Jamaal barber | the art of (difficult) conversation
Written by Miranda K. Metcalf | Published 17 june 2019
Jamaal Barber is one of those rare birds who is making great art and is also a gifted advocate for his practice. He is one of the most skilled arts communicators I have ever had the pleasure of meeting, and it is to the benefit of not only his own work, but also the arts community of Atlanta, GA and all us printmakers. As I move through the art world, the concept of self promotion and career growth is a common topic. Generally speaking, artists seem to fall into one of three camps. First, artists who have no interest in engaging with the hustle. Either because of intimidation, apathy, anti-capitalist beliefs, or some combination of all three, they have stepped away from that aspect of the art world entirely. Some happily so, others not so much, but either way they are not putting energy towards self promotion. The second, are those deeply engaged in the chase. They’re reading books, they’re picking brains, networking, and generally white-knuckling it into the limelight. Finally, the third are those who have managed to skip the hustle entirely by falling up. Going from maker without a sense of working the system, to being in a position where they have people who work the system for them -- either their gallery or their manager. None of this is to belittle the work put in by any of these artists when it comes to their studio practice, but my years as a director at a commercial gallery certainly confirmed the often intuited fact that skill and grit in the studio does not guarantee one accolades in the public art world.
One of the things that made me so keen to chat with Barber is that he doesn’t seem to fit into any of these three camps. He manages to mix ease with tenacity and a smarter-than-smart understanding of what it takes to become a full time practicing artist. The way he communicates not only about his own work, but about the art world in general, is something that could benefit all of us who are hoping to have our art seen. Not to mention — dream of dreams — have someone pay us to do it.
I was a little intimidated at the thought of interviewing Barber for the pine|copper|lime podcast because I am an avid fan of his own artist-interview based podcast, StudioNoize. Barber and his co-host Jasmine Nicole Williams are based in Atlanta, GA, and while most of their conversations center around regional artists and art events, they have invited artists from all over the country to talk about their practice. They are generous, funny, and engaging hosts who are not afraid to respectfully, yet unapologetically, ask their guests to unpack any aspect of their practice. In short, they are what I hoped to be as a host on my own podcast. They also make me excited about the art scene in Atlanta. You can hear their personal enthusiasm about what’s happening in their city, and they often start an episode by discussing what exhibitions or openings they have attended in the previous week. I am always inspired by this, particularly when I think about my own often lackadaisical exhibition attendance of art events in Sydney, Australia. Especially given that I’m in a city roughly nine times larger than Atlanta and therefore likely even more opportunities to engage with the arts exist. Yet, Barber and Williams get out there among the people and the artwork and show their support for artists fighting the good fight to be seen far more often than I do. This, combined with the fact that Barber is a curator, a full-time practicing artist, a graduate student, a husband, a father and is still seeing more exhibitions a week than me, shows me I have no excuse.
Barber laughs when I open our interview by pointing out his long list of titles, saying that it does all sound a bit much if you put it all in a row. “It’s the curse of ambition,” he says, but he is also quick to point out that he is first and foremost a printmaker. He prints at The Atlanta Printmakers Studio, and says it’s his favorite place in the whole world -- the sounds, the feeling, and of course the community. He came to printmaking by chance, coming upon a screenprinting demo in an art supply store. At the time his practice was mostly watercolor, but that day he left the shop with a can of emulsion. He set up his own screen printing studio in his closet with his daughter’s Elmo chair and 300 watt lightbulb. Under those conditions it would take him 22 minutes to shoot a screen, but that didn’t stop him from changing his entire art practice and rewiring his brain from the fluid transparency of watercolor to the graphic layering of screenprint. After discovering the set up at Atlanta Printmakers Studio and reducing his exposure time down to a tenth of what it had been, Barber’s practice expanded so that now most of his work is woodcut with screenprint embellishments.
Currently, Barbers makes a full time living from his artwork, but growing up the idea that someone could make a living off of art wasn’t a reality. “I grew up in Littleton, North Carolina,” he says, “and if you’ve ever been to Littleton you’ll know… actually, I’m going to take that back. Nobody has ever been to Littleton.” (A quick Google search reveals that the population of Littleton is 609 and that the local theater company is putting on a production of Sex Please We’re Sixty as their matinee show.) He moved there when he was in elementary school and immediately wanted to leave. Drawing became a way to do just that. He describes summer afternoons when he was bored in the small town and it was too hot to ride his bike anymore. This was when drawing was a way to pass the time and be somewhere else. In towns like Littleton, survival is the priority, you have to have a car, so you have to work, so you find it at the hospital or the gas station. “People [in Littleton] want more, but it’s not there. So you have to go somewhere else for that, but most people don’t want to. They want to stay by their family,” says Barber, “I needed art because I had more to say than I was allowed to, or maybe a better way to say that would be than I had the opportunity to.”
Barber went to college fully intending to be a business major, but he took one drawing class, and in the tradition of artists everywhere, had to make the call back home to tell Mom he was going to change his major. He says she took it pretty well because, in the tradition of moms everywhere, she already knew what was going to happen.
