kind of the intersection of the majority of my personal passions and interests. It combines so many things - from visual arts to performing arts etc. I also realized that in the six or seven years of doing MVMT, I‘ve always been the person who supported others artistic vision.  I found that a skill I have is getting peoples artistic visions out but also being the museum director gives me the opportunity to create my own end vision as well. At the end of the day I set the tone, direction and the programming so for me it’s the perfect balance of facilitating the creation of art by others but also having a vision of my own that is very specific.

A museum is a very Western concept. It is the idea that art and culture needs to be housed in a building. I like to look at art and culture from a more African context. In Africa art is about community, connections, interaction, creativity, preservation of historical traditions, etc.

Can you talk a bit about the work MoCADA does with marginalized groups of folks in New York City? You're one of the only museums I know taking such a hands-on approach to working with residents of lower socio-economic neighborhoods. Museums typically have a really high-brow/elite type of aesthetic. Why is it important for you to change that ideology?

MoCADA really tries to reach people where they live, rather than insisting that they come to us. For that reason we put art programming in public schools, parks, small business, and public housing.  We believe that art has the ability to transform lives and communities, and that it shouldn't be confined to a box, or reserved for the elite.   The fact that we are even called a "museum," for me personally, is just to give funders a general box to put us in for grant purposes. We are much more than that.  A museum is a very Western concept.  It is the idea that art and culture needs to be housed in a building.  I like to look at art and culture from a more African context.  In Africa art is about community, connections, interaction, creativity, preservation of historical traditions, etc.

Obviously you work with many artists, do you ever feel like there's an artist in you that wants to be expressed?

I’ve always been very content with helping other people get out their vision. I’ve always felt like I was an artist in the sense that everyone is an artist. I always feel creative. I guess when I think of artists, I think of someone with a very specific vision that if changed, is compromised. I always think of my vision as very malleable and flexible and that my vision is bigger than anything I would have the capacity to create. I inherently have to enlist the support of others in creating their visions that are part of my overall vision. My personal artistic creativity is more just being a whole human being in the sense that art and creation is just a part of being human.

I always think of my vision as very malleable and flexible and that my vision is bigger than anything I would have the capacity to create. I inherently have to enlist the support of others in creating their visions that are part of my overall vision.

You have so much on your plate. How do you stay in the process, especially in a city like New York, which is constantly moving and going?

When I first came to New York I was super focused and driven and singularly focused on ‘making it’ and being successful - whatever that means. I worked constantly - to the point that even when I wasn’t working, my mind was working and I had zero down time. I went through years of that. It wasn’t a bad thing - it got me a lot of places. I think it was a period I had to go though. But I had this epiphany in Ghana. I realized being in Ghana that I had largely, on my own, produced this trip for 35 people and these 35 people would not be in Ghana had it not been for a random conversation I had had 18 months prior. Combined with that was the fact that for me, it was one of the most fulfilling things I had ever participated in in my life. The people were so amazing, and it was Blitz’s first concert in Ghana ever – his family was there.

It was a very rewarding experience and the epiphany was that in the process of doing the planning for that trip, for me, in the ranking of priorities that year, I don’t even think it cracked the top ten. I was doing it on the side of the million things I felt I had to do. And so in the process of it, I was not at all present. I was just used to working constantly and doing a lot of things and this was just another thing. Then I look up and I’m in Ghana and I was like ‘wow – this is one of the most rewarding and fulfilling things I have ever done.’ As I was planning it, I did not value it on that level at all. It was just, ‘let me get it done because I have to do it.’ It really made me rethink my priorities and how I prioritize things and think about what I want to be doing, what I need to be doing, how I spend my time and how I want to spend my life. It made me much more selective with the projects I take on and more present to the process.

It sounds like you started choosing quality over quantity. What do you think was driving you to take so much on?

I had to be really honest with myself. I think a large part of that period of my life was fear - fear of failing, fear of not accomplishing and when you’re afraid of that you kind of just throw everything at the wall like ‘ok I’m not going to sleep, I’m just gonna work. Who cares about relationships. I’m gonna make it.’ But you only do that if you’re afraid there’s a chance you’re not going to make it.

I think a large part of that period of my life was fear - fear of failing, fear of not accomplishing and when you’re afraid of that you kind of just throw everything at the wall like, ok I’m not going to sleep, I’m just gonna work..but you only do that if you’re afraid there’s a chance you’re not going to make it.

Now I’m more confident and secure in myself, my abilities, the direction I’m going in. I can further enjoy the process and it’s not all about the end goal or the end result. The process is all you have. If you’re always striving for goals, you’re never going to be satisfied. For the majority of my life I lived in the future, I defined myself not by where I was or what I was doing but where I was going and where I wanted to be. I think that is a coping strategy for being a young struggling artist or entrepreneur. You kinda have to justify the struggle like ‘I’m doing this for this because next year I’m going to be here.’ But all we have is right now. So, if you don’t fully embrace the now then who cares about the future.

Right, and then when we get what you want, we don’t fully enjoy it because we’re on to the next thing.

Right. Even though you accomplished that future you envisioned a year ago, you’re now in a new future.

For the majority of my life I lived in the future, I defined myself not by where I was or what I was doing but where I was going and where I wanted to be. I think that is a coping strategy for being a young struggling artist or entrepreneur.

And then it’s never enough.

Right, it’s never enough.

Do you have any tools you use to stay present and in the process?

I would still very much consider myself a novice but I’ve started meditating more and pursuing more practices that aren’t geared towards a specific end goal. Like, I’ve started dabbling on the piano or I started learning French. Not for a specific goal just to explore different ways of expression, different ways to use my brain. Again, I think it’s just about being more comfortable with myself and where I am. You’re less concerned about getting to the future when you feel that momentum carrying you there. It reminds me of a rather interesting quote I heard, ‘fall in love with the process and the results will come.’

Interview by Jahan Mantin

Born and raised on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, Jahan is an OG of pre-gentrified New York. She is a traveler, book nerd, creative coach, music lover, editor and the Co-Founder of Project Inkblot. 

Tom Bogaert--International Humanitarian, Activist, Artist

Tom Bogaert--International Humanitarian, Activist, Artist

sun ra tom bogaert

I received an email over a year ago that I was intrigued by, but didn't quite believe was real. Tom Bogaert, a then Cairo-based visual artist, asked to use an article that I had written for Revive Music on Sun Ra for an multimedia installation in Egypt on the iconic jazz composer, bandleader, and musician who had a mysterious and poorly recorded transformation in Egypt, and Tom wanted to uncover it. As I watched the Sun Ra project progress, as Tom was making headway into connecting with music historians and former Sun Ra band members--deepening his research, I also deepened my research of Tom's work. I was fascinated to find out that his original career was in international refugee law, and that he only exhibited his first solo show in NYC at the Elizabeth Foundation Studio Center in 2008. I wanted to understand how someone could transition so boldly from law to art, and actually bring his passion for humanitarianism and geopolitics from a legal context into the visual realm. His interview below is a reminder that what propels and fuels you is what you believe in, and the most natural way that your message is communicated from you--even if to onlookers--the connections may seem disparate. 

Where are you from, and where did you spend your formative years?

I grew up in a family of cigar makers in a small town near Bruges, Belgium. I had a happy life there but I knew that I needed to do other things, that I had to leave. After high school I halfheartedly toyed with the idea of applying for film school but my mother disapproved and told me to get a 'real' diploma first. I settled with law school: no more mathematics and the university was in a real city. The fact that the cool uncle in the family was a lawyer also played a role. But to be honest I had absolutely no clue.

You were a refugee lawyer for several years for the UN. How did you initially become interested in these issues, and how did you decide to affect change in that way?

When I graduated from law school, Belgium still had mandatory military service for all able-bodied male citizens. I was deemed able-bodied but I really didn't want to go the army. So I applied for the status of consciences objector. I had to write a letter to the mayor of my hometown explaining my objections – the horror. I can't remember the exact words I used but my letter was based on a template given to me by an Anti War organization. My request was approved, and I did two years of Alternative Civilian Service in a center for asylum seekers in Brussels. After that I was employed by the Belgian Government Refugee Agency and later I worked for the United Nations in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Burundi, Cambodia and Thailand. Upon my return to Belgium I was appointed Refugee Coordinator for Amnesty International. By then I had become an activist; absolutely dedicated to the struggle against human rights violations across the globe.

How was the transition for you--from the analytical field of law--to the conceptual field of becoming a visual artist?

As far as I can remember I have always made art and after participating in a few exhibitions while still working for Amnesty, the idea of giving up my day job and spending more time making art became stuck in my head. It was time for change. I also wanted to start channeling my experience as a human rights activist more into my practice as an artist and at the same time I felt I needed more distance from the seriousness of my activism and subject matter. So I guess the usual mixture of push- and pull factors. I officially stopped practicing law in 2004 when I was selected to participate in the Elizabeth Foundation Studio Center program in New York City. I moved with my family to the US, started working with 'Jack the Pelican Presents' gallery in Brooklyn and since then I've been fortunate enough to be able to work full time as an artist.

