Dear Culture

Black Art Matters: JLaw, Gianni Lee and Dawn Okoro

Episode 79

Read the full transcript here. 

From the black top to a blank canvas –– this week on the Dear Culture podcast, co-host and theGrio Social Media Director Shana Pinnock talks to Black visual artists who are creating beautiful new paths to prosperity.

For visual artists Jordan Lawson (aka JLaw), Gianni Lee and Dawn Okoro, the journey to becoming full-time artists has meant dedicating their lives to carving out a space for themselves in places where few who look like them or share their background have been granted access. A 2019 study examining diversity in 18 major U.S. museums found that African Americans make up just 1.2 percent of artists represented in collections.

Lee said one barrier to entry in mainstream art spaces is a tradition of gatekeepers and curators largely relying on academic institutions to discover new artists. 

“Sociopolitical, economic, geographical — there are a lot of reasons that keep Black bodies out of the space of being able to obtain an MFA (Master of Fine Arts) and for a lot of artists, that is the entry way into the art world,” said Lee. “I think that in order for us to close the gap we need to understand that creativity and talent comes from more than one way, and the scholastic approach isn’t the only way to find new talent in the art space. We have to close that gap by giving other people opportunities.” 

While there is still much work to be done in diversifying mainstream art spaces, Lawson said today’s artists don’t have to wait for recognition from the establishment to create and put their work out in the world. 

“I think honestly the world that we live in now you can create your own lane with what you want people to see with your artwork on social media. I always say that’s one of the main ways you can enter the art world, if you’re doing it without a degree or you don’t have mentorship, because you just have access to so many people for free,” said Lawson, adding that consistency in creating work and growing in one’s craft and skill is key to building a following outside of the institution. 

All three artists agreed that the pathway to becoming an artist is just as varied and diverse as art itself and Okoro said she had to overcome misconceptions about what being an artist meant in order to find her own way. 

“Being a quote, unquote ‘full-time artist’ with no other job is not the end all be all. There really is no one size fits all. It’s just different for everybody and you really just have to do what works for you,” said Okoro, chronicling her experiences with having a day job while also pursuing art. “It’s just accepting that your situation may not be the same as someone else’s.” 

Tune into the full conversation to hear the artists share their experiences in navigating white art spaces and overcoming stereotypes about Black artists. 

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