Meet the Curators Behind Black Art Matters 2019: Mario Hounkanrin & Francena Ottley
Brought to you by our partner at Talenthouse.
This year for Black History Month, Ello’s Black Art Matters stream is refreshed with a new perspective for 2019 with curation from artists Mario Hounkanrin (@mariosupa) and Francena Ottley (@lebleuart). Eager to learn more about artists’ contrasting and varying representation of people of color, we recently chatted with the curators to dive into their work and what we can expect from this month’s curation and celebration of contemporary Black Art.
Discover more with Black Art Matters here.
Interviewer Mayah Taylor (@mayah) is Ello’s Community Creative Manager. She loves tacos, fashion, Doctor Who, and wears too much black.
Can you tell us a bit about yourself? How did you begin making art and how/when did you discover your unique voice?
M: My name is Mario.
I was born in Benin, grew up in France and I’m living in Amsterdam since 5 years.
I always drew, it’s something I just like to do. When I was a kid, I wanted to become an animator because cartoons were the only things I would ever watch on tv. I didn’t understand why people would watch live-action.
Classic scenario: my parents wanted me to have a “decent job”, so I didn’t study art as I would have loved to. Instead, I studied science and ended up enjoying computer work. But after a while, I left these studies to learn graphic design, started my career as a designer and became a motion designer as well.
When doing illustrations for clients, I realized they never wanted to have black people in their animations and it started to annoy me. To release my frustration, I began to make illustrations featuring black people. Slowly, I began to make drawings on paper and later on paintings as well.
F: My name is Francena, I’m a Dominican-American, New York-based Photographer and Installation Artist. My work focuses on empowering women of color and using my art as a tool for visual activism. I’ve always in a way been an artist, always enjoyed creating something whether it be through dance, graphic design, or photography. It wasn’t until my Freshman year in college at the School of Visual Arts that I really discovered my purpose. I️ did my first installation for my series Our Perceived Limitations that focused on 13 women from different ages and backgrounds in styled African head wraps and told their stories of what it’s like to grow up in American society as a woman of color. It was from that series that I found a love for mixed media, installation, and activism.
Tell me more about your most recent project. What inspired you during the process of creating? If you could exhibit it anywhere, where would you take it and why?
M: As my art is a continuously evolving entity, I wouldn’t be able to pin-point a certain recent project. My main inspiration is the black body and the fact that there’s not much black figures in art. In western art history, you can encounter a few black figures who would be slaves or savages… I would love to contribute to the change. So my most recent project is a project for life: to bring art featuring black figures. If I could exhibit it, it would be anywhere for people to see.
F: My most recent installation is called Mayoridad (Coming of Age). Inspired by my own childhood experiences, it highlights a fantasy teenage bedroom that puts the experience of growing up as a young women of color on display. It confronts the issues in society around women of color feeling pressured to conform to what society views as beautiful. It also confronts the taboos of womanhood and the lack of connection and understanding young women have to their bodies.
If I could display this anywhere, it would probably be at a high school or somewhere that young women have access to. I set up this installation in a way to be educational, empowering, and provide a safe space that I wish I had as a kid.
How would you describe your identity through your art? What does identity mean to you?
M: Identity… It’s a deeply complicated concept…
I think every one of my pieces is a part of me, of my feelings and of my interests.
I’m not an “aggressive” person in the sense that I don’t try to provoke. My work is not loud and screaming, I try to make my point esthetically.
I feel identity is not something you own, it’s defined by what you project to the world. I think it’s how other people perceive you, not how you perceive yourself.
F: Identity to me is your inner-self, your ideas, your passion, and your drive. My identity is attached to my work in the sense that its very hands on. You get to see my craftiness, my direction, and also my experiences and my ability to connect with my subjects and viewers.
Black culture influences everything. Where do you see black contemporary art going in the future? Who are some notable artists on your radar currently?
M: I see black contemporary art becoming just art in the future. I see a future where art is just art, whoever created a piece. I also see a future where people are just treated as people, whatever the color of their skin. I know it’s a lot, but I want to believe that.
Artists I’m checking often lately are Patrick Dougher, Zanele Muholi, Ndidi Emefiele, Ronald Jackson
F: Black contemporary art is art in every essence. I see art becoming more personal to one’s experience and also becoming more inclusive. Artists that are on my radar currently is Ronan McKenzie, Tyler Mitchell, and Renelle Ice, all rising photographers in the industry.
Both of your styles are wildly different, making for such a broad and complex point of view for this month’s curation. How do you capture the black experience through your art?
M: I don’t think about capturing the black experience, I’m more willing to show that a black person is, above all, a beautiful person with feelings, dreams, beliefs that may be different but still valid. I want to bring all people to the same level, starting with black people (because I’m black obviously).
F: As someone that creates art about the experience of being a person of color more often a woman of color, I try to always remain authentic. Authentic in the sense that I’m not trying to dramatize one’s experience or bring shame but to provide a platform for the audience to be able to connect with my subjects and my immersive environments. Also, its equally important for myself to connect to my subjects because it creates a sense of comfortability as well as strength that relays over to the viewers.
Who and/or what do you aim to highlight with your curation this month for Black Art Matters on Ello?
M: I’m an African living in Europe. I guess I have a different black experience compared to an African American. Therefore, I would like to highlight as much as possible artists from Africa and the diaspora. Of course, I love plenty of African American artists and I will definitely feature them but my primary focus will be Africa.
I’m obsessed with figurative art, but I will also bring musicians, performers etc…
F: I want to focus on up and coming artists of color as well as those that have paved the roads for us new ones. It’s important for other artists to know the history and to see the work that is out in the world because that alone can bring a sense of empowerment and understanding.
Who are some of your favorite black, cultural icons and artists and why do they inspire you?
M: Thomas Sankara, for his humility, his will power and his words.
Kerry James Marshall, for everything he does. He is definitely someone I look up to. For me, he is leading the way for black artists.
Amy Sherald, for being so cool and talented at the same time.
F: My biggest inspiration has been Zanele Muholi. Ever since I saw her show Somnyama Ngonyama, “Hail, the Dark Lioness” and Brave Beauties, it was really life-changing for me. My entire perspective as not only a Photographer but as an Installation Artist completely shifted. Her work confronts the politics of race and pigment as well as the discrimination against queer women in South Africa. I became really inspired by her visual activism and the way she uses photos to make a difference in the lives of people in Africa.
If you could be described by a single quote (extra points if it’s from a film), what would it be and what does it say about you?
M: "There’s no way to peace, peace is the way." (Thich Nhat Hanh)
I believe that each day is a day to change the world. There is no final goal because the final goal is the end, it’s death. Every moment, you have to make a choice. Either you make peace, either you make war. Either you love, either you hate. I want to make peace, I want to love. I wish everybody would be the same.
F: “The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any.” by Alice Walker is something that I️ always go back to. It’s what keeps me motivated and helps me understand why the work I make is needed because I’m giving a voice and platform to those that are unheard and unnoticed.
It’s 2019 and we’re all ready for a change. What do you aspire to achieve this year with your art? Where do you want your art to go?
M: Everyday, I want to do the best I can to get better in my practice, for me, for my family, for the world. I never have something, in particular, I want to achieve in a year, I aspire to have a meaningful life as much as possible.
To answer this question, I can only say: I want to get better, every day, always.
F: This year I plan to work more internationally, inspire and connect with more people and hopefully bring about change through my art.