When did you decide that you were an artist?

It took a while, but I think that somewhere by the end of 2004 I started writing 'visual artist' as my profession on official documents. So that's maybe when I decided for myself that I was an artist. Almost ten years ago now.

Would you consider what you do, social innovation?

As an artist it's not my intention to try to fix certain things in society by making art or by being innovative in my production process. Maybe I can place this in the context of the art / activism discussion. I don't see my artwork as an extension of my refugee work – even though it directly confronts the intersection of human rights, geopolitics, visual art and propaganda. I realize that given my academic background and professional history, an autobiographical reading of my artwork is unavoidable. People assume that I'm an activist. I operate within the tradition of political art but I try to steer away from one-dimensional didactic socio-politics that is often associated with the activist canon of visual culture. And there's also the issue of preaching to the contemporary art choir.

My work and that of many of my colleagues is inevitably politicized by its rootedness within various geopolitical contexts - but that doesn't make us activists. I don't think artists are per definition activists - it's about choice and intention. An artist becomes a militant when he or she moves beyond the aesthetic, the opportunity, the conceptual, and intentionally and persistently intervenes in the 'real world.' I have huge respect for activists. Being an activist comes with extremely hard work, passion, dedication and sacrifice whether you are an artist, a plumber, a lawyer or indeed a fruit vendor.

As an artist it’s not my intention to try to fix certain things in society by making art or by being innovative in my production process.

How does your passion for geopolitics affect or inform your creative work now?

I have always been a geopolitical news junkie – that is on the academic, theoretical level–and it was through my work with refugees and other victims of human rights abuse that I witnessed first-hand the concrete consequences of geo-politics in Europe, Central Africa and South-East Asia. After five fantastic years at the Elizabeth Foundation in Manhattan it was somehow time to move on. So in 2009 I followed my wife to the Middle East where we lived in Amman, Jordan for more than three years. In Amman, I started working on ‘Impression, proche orient' (IPO), an art project referring to issues relevant to the contemporary Near East society including the changes, politics, artistic identity and the New Arabs. Drawing on my experience as a foreigner living and working in the East, it was and is my intention to interpret understandings of the region - or lack thereof - from the inside out. As an outsider with the privilege of being given access to the inside, my aim is to use irony, gesture and narratives from the region by means of artistic production.

Drawing on my experience as a foreigner living and working in the East, it was and is my intention to interpret understandings of the region - or lack thereof - from the inside out. As an outsider with the privilege of being given access to the inside, my aim is to use irony, gesture and narratives from the region by means of artistic production.

What do you hope for your viewers to gain an understanding of after experiencing your work?

I make art that encourages viewers to interact and participate in serious scenarios. I don't make propaganda aimed to influence the attitude of the public toward a cause or position. I aim to provoke serious reflection but I have always tried to maintain a degree of lightness and humor in my work. The seriousness of the work and subject matter are often masked by this humor and by an intentional lack of high-production values.

What does it mean to you to be a creator? How does that hold you to account in the world? What parts of that enliven you or scare you? Or are those latter two one in the same?

Recently I was invited to participate in the 3rd 'Ghetto Biennale' in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Many things about the Ghetto Biennale seem problematic, from its name to its history, its art, its production, and its general progress. Participating in this type of context is risky on many levels. I don't work in a vacuum; I do feel I have responsibility, artistically, historically and theoretically but at the end of the day you have to make decisions for yourself.

One of the curators asked us: "Is it more politically correct or more ethical to eschew a slum neighborhood rather than to sit down and talk to its residents and hazard the consequences?" I decided to participate in the Ghetto Biennale and it was a fantastic experience – scary and exciting at the same time. Same thing with being an 'accidental orientalist' in the Middle East. I ended up in the Orient by accident – when I followed my wife to Amman. I understand that the issue of Saidian Orientalism – prejudiced outsider interpretations of the East as surveyed by Edward W. Said – that pervades my work is problematic. Constant self-examination and -criticism have indeed confirmed that there is very little moral higher ground for me to be left standing on. At the same time I seek to be more than a mere ‘Accidental Orientalist.’ Edward W. said: “there is, after all, a profound difference between the will to understand for purposes of co-existence and humanistic enlargement of horizons, and the will to dominate."

Constant self-examination and -criticism have indeed confirmed that there is very little moral higher ground for me to be left standing on. At the same time I seek to be more than a mere ‘Accidental Orientalist.’ Edward W. said: “there is, after all, a profound difference between the will to understand for purposes of co-existence and humanistic enlargement of horizons, and the will to dominate.

What is your creative process?

I pursue my practice by engaging an idea first, and then developing a plan that usually involves a combination of media, technologies and techniques, some of which are linked to conventional art media, and some of which are not usually associated with artmaking.

I've been told that I work in the tradition of the post-conceptual, the post-studio era. Sounds all very 'post', I would also like to be something 'pre' as in 'avant' - I'll keep you posted.

How do you approach creating an installation, and synthesizing disparate elements (sounds, words, images) into a multimedia piece? Can you use an example from a past exhibition?

For the Ghetto Biennale in December 2013 and after having done some homework I decided I wanted to do something with the local beer ‘Prestige’: a brand of American- style beer produced by the Heineken-owned ‘Brasserie Nationale d’Haiti.’ It is the best-selling beer in Haiti and the promotion campaign for it is based on a blatant nationalistic Haitian identity narrative. Fierce Haitian nationalistic discourse propagated by a Dutch multinational company – in order to sell more beer. So I invited Haitians to comment on the narrative behind the Prestige publicity campaign. In a mini survey, I asked about Haitian identity and possible ways of linking the results to a beer label. While interviewing and having conversations with people, Haitians and foreigners alike, I was acting less as an anthropologist, a sociologist or a visual artist and more merely trying to have a conversation with people about beer, multinationals and national identity. It was playful and a bit provocative and I wanted the project to reflect that attitude.

We gave a short introduction about the project and the interviewees and I were pretty soon on the same wave length and they understood what I was after. We talked about the benefits and dangers of foreign investments, about identity, about the old days and the new, about god and voodoo and death, things predictable and unpredictable - I guess we talked about life in general. After each conversation (we did about 60 – we only had a couple of days) we invited the participants to come up with a slogan that would best convey their thoughts. I then asked a local artist to paint publicity murals with the new slogans in downtown Port-au-Prince and I made 24 new Prestige etiquettes which we glued on empty beer bottles. They were presented in a voodoo temple and we had too many Prestiges at the opening event.

How do you reconcile fact from human experience in your work?

Personal encounters nourish my work; these experiences and memories are inscribed and expressed in the artwork. However, I have always been very reluctant to publicly share these personal elements on their own. I've worked in so many different places with so many great people; I don't feel comfortable blending the personal into the professional.

What does it feel like to finally birth a project? What is that initial feeling of letting go of your work and giving it away to the public and something bigger than yourself?

It feels great, intoxicating and therefore perhaps addictive, and all of the sudden your work is out there, in the open, and the public will see whatever they want to see in it.

A well-known art critic once described one of my Genocide pieces as an "effective, amusing piece, a metaphor for childhood play and angst." To be honest I was stunned. Also because I always provide a purely factual and descriptive text alongside my artwork – not to say that meaning only appears in text but simply to contextualize it; to draw some lines in the sand. What I'm trying to say is that when Gonzalez-Torres declares that "meaning is always shifting in time and space", this only goes for part of the artwork.

Constant self-examination and -criticism have indeed confirmed that there is very little moral higher ground for me to be left standing on. At the same time I seek to be more than a mere ‘Accidental Orientalist.’ Edward W. said: “there is, after all, a profound difference between the will to understand for purposes of co-existence and humanistic enlargement of horizons, and the will to dominate.

Describe a time when you almost gave up finishing a project?

It happens all the time. I have a massive archive of unfinished projects, rejected proposals, rejected grant applications, missed deadlines – now and again when I look over these files, I might recycle an idea or a phrase.

What grounds you to continue waking up each day and commit to making art?

I'm constantly amazed that I've been able to forge a function for myself as an artist in society. And that this new reality coexists with my desire for otherness, for change and difference. And paying my bills and feeding my kids of course.

Describe what you are currently working on:

Very excited to be currently working on '1971, Sun Ra in Egypt' a research- and visual arts project about the life and work of Sun Ra, the legendary American jazz pioneer, bandleader, mystic and philosopher. The project focuses on Sun Ra’s concerts in Egypt in 1971 and after Jordan, Syria, Palestine, Lebanon and Iraq this project is the sixth installment of 'Impression, proche orient.' It will take the form of performances, jazz concerts, a publication, video and an exhibition at Medrar for Contemporary Art in Cairo in May 2014. Political stability is still far of the horizon in Egypt and when I started working in Cairo the local art scene was having passionate debates about its relationship to the revolution of early 2011 and the perennial issue of the role of an artist in revolutionary times. I think maybe my choice for the 'less serious' Sun Ra as a resource for my project in Egypt should be seen in the context of my desire to further distantiate myself from the artist/activist connotation by means of a self-imposed estrangement from the usual seriousness of my subject matter. Not to say that Sun Ra is not serious, he was actually very serious about his un-seriousness. But that's another story.

