There's power in the visual expression of words, feelings and ideas that can help uplift, connect, empower, and honor a group of people and their culture. So as we close Black History Month, we speak to a few artists—Yung Yemi, Douglas Hale, Gelila Mesfin and Tim Okamura—who have used their creativity to help communicate and shine light on the beauty, strength, history, and richness of blackness.
You're currently working on a series to explore royalty and Afrofuturism through the lens of black cultural icons. What inspired this concept? My current series is about examining the many different layers of black identity. I find myself constantly reflecting on what it has meant to be black through time (like pre-colonial, colonial, present day, and future), across regions, across religions, across different levels of income, and across political lines. There is so much diversity within the concept of 'blackness.' But at the same time, we are still so often tokenized by society. It's this crazy duality that I feel exists within every black person: you have this amazing history and legacy of cultural richness, and all these different experiences and values, and then you have the homogeneous label of being "black" which in a lot of ways conceals all of that diversity and all of that history, at least to the untrained eye. What I'm doing with this body of work is trying to pull together references to all of these different elements that are part of being black to create these portraits that embody the history and future and the culture all in one. But then on the outside, they're just painted black. It's all those thousands of different pieces, but then at the same time you just see 'black.' That's where I'm coming from with it.
You recently created Black Panther-inspired images of SZA and Kendrick Lamar. Why do you think a film like Black Panther is important for our generation? For me, I damn near cried a couple of times in the theater watching that movie. It was just so powerful to see black people represented in such a strong and heroic way. I don't think I realized how badly that had been missing in my life until I saw it with my own eyes. Beyond just the positive representation of blackness, I think this movie raises some really important issues about the concept of pan-Africanism. That's a loaded topic and it has been for a while now. There are a lot of people within the black community that feel like American black people and African black people don't share a common experience and shouldn't claim each others' cultures as their own. To me, that was the most significant storyline in that movie. From my perspective, the real power comes from all of us being able to share our ancestry and celebrate it. There's mad power in celebrating your history and being able to transfer that knowledge and that cultural capital from generation to generation and because the global black community is so fractured it's harder for us to do that. I truly think that's the wave we need to be on. I do understand the concerns of appropriation and misrepresentation within the black community, but I think we gotta find a way to pull through all that and build together.
How do you use your art to empower and uplift? For me, art has always been a means of communication. It's a starting point for conversations that we need to be having. Art has the ability to connect with people in ways that sometimes words on their own cannot. I love the fact that I can create this work and have people pull out their own meanings from it, and see the beauty in being black in it. That's really what I'm trying to do. To just see these pieces and get a little bit of positive energy and a little bit of self-love from it. On top of that, I've been blessed to be able to make a living off being an artist and that's also put me in a position to be a mentor to a lot of other young creatives here in Toronto, so that's something that means a lot to me and I'm always grateful for.
How does your art contribute to this rise in the reshaping of black identity? As a white man, I would never presume to be reshaping black identity with my art. By the very nature of the color of my skin and my resulting experience, I don't think I'm even capable of understanding what black identity truly is, let alone reshape it. What I try to do is follow black voices, artists, and cultural figures to help shape my awareness and let them inspire my creations. I think we are living in an exciting and complicated time for black culture. I am just happy to participate in the limited capacity that I am able.
How do you use your art to empower and uplift? Art reflects the historical context of its time. Whether conscious or unconscious, I think that my art provides a window into the culture that we are living in today. By using black imagery in my work, I am trying to participate in the promotion of black culture and perhaps help expose it to those who might not otherwise be. I once heard someone say that white people who want to help change the system should silently listen to black voices, and then be ambassadors to their friends and family who perhaps are not participating in the culture of change. I like to think that I am able to do this through my art.
What are some sources of inspiration that have led you to use black imagery within your creations? I am a white, 36-year-old, father of three, and I'm also a foster dad. Two of my children are adopted and are black, and all of my foster children have been black. I use black imagery in my work to honor them. I want my children to see themselves in my work. I want them to know they are beautiful and cherished, to know that being black is something to be celebrated. My nine-year-old daughter recently told me that she knows she inspires my work. So, mission accomplished.
What are a few words you would use to describe your art? African, Afro-chic, colorful, bold, and powerful.
How does your art define black identity? My art defines black identity by taking it back to its roots, back to the motherland. I want to break down the negative stigma that has been associated with Africa through the constant misrepresentation on media outlets. I want to show the Western world how much beauty, culture, and talent exists there. I also want my art to inspire black people that aren't connected or aware of their ancestors to seek out their heritage and embrace it as part of their identity.
How do you use your art to empower and uplift? I mostly use my art to empower black women as they are the main subject matter of most of my work. This is because for centuries they weren't represented to the fullest in the art community; they weren't seen as muses or symbols of beauty. I want to redefine that narrow point of view and celebrate the divine creations that are black women. My art is meant to uplift and celebrate the rich culture, beauty as well as the strength that black women possess.
When people see your art, what message do you hope they take away with them? I want them to soak in all the colors and feel happy. I want black women to see themselves and feel like queens. I also want my art to inspire other young artists to keep creating and to follow their passion.
What are a few words you would use to describe your art? I'm a figurative painter exploring identity. The core of my work to-date has been realism, with a focus on portraiture. Academic painting techniques are the foundation for what I do, but I've enjoyed jumping off from that, experimenting with both paint application and infusing the work with elements of graffiti, stencils, and collage. The subjects I've been most interested in over the last 20 years have been predominantly women of color. I've dedicated my work to painting people who I think have compelling beauty, fascinating stories and, to a large degree, have been underrepresented in the history of traditional portraiture.
How do you use your art to empower and uplift? I make paintings that are intended to celebrate the individual while also pointing to metaphors for the greater human experience. I think portraiture is a powerful storytelling medium, and though I am primarily focused on relaying a particular story, I also think it's crucial to find elements within that story that supersede the specifics and are relatable on a larger scale. This is the key to addressing themes of collective human consciousness, and sparking progressive, thoughtful conversation that elevates our vibration. It's very important to me that there is a positive underlying message in my work, whether I'm giving attention to the narrative of a particular model, or whether I'm essentially casting someone to portray a role in a dramatic piece that is being played out on canvas. It's an editing process not only in the studio, but in the grander scheme of life as we observe it. Focusing on the positive and learning from, but not being ruled by, the negative. There can be so much ugliness in this world, I want to capture beauty in my work, I want to shine a light on those that inspire, on true stories, on moments that have transcended what are sometimes very difficult circumstances in this place we inhabit.
When people see your art, what message do you hope they take away with them?
Well, I hope their take away is inspiration in some form. Whether I'm "illustrating" a self-empowerment meme, or attempting to transmit a sense of reverence for a particular sitter, I hope that the positive intentions with which the work was created reflect back at the viewer. I'm a half-Japanese guy from Canada – I'm not a woman of color, yet I've dedicated myself to painting women of color, hoping to capture as much beauty, wit, grace, and courage as possible. Not everyone may approve as it certainly doesn't line up neatly—I've always been a square peg in a round hole—but that's not something I can control. I make work that I feel absolutely compelled to make. So, I guess the ideal that someone could take away from my art is primarily to find inspiration in the powerful women I attempt to capture, hopefully a connection on a deeper, soulful level, but also to experience some of the determined energy of the artist who resolved to paint his subjects to the best of his ability in an effort to illuminate our connectedness.