After graduating, Barber worked a graphic design job for seven years, and it was when he was laid off from this position that he had his watershed moment. He knew it was either now or never for his art practice. He had been making art on the weekends, showing when he could, doing arts walks, but none of it had brought the kind of success Barber was looking for. He knew he didn’t want to go back to working for someone else, making pennies on their dollar and putting his art second. So he took his severance pay and asked himself:
“If this is going to go down in flames, what kind of art do I want to be doing? If I’m going to make art for the next year, and no one is going to buy it what will make me happy? When I close my eyes, whatever I see is what I’m going to make, and what I saw was my people: being human being free, fighting against the system, but still being themselves.”
To this day, the exploration of all aspects of black life in America is the driving force behind Barber’s practice, but betting the whole farm on making black art is a risk. Barber knew that race is a barrier and that the level to which he would need to execute his art was higher than he thought he might be capable of doing. The topic is hard, so the work must be better. Barber threw himself into his artwork whole-heartedly and has never looked back. His current solo practice is filled with beautiful black figures, bold colors and patterns, and affirmations such as “stay free”, “strength through unity”, and “we survived slavery.” A screenprint accordion book from his solo exhibition a few years back Bright Black begins, “Until you understand color in America nothing you see will make sense.” The pages that follow borrow phrases from color theory and recontextualize them as social commentary by pairing them with images such as Tommie Smith and John Carlos raising black-gloved fists in the air during a 1968 Olympic podium ceremony while the U.S. National Anthem played. Work like this occupies a hard to get to space where theory, emotion, and beauty meet. Barber’s prints are direct and intuitive, while at the same time imbued with the nuances that come only from an artist who has put in the emotional and physical labor and time in a studio over the years.
This return to the studio, return to the art, and return to the practice is at the heart of Barber’s philosophy of making and of success. “Successful people keep doing. Even when it’s not fun. Even when it’s not comfortable. Even when they have no money,” he says. He knows how hard it is to be an artist, and he thinks about the craft of finding one’s audience, and making one’s name in practical and empathic ways and wants to help people do this. Barber loves artists and he feels a connection to them. He wants to have conversations about how to succeed, and offer them the support he didn’t have when he was trying to find his way forward. Barber’s philosophy is that if you go to an art fair and you don’t sell anything, your conclusion should always be that you just need to make better art. It is those people who will succeed in the end. Not the ones who say, it was the weather, it was the shirt they wore, or it was the fact the they were put next to a really popular artist who does work totally different from their own practice. It’s the ones who lean into their artwork — not those who make excuses — who will end up where they want to be.
His current exhibition 400: A Collective Flight of Memory, on display in the Aviation Community Culture Center in Atlanta through July 15th, is the product of “conversation and collaboration with black artists of the diaspora” exploring the shared experience of blackness in American in the 400 years since the first slave ships arrived off the coast of Virginia. Yet, Barber is quick to point out that the arrival of that ship was not the beginning of their story, nor is 2019 the end, but rather this exhibition was an invitation to acknowledge what has happened in the last 400 years — the atrocities and the accomplishments. “My idea of blackness comes from everyone else’s experience of blackness, so I’m not going to tell it on my own,” Barber says of the exhibition. He collaborated with all 22 artists in the project, often utilizing the unique qualities of printmaking to do so.
Some of the pieces in 400 are from an ongoing collaboration Barber titled The Black Baby Project. For this, Barber gives a linocut of a swaddled black newborn baby to an artist, and asks them to alter the print in some way such as to give a message to the child. He purposely picked both black and nonblack artists to participate. Some of the nonblack artists felt a little ill at ease marking the body of a black child, but Barber is here for those hard conversations. He wants them to be had, and he uses his art practice to do so. He told the artists, “I know what this means for you, as a white person, to paint on this black child, but this child belongs to this community.” He sees the linocuts of babies he puts in the care of artists around the world as stand-ins for all children and his own children. He doesn’t want children to be raised in a bubble, but rather it is his hope that the children are in a community in which every member takes up the role of nurturing and offering support and love. By asking nonblack artists to participate, he is putting them in a position where they are responsible for a black child, symbolically or not, and getting them to feel the weight of that responsibility, and respond in a meaningful way. 400 is an exhibition I am disappointed to not be able to see in person. It looks incredible from the photographs, and Barber is rightfully pleased with the execution and reception. “I’m looking at it and I’m so proud. I don’t know if I’ll ever make anything that good again in my life, but I’m going to try,” he says.
Barber is not afraid of the difficult conversations, whether they are about building one’s career as an artist or about the racial politics of America. He uses his art and his empathy to navigate them and help bring them into the spotlight. Whether that is through exhibitions like 400, his podcast, or in personal dialog Barber does it all with that grace that comes from the balance of ease and tenacity he has in his personal practice. A great reminder to all of us that while success comes to us through many different ways, none of it is won without a good deal of fearlessness.