Interview by Boyuan Gao

Zerihun Seyoum: A Painter's Lens of Ethiopia

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Zerihun Seyoum: A Painter's Lens of Ethiopia

I know one person who lives in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.  His name is Zerihun Seyoum and he is a painter.  I learned about him this summer while at the Center Waaw, an art residency in Saint Louis, Senegal.  Staffan and Jarmo, the two wonderful people who run the place, showed me his work, because they had exhibited it in Europe in the past.  Having once seen images of Zerihun’s paintings, I found that they are not easily forgotten.  They have a disquieting voice and a persistence about them. They, like the city he paints, seem never to be asleep. If his paintings could be people, they would be restless insomniacs, ready to speak to anyone who walks by.  The potential and the vulnerability contained in such an encounter is perfectly encapsulated in a painting called “Making the Line.”  It shows a child drawing a line, though the balance of power could be more in favor of the line than the child.  No wonder: to draw a line is to make a miracle, and miracles are dangerous.  In Zerihun’s paintings--not just a disaster-- but a global cataclysm is often just a hair away, yet he mercifully keeps his paintings balanced between miracle and disaster.I was very glad and grateful that Zerihun agreed to an interview for Project Inkblot.  I hope he does not mind that when I pass through Addis, I will come find him in his studio. We certainly would love to have him visit us in New York.

If someone asked me to describe your paintings, I think I would mostly use verbs. You rarely depict a moment of stillness: people, objects and places are almost always depicted amidst a very active universe, and they are active themselves. Everything is on the move, and this movement is very energetic. 

Sometimes this movement seems to verge on a collision or some sort of accident. On your canvases everything strives, yearns and reaches toward something. Can you please talk about what action means to you? And how it relates to painting as a medium? 

As an artist you don't start painting to make people, objects, and places stuck on the canvas. You know and feel so many ways to express things and at the same time you are on a blank canvas yourself. It’s a long process happening on the inside, but when it comes out, it's a thing that's expressed in the moment--all at once--so there's a lot of simultaneous movement, and so there is constant movement in my paintings.

This happens not just in painting but also other art.  And so then to study something is different from living it on the inside.  By living through paintings, you always feel something unexpressed or unrevealed, and it makes you anxious to express that feeling.

Throughout my life, all my fun, enjoyment, relationships--it's all expressed through painting and art.  After I finish a painting, it makes me feel everything that is going on, not just in my life but also in other people’s lives.  This can be viewed as a kind of medicine. With words you can express feelings in some way, but when you finish what you have said it always seems like there is more to say. But painting is a medium capable of infinite expression and speaks more than words.

The reason behind all of the movement and energy in my painting is in large part because I think that now, more than ever, painting should be for and about everyone.  But it's also there for personal reasons. It possesses me. There is the actual, physical act of painting.  Each separate work has an artist and a painting that is specific to this one work.  But in life, I always wonder why these things come to me: a disturbing moment, a beautiful moment, any type of moment. At the same moment in time there is a collision of feelings - like you can paint something disturbing but there is joy from just the expression of it. It's like you are born when you start to paint, and when it's finished, you grow up. With that growing up comes knowledge, but thereafter there is again ignorance because you realize what you don't know and that you are new again at the finish. That makes me strive to create, learn and grow further.

Do you want things to collide and break into pieces? Are they always about to merge, to stop being objects, and become abstract paintings? 

Yes they are. That's why in a figurative way, the compositions are balanced. I don't do any sketching before I paint, rather the images tumble out from within me. It's a raw process, but it doesn't mean it comes easily. What I create comes from appreciation, whether it's disturbing or beautiful, it's all beautiful. It comes from the wonder of life. When you are exposed to a lot in life, you live beyond your senses; and to express that experience, it's difficult to put into words. Each piece represents a million stories inside the balanced chaos of my mind and heart, and so the piece represents that. But it's like asking a poet what is your exercise to write a poem?  It's hard to put the process into words. You just express it and live it. It's different than when you are educated and get an academic training. The academic training allows you to understand what a work of art means and enables you to use professional words to describe it, but it's not a vehicle to fully and truly express yourself when you are painting.

Immediacy is another quality of your work that seems apparent.  Things happen in the moment. How do you achieve this effect? Do you rely on memory, drawing, photography?  Is there a relationship between immediacy and memory in painting and in your painting?

I do not rely on memory, drawing or photography.

When you have been making art for a long time—I cannot yet say I have been for a long, long time, but still, from my experience in art in my life thus far—you think about so many things. Sometimes you enjoy thinking, reflecting, even more than painting. I find that there are so many ideas that your mind is working to process constantly, that I never made a lot of them into paintings. What I think about becomes realized 5, 6, or even 7 years later.

When I have an idea, it's only in time that it can become a physical painting. Sometimes I have an idea and start painting but leave the work unfinished, and it remains unfinished because I don't quite understand it - and maybe it’s a great idea but not a great painting at that point.  Often, these creations are completed years after I thought of them. I see things on the street, at home, on TV, from so many different mediums, and at the moment they can affect me, they make me smile, they are humorous, they touch me, and I may try to paint them in the moment but they remain unfinished, because I'm still processing them subconsciously for years. After I finish a piece for a long time there is comfort.

I think in life it is similar: you don't always process what you see in the moment, you see so many things but you don't see or understand so many things.  All of it gets processed eventually, and in fact, 4 or 5 years later it may shape a person's life. I might be different from 5 or 6 years ago, but I make a painting that comes from an idea that was on the surface back then, and was processed over time.  There is immediacy in every moment of the process, but not necessarily in creating the final piece.

If I make a painting that strives to address an issue in the world, I don't paint it as an issue out there in the world, but make it an individual, personal reflection.  I believe that while anyone can say things, it can be challenging to practice self-expression.  And the more you want to explore yourself, the more it seems dangerous. But once you do it, it just as difficult to go back. It's also addictive because you have trained yourself in this way, and you present your life in this kind of medium, so physically you become addicted to what you paint with, like oils, etc., but emotionally you also become addicted to exploring, expression, and you don't know what the end result is, but you just want to explore. In some ways it's dangerous. The addictive feeling of expression and exploration is dangerous, but it's good too.  So you explore, you can get scared of yourself, and you try to stop yourself from exploring, but you can't contain it or stop it because you have already gone there.  And so as a painter the more you develop your feelings and explore, the more you create with meaning.

So much of your work shows urban life.  But this is not a city like any I have ever seen in Europe or in the States.  Could you please describe your relationship to the city you paint. 

I'm based in Addis Ababa, though my work could be based on any city.  Though for me Addis is special because here you see the same traditional things happening that you would have seen 3000 years ago, and at the same time you see the modern, cosmopolitan lifestyle. You don't even have to go very far to see tradition: it's right outside your door, and normally you would go to see this kind of tradition in a festival, but living in Addis is like living in a festival every day.

I don’t exactly see a city as a cityscape.  Cities have their own portraits, their own face, there are a lot of things going on, so I do not concentrate on a silent, still place.  Rather, I choose vibrant, chaotic and dramatic places, which give you a kind of tension.  I never have a silent experience.

And, like any person, I am influenced by my surroundings: their specific color, texture, lines. If you are living in a vibrant place, you get impressed by that, even subconsciously.  You can see, for example, how in Diego Rivera’s work—he lived in Mexico—how his environment influenced him strongly and with such richness, and so it's the same for me here. And so for me, maybe I see a similarity between artists who live in places that are somehow similar.

It's like when you are young and you are learning a new alphabet, and so you use these letters you are taught as shapes to create meaningful words. When you are young, you first learn to write the actual letters and how to shape the letters. In a painting the shapes of the city are my letters.  Over time you learn to create these letters, you build your vocabulary, and ultimately you become fluent about the city.  And in fact you see that this language--the shapes of the city--is a universal language and can be the vocabulary of any city anywhere in the world.

In general, what are some of the places, urban or not, that you love the most in this world? And why?

A place where there is fast change. I like that for my work. Spontaneous places for inspiration. I grew up mostly in this kind of environment. I grew up in a market, so in a market you just never feel like something will stay there for long, rather you grow up to know that there is always change. I'm driven by change, and I can't stop change, so I create from it, and any place has that kind of energy, movement and dynamic nature. There is a lot of dynamism in color, and shape, and texture, so that means when you are in the middle of your studio you may have stillness to sit and think and create, and this contrasts with what's happening outside.

Your paintings always tell a story.  What does narrative mean to you? 

