5 Black Artists Discuss Breaking Down Barriers

As Black History Month wraps up, we chatted with five POC professionals on the barriers they face as creatives—and how they overcome them.

In Canada and the United States, February 1st marks the start of Black History Month, an annual celebration of African American history, and a push for more recognition of current social inequalities.

We asked 5 black artists to speak about their experiences as a person of color within the creative community. What the biggest barriers for black artists in 2016? What steps are necessary to break those barriers down?

Here’s what photographers Dante Marshall, Zanele Muholi Kelvin Konadu and illustrators Debra Cartwright and Gail Anderson had to say:

Debra Cartwright

Dante Marshall

Gail Anderson

Zanele Muholi

Kelvin Konadu

Debra Cartwright

Debra Cartwright

Debra Cartwright, Illustrator

The biggest barriers to being a black artist in 2016 are only applicable if an artist is focused on breaking mainstream barriers. I’m more interested in telling my story and my experience, so the mainstream is applicable to that—but only as a force to push against. I’m not interested in breaking into those spaces anymore because the spaces for women of color these days are so rich and fulfilling. I create work of and for the people I’m interested in sharing it with—everyone else is welcome to watch. I feel like it’s a parallel for mainstream, really. The stories told are of white men and we’re expected to relate. So I flip that with my work. It’s made for black women by a black woman, and if you can’t relate, oh well, you’re still welcome to watch.

The depiction of black women has usually been powerful, angry, sexualized. I want to flip that to being vulnerable, soft, feminine. I want to change the conversation around us.

Dante Marshall

Dante Marshall

Dante Marshall, Photographer

One of the biggest challenges of being a black creative professional is how often I feel alone. Walking into meetings and being the only Black American is something that I expect, but tough to digest. From visits to the Facebook HQ to local L.A. Agency meetings, I’m typically the only Black American in the room.

It’s important to remain confident, never get discouraged, and never stop building your brand. Remind yourself you are here to be great. You should always be looking for way to ways to expand your network and fine tune your craft. Always invest in yourself by taking time to stay organized, update your promo material and keeping in contact with those in your network. Utilize your resources and when you meet new people and make sure you follow up with them. Things like that may seem small, but they make a big difference.

My work is a glimpse into my lifestyle. Naturally what I do each day reflects in my work. I am working with a multicultural brand called MyBrownBox. MBB focuses on inspiring women of color to manifest greatness. I’d say the work we’ve been collaborating on slowly chips away at the barriers that black creative professionals face.

Gail Anderson

Gail Anderson

Gail Anderson, Illustrator/Designer

I haven’t experienced many barriers over the course of a 30+ year career. That said, I get calls for a lot of “black projects”, which always makes me smile a little. I wonder if I’m the best person for the gig, or if clients are hiring from a smaller pool in an effort to “keep it in the family.” I don’t know what the answer is, but over time I’ve grown more supportive of the idea that “keeping in the family” is not necessarily a bad thing.

I celebrate my heritage through the Citizens’ Stamp Advisory Committee for the USPS. During my tenure with this group, I’ve seen great effort put into recognizing significant historical figures in American black culture. I support this wholeheartedly. I also find myself zeroing in on students of color at SVA, where I teach, as well as at other colleges where I lecture. I try to offer my guidance as they begin their careers, and as a result, have a nice group of young black designers I keep up with. Mentoring students is the best way to get more black designers out into agencies and studios, and it gives our community a stronger voice.


Zanele Muholi, Photographer

The biggest barriers for many African Visual Activists/Artists is a longing to be heard, recognized, respected, and have our work seen in a critical manner. The reality is that there is a lack of resources to produce projects that speak to LGBTI politics in Africa where homosexuality/transgenderism is still criminalized. Not receiving national art funds will lead to lack of creative content that is meant to educate our societies about us or issues that affect us the most.

To celebrate my background and history I have embarked on a new project titled Somnyama Ngonyama which focuses on both self-representation and confronting the burning issue of ongoing racism.

Kelvin Konadu

Kelvin Konadu

Kelvin Konadu, Photographer

This is precisely the question I asked myself recently. For now, I have not yet come across these barriers, and I hope I’m not going to meet them. But I have some ideas on that. I just recently registered to an art school and in the whole school there are maybe 15 black students. Before the new Star Wars movie came out, I saw criticisms on the Internet of the young actor John Boyega because he’s black. It really makes me laugh because Star Wars is a movie where there’s really everything—the universe is vast and full of super strange creatures—and the last thing I would have thought a Star Wars fan would do is complain about having a black actor in the lead.

That’s the problem in our society: people are scared of differences, scared to change things. We must get in our minds that differences enrich our consciences, and diversity advanced many things in history. We are now in 2016 and I personally think a lot of things have changed in terms of culture, religion, sexuality, art, and many others—although there are still things to improve.

I actually never celebrate Black History Month. I’m European and only indirectly concerned about all that, even if it’s for a good cause. I don’t need to celebrate “Black History Month” to know who I am.

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