I don't like to stick too much to the story about how my childhood influenced me, because I'm not a child anymore.  It's in the past. I have lived and continue to live since then. But one thing that stays with me is that my mother always bought books and she loved the books with pictures inside them so she would buy those. Instead of reading the words in the book, I would read aloud the images.  I would see the images and I would tell the story of the book out loud, and so when she would hear me read the text she’d think that I was already reading.  Then she would read the text and be surprised by what I illustrated because she heard me say so many things that were similar to the story. And even in later years when I was taught about Ethiopian traditional paintings at school, I was taught to discuss the powerful colors and distortions of the image that communicate the idea of the artwork.  This was how I learned to understand and express what was written in images.

In school I studied a lot of European artists, but I found that after I graduated I just went back to my childhood and to the traditional Ethiopian art and even also to contemporary art to become inspired. For me art is not just about solving abstractly a problem of color or texture. As a person who grew up in the kind of place where I grew up, there is so many things to say and so many things to express, and so I paint those things.  But I don't think all my paintings are necessarily about telling a story, rather, they are a mix of realism and abstract and semi-abstract expression. Storytelling is its own discipline, while paintings are the result of an art process, and in a lot of ways paintings are more expressive than storytelling.  But if you start looking into the details of the painting you will see color, texture, and distortion, and all together they are pieces of a story.  Paintings are like poems. They are a form of expression - and they don't have a beginning and they don't have an end. In the end, the painting has it's own life, and it has a different life for different people.  My paintings have themes, but ultimately I am just giving people my moment, my emotions, my entire life displayed on a canvas.

Where do you stand in relationship to the Ethiopian tradition in the visual art, and how do you relate to the Western painting tradition?

I love to see western art in a book, and even walk around in a museum by myself to look at original paintings. Yet in western or Ethiopian art, both have strong similarities with respect to the artistic process, whether these paintings are cave drawings, or of modern life.  In Ethiopian art I can see the same qualities I see in European art, and the same in traditional as in modern art. They all produce powerful and expressive pieces. And you can see this in eastern art too. There is richness that inspires me in all painting traditions.

If someone were to introduce you as an "African painter", what would you think about such an introduction?  

There is something you derive from experience that then becomes the creative force that depicts your feelings in a painting.  And this means that there is a universal quality to the feelings of any human being.  On a professional level people are comfortable with making labels like this.  In Africa and Ethiopia, art travels within the people because it's a part of their day-to-day living. In Europe, in the Western tradition, art has been well categorized, studied and analyzed on an institutional level for the last 500 years.  But here it's not been studied in the same way.  Here galleries and museums treat art in a kind of traditional way, through a historical approach. At the same time, here in Africa and in Ethiopia, art can happen anywhere: in the home or in the street, it is less formalized and institutionalized, so when someone is introduced as an African painter or an Ethiopian painter, I get this idea of a non-formalized and non-institutionalized environment.  I am born in Ethiopia, so of course I'm an Ethiopian artist and an African artist, but on different level, I have encountered other artists from other countries to whom I relate easily in terms of my artistic process and artistic experiences.

What trends in contemporary Western art do you find interesting?

I especially like the development of conceptual art movement in the west. I enjoy graffiti art of the west, which has become mainstream, it is strong and I really enjoy it.  I like the way someone like Banksy is able to exhibit art in an innovative way, using innovative mediums.  This engages people.  It engages those who wouldn't otherwise choose this kind of art.  It also engages and exposes people who wouldn't be interested in experiencing art at all.

One of my favorite paintings of yours is Composition II.  Is there anything you would want to say about it? 

This painting shows how you can expose yourself too much. When you grasp something without any filters it means that you can be new to the world while actually being physically older. The world tells the story of old age, and we, as individuals, we are babies. So although we might think we are as old as the world, we are not, and we might think that the world began with us, but it did not.  We are ultimately a part of this bigger universe. The world is very old and we are so young compared to it, so as newcomers we can't say we are really exposed to the world.

If you were not born a painter, what profession would you choose for yourself?

A painter's apprentice.

Check out Zerihun on the web and on Facebook

Interview by Maria Doubrovskaia

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Artists Novel Idea and Kyana Brindle on Black Female Identity

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Artists Novel Idea and Kyana Brindle on Black Female Identity

naked

The title of this article was originally called " When and where I enter: the digital visuals of Novel Idea and Kyana Brindle of 1NMedia Salon and was scooped from Paula Giddings’ seminal work When And Where I Enter: The Impact of Black Women on Race and Sex in America.  Published in 1984, Giddings shares a historical perspective of how Black women responded to their circumstances - struggling against both racism and sexism from the seventeenth century to the end of the 70’s.   – and finding pockets of success despite the hardship. Conceptually, When and where I enter, is a statement of will.

Novel and Kyana first met in 2003 through a performing artists collective called Smokin' Word.  [Full disclosure: I had met them around this same time.]  They have developed a friendship over the last decade that has now flourished into this collaboration – Naked Layers. Part performance art, part theater this work is reminiscent of artists Coco Fusco or Adrian Piper. Now some folks might find work that’s processing identity reflexive or passé.  Every generation of artists has a plethora of views on this stuff. As a Black chick myself, I appreciate seeing other women grapple. If only to give myself permission to continue to grapple and share; if only to feel less alone. In watching this series, I thought of Michalengo’s David  or Venus de Milo. In fine art, we often see nudes, static staring. Why does the moving image take it to the next level for us? Are we more prude now? Has pornography and reality TV jaded us to individual expressions of nakedness and vulnerability?

I speak to both of them about their process and the process of collaboration.

Describe yourselves as creatives. What is your artistic form? What do you enjoy doing? What are you afraid of doing?

Novel: That's a hard question because I don't like to limit or put myself in a box. Right now I would have to say I'm a filmmaker or media creative. I enjoy creating visuals that tell a story. This could be with digital photography or shooting a film/video. I also play around with identity stuff: logos, websites stuff like that. And I write a bit and this has many ways of manifesting. See? It's hard for me to identify one way that I create. I guess it's easiest to just say I'm creative. (Smile)

What kind of pieces are you writing?

Novel: I'm working on two film scripts, Life as Becky, which is about an adolescent black girl who grew up in a white neighborhood. It's basically her search for identity. And Runner, which is about a black man's journey back to his daughter’s life...sort of.  I have a book I haven't touched in a bit that I would love to finish called BullDaggah.

By not limiting your creative work, is this liberating or frustrating? Do you feel like you could accomplish more if you stuck to one art form?

Novel:  It’s both liberating and frustrating. Maybe I would [accomplish more] but then that's not who I am. Sometimes, for me anyway, what I want to say doesn't always fit in the form that is convenient. So it pushes me to explore other forms. Sometimes it just comes to me in a different form so I have to honor what it wants. As far as accomplishing more, if you mean success, well that's another topic for another time.

Kyana: I identify primarily as a performer and writer. For me that can encompass the many things I do as a writer, actor, singer, and all-around creative person. I love to express and explore creative energy through movement and sound.  I also see myself as a facilitator of the creative process. I love to sing. Singing is my greatest love and also my greatest fear, as it is my most primal form of expression. I would love to sing more and collaborate with other singers and musicians, and have done a little of that here and there, but it still scares me to move fully toward that dream.

What was the inspiration behind 1NMedia Salon?  What has been the greatest challenge? What do you hope to accomplish?

Novel:As far as inspiration for 1NMediaSalon, I would have to say the artist’s process has been the biggest. I have always worked with other artists in collaboration so I think I wanted to create a platform that would be about that. This is why our motto is Get 1N.  It's about the act of collaboration, a signal, you know? Kyana clued me in on the ‘salon’ part some years ago when she assessed that many artists had come through my space to create and incubate and even exhibit. And the ‘media’ part is mainly the form. As far as challenge? The biggest one for me is just getting folks to say 1N and not N1 (smile ). I hope to accomplish good art.

What was the concept behind Naked Layers and why?

Kyana: Naked Layers came out of an idea Novel and I had for some "tasteful nudes" we wanted to put on the 1NMediaSalon website. As we further explored the idea, all of these feelings and worries came up for me around being photographed naked, and I realized that that was where all of the energy was. We decided to create a film project around some of the themes and issues about nudity and nakedness, and it's just evolved from there. I felt like sharing my exploration of all this body stuff could open up a conversation and experience for all of us, and that seemed important to try.

Describe your process of working together?  What really worked?  What did you have to let go of for yourself?

Novel: As far as process with Kyana, well I think it's just about communication. We bounce stuff off each other, try stuff out and if it works it works. If it doesn't we talk about why. Our process is very organic. In the case of our Naked Layers project, it's about getting to truth so we kinda have to get out of the way of ourselves.

Kyana:This is my first time working with film and it's been an interesting process. I am more used to performance, where you have an idea and you get up and do it - you can see an immediate result of that. Film is a very different process, a totally different animal from theater and performance, and it's been challenging for me. The wonderful thing is that Novel and I communicate really well. There is a lot of trust between us and that definitely helps, not only in sharing my ideas but also in actually getting naked for these film pieces. Novel and I talk through our ideas and also share our feelings about what comes up. There is a mutual appreciation for the roles we both play and for how vulnerable we both feel in doing this project. I also really respect Novel's skill and vision as a filmmaker, and we've learned to give and take constructive criticism from each other. I am used to being more in control of the creative projects that I do, and Novel understands when that rears its head while also gently letting me know when I'm being a pain in the ass and need to relinquish my grip a bit. We work really well together.

When I watched Naked Layers I felt is was very direct and honest but thoughtful.  Not like Reality TV "honesty" but not particularly innocent either.  What do you hope viewers receive from the piece?

Novel: First off thank you T for seeing that! I guess with any piece I create I want or hope that it resonates, and that it rings truthful. Particularly with this piece though because its so or I should say it feels a bit dangerous. And yes ,you're right, it's not innocent. We are aiming for truthful reality. Please call us on it though if it starts to feel contrived. (smile.)

Kyana: I really just want folks to have an experience with it. Whatever it is. I feel like my "stuff" around vulnerability and exposure and my relationship to my body are things that people can connect with in some way, and that may lead someone to explore all of that for themselves and have more love and compassion for themselves. I think it would be great if we could all give ourselves a break.

Kyana, earlier you said that singing is scary for you? Why is singing scary for you? What will you do in terms of process to overcome that fear? Will it be that same that you used to take your clothes off on front of the camera. That is pretty primal in and of itself.

Singing is scary because I feel so exposed when I'm doing it. I would like to make an effort to sing more publicly to overcome that fear. And yes, taking my clothes off is pretty much the epitome of exposure! I hadn't thought about it that way. Hopefully this process with Naked Layers will help me to push past my fears about singing.

Novel, when editing, did you know what you were looking for during the edit? Or did you let the piece reveal itself to you.

Novel: I wish I could say I knew what I was looking for.  Each piece has been different and because of what it is it is the boss of me!  So yes it has definitely revealed itself to me.

Naked Layers: "Getting to truth" pertaining to what? Is it Kyana's truth because she's the subject/object? What truth are you getting at as a director? Or are you getting to her truth?

Novel: Right now it is Kyana's truth but because she is gracious enough to share her process we get to share in it. If I'm doing my job right as a director I think it might just provoke us to ask similar questions and peel off our own layers. Each time Kyana and I go into production and shoot one of these things I feel like I want to throw up. Really. It's hard shit. I love it but it ain't easy. I know in my heart because its not easy we must be on the right track. So in answer perhaps  I'm getting to a truth? Hell I don't know. I just have to keep going and see what happens.

Novel, you mentioned earlier that you hope to accomplish good art, define that.

Novel: I did say 'good' art, didn't I? I guess what I mean by that is honest art. I want to be able to say at the end of the day that this came from a real place of inspiration. I would also hope that my art touches someone or provokes some sort of change.  For the better.  But that can't be pre-determined, right? I just have to take a leap of faith with it all.

Interview by Tanisha Christie

Tanisha Christie is a producing filmmaker/performer and creative strategist. A certified spinning instructor and yoga enthusiast, she loves the beach and her white Specialized road bike.  She’s hard at work on her next documentary project and too many other things. www.tanishachristie.com @tanishachristie

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Scooter LaForge's ETs and Witches and Bears. Oh My!

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Scooter LaForge's ETs and Witches and Bears. Oh My!

Scooter LaForge creates wildly imaginative paintings and installation art that marry your most preverse fantasies with your favorite childhood cartoon icons.  It really shouldn't be a surprise then that his clientele ranges from the likes of Nicki Minaj to the Barney's flagship store. Seeing his work (especially life-size) is like stepping into an adult horror amusement park. His work is jarring, fun, and visceral, but his motive is not just to shock and awe, or even to be ironic. No. Scooter's work is born out of punk counterculture, his lived experiences through vicious homophobia, the nostalgia of hopping from city to city, and the fictitious childhood friends of his era's manufactured pop culture. Our resident photographer, Seher, and I met up with Scooter in his Chinatown art studio to snap some candids, rap about his work, and to see how he gets down in his creative space.   

Where did you grow up?

I grew up in New Mexico in the desert.

I hear it’s a really ethereal place, I’ve never been there. But I feel like people from there have a special quality. Do you agree?

Oh yeah. You can feel it from people born and raised there. There's no state like that in the entire country. There are amazing and beautiful landscapes that you'll never see anywhere else.

How did that affect you visually?

It was beautiful. Mexican paintings--Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera paintings were everywhere. In Santa Fe there was lots of Georgia O’Keeffe. My mother had books and posters of them all over the house. I got introduced to those kinds of artists as a young kid because my mom was friends with a lot of painters, performers, and artists. She was a singer/songwriter. There were always art people around. I would always love looking at all the paintings and wanted to do that in my life at a very young age, but my parents were very afraid for me to go into that industry, because it’s a struggle--a dog’s life--but there was nothing I could do to stop it.

They wanted me to get into accounting. I had applied to all of these art and fashions schools, but they shot that down for me and made me go to this state school, The University of Arizona. They forced me to get into accounting, and I was like, 'there’s no way'. I started getting into graphic design, and majored in painting. I used to flunk out of my classes in high school, with D's and F's, but when I got into college taking creative classes, I started getting straight A's.

It’s interesting that your parents were creative people, but shot down your own creative pursuits. How did that make you feel?

I hated it.

Were you resentful?

Oh yeah. I felt really stifled, and really combative inside because I really looked up to them and wanted to impress them, but it was going against every single grain in my body to do what they asked of me. I’m so right brained, I’m dyslexic, I’m not good with numbers--

And they wanted you to go into accounting?

I hate math. It took a while for them to see me succeed at what I’m doing and to accept my lifestyle. I never had to ask them for money so they are very supportive of it now. Both of them are, but it took years and years and years.

Then you landed in the Bay Area, and then NY?

Right after college I went to San Francisco for like eight years, and lived there and worked as an artist, but I worked in a shoe store as well as painting. I had some success there, but I had always wanted to come here to New York, so I just packed everything up in September of 2001, and moved here by October 2001. I came to New York for a job later in life in my 30s. My job was in Soho. The store that I was going to work at closed down because it was below Houston Street*, you could really smell of the burning sensation of the building. It smelled like burnt sugar, or burnt electric fire.

Later I won a fellowship at Cooper Union. That's what really pushed me into a full painting career and when I decided that 'I'm giving up my life', as far as what I was doing before, and going into and devoting 100% to art.

* Scooter moved to NY right after 9/11 and the attack of the Twin Towers that affected the downtown area

What were you doing before dedicating your life to art 100%?

I was in the fashion industry. I was working for Marc Jacobs and then for Jimmy Choo. I was also doing the windows at Barneys and I ended up doing a big in-store installation for them. At Marc Jacobs, I was a sales person. Robert Duffy--he's the business partner at Marc Jacobs, the money behind the brand and backed the Marc Jacobs line before he left for Louis Vuitton. I was randomly painting portraits of my coworkers, and Robert Duffy was like, "oh why don't you do a window?" He wanted me to paint every single person in the company, and do an installation. Eventually I ended up quitting that job, and quitting Jimmy Choo, and doing this full time, and now I have a t-shirt line exclusively for Pat Fields. That's been going really well. It's all punk rock looking.

Where did the punk influence come from?

I've always been influenced by that style. I've always been punk rock in high school and college, and then into being an adult. Vivenne Westwood is probably my biggest influence. It translates into the work that I make, the clothes, the t-shirts. The t-shirts are all hand painted. I don't really consider myself a fashion designer, even though I made these pants [points to his polka dotted hand-made windbreakers] right before you guys got here. I was like, 'I want to make a cute outfit', so I made them in like half an hour.

With my shirts, they are my paintings on t-shirts. After I quit my job at Jimmy Choo, I was like, I need to make money. I started making these. They took a while to take off, but they did and I started getting better at it, then they started selling, and I was able to pull in some income.

You have some frequent customers don't you? Who are they?

Nicki Minaj, Lil Wayne, Iggy Pop, Miley Cyrus when she got all punked out. Remember she was this blond with long hair, and she went to spiky short hair. Right when she got her haircut, she came in and bought a bunch of my stuff.

You have some reoccurring characters in your work. Can you talk about them? It's like pop culture meets erotica meets childhood fairytale characters?

I love the sweetness with the sick. I like the really sweet stuff, and I like to make them really sick. I like to paint bears. My favorite fairytale is Goldilocks and the three bears. I collect everything, every book that has to do with that. It's a totally reoccurring theme, as well as this cat that I often paint. Also ET, I've been painting him a lot.

What's the fascination with ET?

I think it's the pop culture. That's the stuff that I grew up with as a kid that I loved that just made me feel good to have around me. I really do it for me, so they are really self-indulgent. It's really stuff that I myself love, even though everyone loves ET.

How do you negotiate between the child friendly characters and the erotica?

I just think it's all a combination of things that I've experienced in my life, because I've had some very low low points in my life as a child, growing up being kind of an outsider, an outcast, feminine and gay. I used to put my mom's wigs on and put on her high heels. I was always very femme in elementary, middle school, high school and got picked on. I think it's a combinations of those experiences, and just the trials and tribulations that I've gone through. I used to have a bad drug problem. The new ET painting that I'm working on says "Meth Kills", so I try to bring my experience in a fun way to put onto canvass and spread a message. I just mix everything up. I try to be as authentic as I can by mixing everything up with the experience that I've really had in my life, so I don't really pretend to want to paint portraits of rich ladies, you know what I mean?

When did you begin to give yourself permission to do such honest art?

When I was in San Francisco, I used to paint super tiny using really fine paint brushes that only had like five hairs. I also used to paint really hyper-realistic, and then I went to the Cooper Union Fellowship. They made me throw all that stuff away, use big brushes, paint, and really get into it. That's when I started to say, "you know what? I'm going to paint whatever I love and whenever I feel like it, whenever it's on my mind to get it out and put it onto the canvass." Whatever you put on the canvass, there's no limit to what you can do or express. You can get all of your sick thoughts out of your brain and onto the canvass, with some oil and turpentine, and relay a message.

Often, artists are asked about their final products, which are clean, and neatly put together. What's the actual process like for you?

It's messy, it's complicated, it starts with little drawings. I keep a notebook next to my bed, and when I think, oh I want to paint a witch and a bear and a cat together, I'll just write that idea down. I usually write down a story in words of what I want to paint, then I'll do water color, and then it turns into a big oil painting. That's usually how it works. I also use a lot of comics for inspiration. I just think they are really cool. I read comics and I watch cartoons almost every night before bed.

My mom would love you, she’s really into cartoons.

Oh really? That’s awesome. Well, I just really love this old stuff. I just think it’s so beautiful.

You don’t really see animations like the old stuff they used to do anymore.

No you don’t, and I really get into it. I probably will paint it again about three or four times until I get it out of my system. And then I move onto another icon or something.

What do you mean ‘get it out of your system’?

I get obsessed with stuff. Like right now I’m obsessed with witches. Before that I was obsessed with bears. I was obsessed with doing still life’s of flowers. I kind of toned that down, and then I got into ET. A lot of times I go through these things and I paint them 20 times and then I move onto something else.

Going back to earlier about your experience moving to New York, how did you come into your own, art-wise?

It was hard at first. You don’t know anyone. Everything seems so intangible. It was really hard to break into any kind of art field. I would send slides to all of these galleries, I applied to graduate school three years in a row and always got rejected, and I ended up getting really depressed, but just kept painting.

I always kept going and pushing myself. And then slowly but surely things started taking off, I started going to art shows, and then I got into the Cooper Union Fellowship, and I met some people there and got more confidence. It was like the best thing that ever happened to me. I had my life before that, and then I had my life after. So it’s two different chapters.

You said that you just 'kept painting'. It sounds like despite the difficulties that you experienced, you were still very persistent. 

I was totally persistent, and getting my work out, which you have to be more creative doing that than painting. You have to market yourself. That’s where the true creativity comes in.

Talk about that a little bit.

You have to be so different than anyone else. To me that’s actually even more important than the painting if you want to be successful. I’m still the same painter. I’ll put the stuff out on my tumblr, Instagram and Facebook--stuff that I did ten years ago. People look at it now and they’re like, “oh my god, that’s amazing.” And I would have put them out 8 years ago, I would have gotten not one single word. The reason why I’m saying that is because now they’ve seen the accomplishments that I’ve had, but I had to be creative to get my stuff out there in the first place.

How do you motivate to keep going when met with so much rejection in the past?

When people see the desperation in people, that’s kind of a turn off to a lot of people. You just have to be patient and wait for people to come to you. You can’t force anything on anyone. I used to send stuff out like, “let’s do something!” It doesn’t work that way. They have to be aware of you and ask you. There are grants and things that I’ve applied to for six years in a row and never have gotten them. Sometimes it takes ten years to get them. The guy who's gallery I told you I had paintings in, on his website he has a disclaimer that says, “don’t be offended if it takes ten years for me to accept you into my gallery.”

What would you tell other artists just starting out and figuring out how to market their work? 

You have to really figure out from the inside, what you want to say to the public, and figure out a creative way to get noticed.

For me, I had painted this really scandalous painting that this one gallery owner loved, and he put it in his art show. It was a prestigious gallery, and was what put me on the map. He put that in his gallery and it sold, and then he invited me to do another show that summer, and I gave him another painting, and that sold. That snowballed into me showing at another gallery, having a solo show last year, and now I’m going to do something at the Bronx Museum, a bunch of group shows, and a show coming up in England at the end of the year.

Interview by Boyuan Gao

Photos by Seher Sikandar (except for Nicki Minaj, courtesy of Scooter LaForge)

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Ben Rojas--The Warrior's Weapon is a Paint Brush

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Ben Rojas--The Warrior's Weapon is a Paint Brush

I met Ben Rojas sometime around 2008 at a little wellness gym called Embora in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn, where we trained in ninjitsu and combative street fighting. Embora was a default gathering place for boho people-of-color--an alternative fitness joint --where yoga, dance, and other specialized classes were taught. The place naturally attracted artists, creatives, and entrepreneurs from around the way. Ben's vibrant life-sized paintings, incorporating faces of community members, adorned the mustard yellow walls of the space that overlooked us while we trained.

Ben has long employed a multimedia approach to depicting universal themes of warriorhood, resistance, colonialism, through his personal subjectivity of spirituality, ancestry, and Latin American culture. A native of the Bay Area, Ben helped found a street art collective called Trust Your Struggle, which has toured around the country, and throughout parts of Latin America, the U.S. and the Philippines.  An art teacher at New Design High School in the Lower East Side, a new husband and father, and a grad student at NYU's Art Education Masters program at the Steinhart school, Ben has integrated his many creative worlds to effect change in his community. 

Your family is from El Salvador. What made them come to the U.S. and settle down in the Bay Area?

My father’s mother was already in the Bay Area so my father followed in hope to be reunited with his mother who had left him with his father in El Salvador. My mother had an aunt and uncle already here in the States working so they applied to have my mother join them.  I am assuming they both wanted to leave El Salvador to make a better living in the U.S.

The Bay Area seems like a pretty open-minded place for budding artists. How did growing up there help support your creative development?

Artists are everywhere in the Bay Area. Most people you meet are some kind of artist, which is both great and not so great at the same time. I was introduced to that artistic world as a youth writing graffiti and being involved in Hiphop culture. Within that Bay Area culture you quickly meet so many types of artists, MCs, filmmakers, writers, actors, painters, poets, musicians, dancers you name it. So being enveloped in that world so young helped establish a strong love for the arts, not only the arts but also art that meant something, art that fought for something. It was also very DIY. Most of the painters that I learned the most from were not art school graduates, they taught themselves and hung out with other great painters.

Were there people who discouraged you from going in this direction, and to find a more conventional path?

A few, but nothing that held me back from doing the art that I wanted to do. My parents were always supportive of my art. Their biggest concern was how I was going to pay bills as an artist, which any artist could probably relate to.

You are a multimedia artist, but what medium was the one that sparked your passion first?

That’s a tough question to answer. I would have to say illustration; I have always loved to draw. I remember as a child my father stealing tracing paper from his office job to give to me and I would trace all kinds of images from the books we had at home.

How do you think your art communicates who you are?

I believe my art communicates who I am through the stories that are told. I love stories. I was a bookworm from day one and still am. My visual pieces always have stories on top of stories. I am a visual storyteller, a trickster in many ways.

You are an arts educator as well, working mostly with high school aged youth. In a culture where pursuing art is not coveted or encouraged by most people, how do you speak to your students about the value of art in society?

I don’t actually do a lot of talking regarding that subject, the young people already know of the value even if they cannot speak on it. They show me they know by their love for my class, even if they don’t “do well” in an academic sense. They are constantly comparing my class to others and they thirst for the freedom they feel in an art class in other classes. I can on my part show my thrill and love for the art by just being enthusiastic about my work and their art. I also am constantly showing them contemporary artists that are doing fresh work, that isn’t just frozen in a museum or gallery.

My murals are usually created with the surrounding communities, folks on the block. There is a very interactive element with other people. It is also a different experience in that while you work on a mural in a public space you are always being asked questions and being given feedback from the average person walking by.

A lot of your work speaks on topics of colonialism, indigenous history, spirituality, and your ancestors, etc. Can you talk about how these topics became prevailing themes in your work?

In high school I became part of student empowerment group for Black and Brown youth called ST.E.P. which placed college students of color to mentor high school students. Through that group I learned so much of my people’s history, spirituality and most importantly lit that fire that made me want to educate myself the correct way. From that point on I was basically hooked on learning as much as I could on colonialism, indigenous spirituality, and the brutal and beautiful history of Natives, Europeans, and Africans in the Americas.  Ancestors hold a powerful role in my life. I see it as a duty and an honor to place the ancestors in my art as a homage to what they have done to keep us alive.

Being a new parent, how do you pass on to your little one how she can explore her own creativity?

I am currently in NYU’s Art Education Masters program where I am reading and learning a ton on how to cultivate human development through the arts. So I am more aware of what my role should be in letting her explore and learn on her own. Play is also so powerful for children, especially toddlers for development, just letting her play, play with other children, play with different materials, basically touching all the bases for her multiple senses. My wife does a great job at taking her to classes that help with that. Also my wife usually has our daughter in her dance company rehearsals which is great.

Your wife Adia is an Afro-Haitian dance instructor. How does her cultural history— that is so prevalent in her work—intersect with yours in an artistic context, as well as a personal context?

Both of our art forms are clearly understood to be part of lives, not something separate. We are our art, our art is us. We not only share that quality but also a great love for our ancestors, which we work with in our art forms all the time.

What materials do you enjoy creating the most with?

At this moment in my life I am really enjoying working with ink, pencil, charcoal and markers. In regards to my 3D work with altars I love working with a large variety of materials, from animal skulls, knives, machetes, food and textiles.

What’s the difference in experience for you between creating life-size mural pieces in a live environment (like a mural on a wall) compared to a stationary canvas in a contained space?

Huge difference. My murals are usually created with the surrounding communities, folks on the block. There is a very interactive element with other people. It is also a different experience in that while you work on a mural in a public space you are always being asked questions and being given feedback from the average person walking by. A piece on a canvas that ends up in an enclosed space is way more personal, I can meditate and reflect on my process on an individual level.

You love doing portraits. How do you find your subjects?

I used to use other artist’s photography up until a few years ago. Now I take my own photos of friends. For the series that I’ve been working on for the last few years I focus on Brown people of the Americas and the Caribbean.

Practice people skills, learn how to speak to all kinds of people, learn the art of Code Switching. Practice speaking and writing about your art. Most of the time its how you speak about your art that makes people love your art or give you funding.

Your portraits are a bit re-imagined, not literally what you see of the person. They are placed in a different context, like what you see in your warrior series. Do you imagine the character first, or do you first depict the person and then figure out how to adorn them later?

I’ve done both. Sometimes I see the images in my head before and then adorn their bodies. Often I take a portrait of a person then add images onto their person, inspired by their personality or position of their body.

What’s the most difficult part about getting your work out there to the public?

I don’t know. I guess not having an agent or a gallery to endorse you.

What did the name Borish come from?

When I started writing graffiti as a youth my friends and I formed a crew called ISH. My intials are BOR so I just put them together. My other name Mincho is actually a kind of family name, all boys named Benjamin in El Salvador are called Mincho as a nickname. Vega is one of my family last names.

Can you speak a little about Trust Your Struggle and Trust Your Hustle?

Trust Your Struggle (TYS) is an artist collective that was formed in 2004 with myself and two other friends, Robert Trujillo and Scott Hoag. At that time we individually were part of different crews but felt that the three of us together shared a common goal of a visual art based on social justice, so we formed TYS. Trust Your Hustle was the name of two mural tours we did as a group in 2004 and 2006. The tour’s name was changed the other year when part of TYS went to the Philippines. Essentially what the tour was about was creating a network between us and communities we visited and painting as many murals as we could. In 2004 we traveled through Mexico and parts of Central America and in 2006 we crossed the US in a van from New York to San Francisco. You can view videos of our work on Vimeo or Youtube, just search under those names. On a side note our names have been used by others (clothing line named Trust Your Hustle and Urbanoutfitters using Trust Your Struggle) so just to put that out there that that isn’t us. We always thought of the slogan Trust Your Struggle to be of the People, free to use, its a state of mind not really “ours.” We always love seeing people online getting tattooed TYS, it's beautiful.

What projects are you currently working on?

I am still working on the series “Elegy” which are the illustrated portraits on paper. I am working on some new pieces which I hope will be part of a new solo show for September in Philly.

Any words of wisdom to budding young artists who are just finding their passion to pursue art professionally?

Practice people skills, learn how to speak to all kinds of people, learn the art of Code Switching. Practice speaking and writing about your art. Most of the time its how you speak about your art that makes people love your art or give you funding. Pay dues and know your place amongst elders who have been doing art before you were born. Take advantage of any free classes or studio sessions. and last, be humble in your rumble.

Interview by Boyuan Gao

Photos courtesy of Ben's website, Boyuan Gao, and feature photo by Miguel "Bounce" Perez

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Kiky Thomanek's World Through Sketches

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Kiky Thomanek's World Through Sketches

Kiky Thomanek has spent years city-hopping--acquiring cultural references through her senses--and fusing them into her art. When I met her through a friend up at The Pastry Shop on the Upper West Side a few years ago, I was enamored with her quirky, strongly accented Austrian humor--and later, after being introduced to her art--her clever and whimsical screen prints and illustrations. Her dark and silly characters, the rich and bold lines, and the ominous anecdotes, reminded me of early day Basquiat. The wonders of Skype chatting allowed us to surpass a few time zones and continents to talk about her globetrotting days, the many iterations of her art life, and how Francis Bacon changed her world. 

How did you get started as an artist?

I’m a late bloomer so to speak. When I came to anything graphic design related, I was 20 or 21. I had some time abroad behind me. After high school, I went to London for a year. I just wanted to get away from home and see something new. I London I worked in a night club. I came back to Austria and was totally confused and didn’t know what to do. I started business school for half a year, which was a bad call. I don’t even remember why I enrolled, I never went to class.

Sort of by chance, I was talking to a friend who got interested in this graphic design school, and he brought me a brochure. I went to check it out with him and applied.

What about it locked it in for you to be an artist? 

I took one illustration class. Actually, I think I begged the teacher to take me because there was no more space. I’m still very grateful for that decision. He gave us a lot of valuable information, but I think the most important thing was just the way that he was. He just kind of let us be.

There was one project that we did about typography, which was a real turning point for me. We had eight weeks time to complete it, and I did it all in five days and four nights, just drinking Red Bull.

Because you were so into it? I was so into it. That’s how I really found out what I am capable of, and what circumstances have to be like where I can produce something that is good, valuable, and that I really care for.

...it was sort of the first experience of just letting myself go, not fearing if I was going to make anything good, and just to go and do it.

What about that changed the game for you? 

It was sort of the first experience of just letting myself go, not fearing if I was going to make anything good, and just to go and do it. It was a big turning point for me that one project, and from then on, I just felt like I want to be an artist. I still like the work that I created then.

What did you do after you finished school? 

I was living in London with my ex-husband Peter and had a waitressing job at a pub. I tried to be creative and I was drawing a lot. That’s when I started printing t-shirts and fabrics and sewing images on t-shirts. I sold them at a market. That was in 2003.

And you lived in a few cities from that point right?

2004 I was in Berlin for a year--pretty much doing the same thing--but a little more extensively. That was the only kind of income that I had--making t-shirts and little dolls and bags. I sold them at this really nice weekly market in Berlin, and then I came to New York.

What was living in New York like for you?

I already started a silkscreening business in Berlin, so I wanted to continue doing that in New York. Right from the beginning, I started taking classes at SVA [School of Visual Arts]. I did that for all of those 6.5 years in New York. I would take those classes, at least one per semester through continuing ed. That’s what kept my creativity going.

I would walk through campus and see the art building and walk by that print shop that they have, because it’s on the first floor, and you can look in. And there was nobody there ever. Whenever I would walk by, I would never see anybody, and I would think, this is so fucked up!

Did you come to New York for an art career?

Yes, but also--Peter--my husband at the time, was coming for work. Peter was working at Columbia and he told me that since he worked there that they had a deal and relatives could study for free, but the contract that he had didn’t have that privilege. I had no idea what sort of institution Columbia was. I said "okay it sounds good, I’m going to try to do that." But when I went to Columbia with my transcript, they just said no. They also don’t offer continuing education courses, or anything that is sort of available to the general public.

I was living in that neighborhood with Peter, working at a local coffee shop, sometimes I would walk through campus and see the art building and walk by that print shop that they have, because it’s on the first floor, and you can look in. And there was nobody there ever. Whenever I would walk by, I would think, this is so fucked up! That made me really grateful for the openness of SVA.

Did that experience change your perception of art school?

In general, the whole arts school thing is—from the outside—so scary and elitist to me. In Austria, Germany, and France I hear stories about people who apply 3 times, 5 times, up to 10 times. I just don’t understand why it's made so hard for people to go to school. It's easier to get into medical or law school.

How are artists viewed in Austria?

I think that [there are] probably two major distinctions: an artist who's in the spotlight and who [is] seen as interesting and looked up to, and there are artists that are viewed as crazy, or somebody who will never make it, who will always struggle to make money.

Yet in Austria, we have a big and important artistic culture. It is valued a lot. Vienna has the greatest density of cultural places in relation to the inhabitants; whether it's the museums, or theaters, concerts, music venues, there's really a lot of stuff going on. I feel like it's not just a lot of stuff, but stuff with quality, and I don't think people really recognize that in Europe. Everyone is going to Berlin. Everything is supposedly happening there--but I think there's a lot to explore in Vienna--stuff that I haven't even seen yet.

What are some aspects of Vienna's rich history?

Austria had its heyday around the 1900s through 1920s. Famous artists like Gustav Klimt came from that time. There wasn't just visual art--there was important literature, and science--like Freud. All those people were coming together. They weren't secluded in their paintings or specific mediums. People were meeting in the salons and they inspired each other and I think that was a really important time for Austria and art, and I think it still is.

In Vienna, are artists mostly working within their own creative enclaves now as opposed to that era in your own experience? I don't really hang out in artist circles. My circle of friends is so diverse. There are people who do all sorts of things. I think that's how I was a little bit different than my other friends who are mostly hanging out with artists. They do get together and talk about things that are a little bit interdisciplinary. There's definitely collaboration going on.

What’s next for your work?

Just the other day actually, I had a friend who came over and asked me to show my artwork, and I never really get to do that. It's always funny to pull out this stuff and look at it. I realize that although I am always putting myself down or feeling like I'm not doing enough, I have so much stuff that I discovered that have been lying around for years, and I really want to make an exhibition and see what it looks like up on the walls, and have people look at it.

What materials have you been digging into lately?

I haven't printed anything since New York. What I did the last half a year in Vienna has all been on paper, I also applied to The Academy of Fine Arts this year, and I was maybe thinking too practical, and thought ahead about how I have to put this into a portfolio, and not on a canvas, but that's the wrong way to go about it. People go to the application process with huge canvasses and lots of crazy things. Actually paper is good. You feel less intimidated to ruin anything, so you can just throw it away.

Are there times where you ever feel like you don’t know what you’re doing?

It's more like, how do I find the time and space to actually organize stuff, or get myself to be creative? It's not that I feel lost about my art or anything, I feel pretty good about it, and confident actually. I'm just trying to keep it easy. You can only do as much as you can, and step by step. I have this kind of faith that even if it's going to take another 10 years for me to have my first big exhibition or whatever, I'll do it. I'm not worried about that.

I really have this romantic idea of being a painter in my secluded studio with the paints flying around in, working until three in the morning and not caring what’s happening tomorrow

What's your ultimate goal with your work?

The goal is to have a studio, and just be able to work as much as I can in there. I really have this romantic idea of being a painter in my secluded studio with the paints flying around in, working until three in the morning and not caring what's happening tomorrow, and waking up with a picture that I created and being surprised by it.

What inspired that idea?

I took a trip to Dublin two years ago. I never really knew much about the artist Francis Bacon, but I saw this big retrospective at Metropolitan Museum and I was totally smitten. It was probably the one show that I will always remember based on that feeling it gave me when I looked at those canvases. I just wanted to have that feeling again. Maybe half a year later I thought to myself that I needed to see a Francis Bacon exhibition--I didn’t care where--so I just Googled it. He was Irish so there was this exhibition there to celebrate his 100th birthday if he were still to be alive. They transferred the studio that he had in London to Dublin for the show. They had a whole group of architects and archeologists, and they took every single item in his studio and photographed it and mapped everything out, and put it back together just as it was in that gallery. It’s now a permanent exhibit.

That studio almost brought me to tears. He was known for being very messy. Francis Bacon’s cleaning lady would not be allowed in his studio. She would try to keep his living space very clean because he had asthma, so it was important not to have it too dirty or dusty, but his studio—the dust would collect and collect, and he would actually incorporate it into his paint, which would give a really special structure. One day he didn’t have money for canvas, and he just turned around an old canvas, and used that one. He found out that he liked the backside of the canvas much better, so he did that from then on. It was a really emotional experience for me. That’s what art is really about. I’m not religious, but that’s like going to church for me. If I see a good art show, there’s nothing I can compare that feeling with.

Interview by Boyuan Gao

Check out Kiky's website, or reach her at ykik@gmx.at

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Sheryo's Imaginary Creatures

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Sheryo's Imaginary Creatures

My boyfriend met Sheryo at our neighbor's going away party this past summer, where I made a grandma move and went to bed early. They kicked it for a while on our building's rooftop with some folks, drinking beers and sitting stale in the mid-July humidity talking about her street art exploits. "You've got to meet this girl!" he kept telling me. "Her work is ridiculously dope."

Sheryo's work is like your childhood's dream cartoon show. Her characters are blocky, bold, and off kilter. They are playful, and mischievous, and totally saturated with bright colors, and strong lines--like the kind in a really good coloring book. 

When I finally met her, it was at a North Brooklyn bar, where we ate salty tacos in the rain, and talked about each of our travel experiences in Asia. Sheryo, originally from Singapore is a pixie of a woman, and ferocious as hell. She met her Australian boyfriend while he was traveling in South East Asia. They connected over a shared interest in street art.  When he was ready to move onto the next leg of his trip to Cambodia, he asked her on a whim to go with him. Of course she did. That's the kind of person Sheryo is. By the time of our meeting, they had been together for several months, and were living in Williamsburg on work visas. 

Sheryo's art has become a traveling graffiti show, which is now a self sustaining lifestyle, sometimes supplemented by a handsome list of corporate clientele. As I write this, she's in Cambodia commissioned for the branding of a new hotel. Last I heard from her, she had managed to get herself chased down the street by a flock of angry cops for beautifying a wall, and broke her ankle on the get-away route. The self proclaimed "spirit painter" is confined by no limits, and evokes her childhood to draw up the most imaginary characters, and will stop at nothing to actualize her imagination. Here's a little glimpse into her head:

At what age did you start to become fascinated with drawing different types of characters? 

The first thing I ever drew was a squiggly apple. I remember the moment my pencil hit the paper. It was bliss. The characters came shortly after. Characters were always sorta my thing...they were like toys but even better.

You mentioned before to me that your mom doesn't really get it, and she often asks you what is going on in your head. Along those lines, where do the characters come from, and how do they relate to one another?

My mom's really supportive but she says she doesn't know where I got my drawing skills or characters from because no one in my family's an artist, and I have eight aunties haha. I just tell her it was the sunday cartoons, '90s sci-fi movies and the horror books I read. I also had a nanny and her son taught me how to draw bubble letters. I remember watching certain movies so many times, Total Recall, Robocop, The Shining, Back to the Future, Kingpin, Honey I Shrunk the Kids, Beetlejuice, wrestling (WWF). I really do remember my childhood in vivid detail, but recent adventures escape me for some reason, I think these characters all came from my childhood.

Is there a certain world in your mind where they all exist and interact with one another?

Yeah, I party with them all the time.

You mentioned that Singapore is a very Westernized country. What were some of the positives and negatives of that growing up as it related to your art? 

As you can tell by now, most of my art's influenced by American movies and culture. I don't think there is any positive or negative from it, but I do hope Singapore had a stronger culture I could tap from.

You're quite the globetrotter these days. When did you start traveling heavily, and how much of it was made possible through your art?

I started travelling a lot at the end of 2009. There was just so much to see, to do, to learn and to paint! I got addicted to painting walls in new places, meeting rad artists, getting lost--everything was so fresh and fun. Last year I went on a volunteer art teaching project at the Thai/Burma border with the Little Lotus Project. It opened up a lot of things for me. I was really glad to be able to be a part of this project. I think I took more than I gave from the children and families living there. I hope to go back soon and also do more community-based projects wherever I go.

How would you describe the experience of being a woman within graffiti/street art culture, where the majority is dominated by dudes?

It's not too big a deal. It's good. Just do what you do. Put good work out. Get the boys to help move your ladder around because it's too heavy...

If someone took your art supplies away forever, what would you do?

Go batshit crayyyyzeee.

Did having bigger access to the world--through travel--change any fundamental beliefs or ideas that you previously had?

Definitely. In general, you just grow a lot more by meeting people on your travels. Some good, some bad, they mold you and make you awesome. I think material possessions are overrated. Live simple. Have faith. Always give people the benefit of the doubt. Make your life count. Do things that make you happy. You know, all that stuff you get when you google self-help related topics. LOL.

What are things in everyday life that inspire you? You mentioned cartoons that you used to watch growing up and still now, but are there other things like food, music, anything else that helps color your imagination?

Real life people on the streeets are the best.

How many hours a day do you spend "working,"and do you even consider what you do work?

Nah, I just consider it drawing. I want to make good drawings everyday. I share a studio with the Yok (another dope artist) and we inspire each other a lot.

Any last words of wisdom, or insights you'd like to share about yourself? 

I paint food.

To see more of Sheryo's whimsical characters, visit her Tumblr, Instagram, Facebook, and Twitterwhere all of the photos in this article were graciously borrowed from.

Words by Boyuan Gao

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