A Q&A with the artist, sculptor, painter and textile-maker whose art is the story of self and empowerment inspired by her Black ancestry.
Malene Barnett says that every space needs her art. “I want people to be drawn to the work, to ask questions, and to question not only themselves, but to be curious about the Black experience.”
Diving into the creative world of this painter, sculptor, ceramicist, textile-maker and self empowerment artist takes you on the plight of a woman decoding her own legacy. Whether it’s the brushing of paint or the shaping of clay, the Brooklyn-based creator is translating her history through craft while addressing themes of social justice as an act of resilience.
Barnett’s journey began young. She was a gifted fine artist and steadily developed her passion for textile surface design. While she was studying fashion illustration at the Fashion Institute of Technology, she fell in love with this medium, which led her to carpet design where she was able to draw, paint and then make a product. Her instincts would then take her to pursue commercial work where she was employed as a textile manufacturer, doing both design and marketing, that also allowed her to learn the skills of business.
“I was always interested in the process of creating something and then seeing how that was distributed,” Barnett shares. After gaining experience at a rug manufacturing business, Barnett launched her own eponymous rug-making company, named Malene B, in 2009.
It wasn’t always an easy path for this self empowerment artist, but Barnett successfully built a brand that would include designing bespoke carpets, custom wallpaper and tiles for hotel chains, like Moxy and Omni, and reputable corporations like Viacom and Saks Fifth Avenue.
She has made education a focal point of her brand, too, speaking at international events addressing racial and economic equity in the design realm as well as founding the Black Artists + Designers Guild to combat what she felt was the industry’s lack of representation of Black talent.
Barnett’s portfolio of work is impressive, but it is in her ability to build products that fit virtually anywhere that makes this artist one to watch. Her bold textiles include carpet patterns that look like aerial photographs of a saffron-colored river bed or a splashy montage of muted ink spots that add something unexpected to a clean-lined and simple interior.
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Last year, ICONIC LIFE interviewed German designer Jürgen Dahlmann regarding his hand-knotted rugs, which he says serve as a powerful indicator for guests to know, “where we rest and where we walk.” For those traversing spaces featuring Barnett’s rugs, there is an indication of a culture that may be different than our own but is well worth exploring. “This is a way to engage in conversation, whether they are comfortable or not. My work is just a tool to bring those conversations to the forefront,” says the artist regarding a narrative on self empowerment.
Her hand-built sculptures reference the same techniques used in the Yorubaland region of south-western Nigeria, and her intuitive approach to pattern-making guides the viewer to peer past the beauty of the object and far deeper into the symbology of where these designs originated.
Born in the Bronx as a first-generation American, much of her work is informed by her Jamaican and St. Vincent roots where her parents are from. For example, the Gele-headwrap serves as a signifier in her most recent sculpture series. Traditionally worn for special occasions and always with purpose, “these designs hold the legacy of the people,” Barnett shares. Her hand-built sculptures reference the same techniques used in the Yorubaland region of south-western Nigeria, and her intuitive approach to pattern-making guides the viewer to peer past the beauty of the object and far deeper into the symbology of where these designs originated.
And they all come from somewhere. She addresses the importance of decolonizing design as well as the cultural appropriation that happens in the industry. Oftentimes, this means looking beyond the Euro-centric perspective and into the influence Africa has had on design, architecture and fashion. Barnett says that she always asks herself, “where are the Black voices in these conversations?” This work as a self empowerment artist and an activist, is something Barnett so beautifully bridges into one, diving into the complicated and rich theme of legacy through her artwork that is meant for the home, the hotel and the world.
Read on for ICONIC LIFE’s conversation with Barnett about this journey towards sculpting her modern story steeped in the Afro-Caribbean legacy.
ICONIC LIFE: In the context of your craft, can you tell us how legacy is woven into your artistic process and self empowerment artist?
MALENE BARNETT: The way we experienced my parents cultures growing up was through the food, music and the way my mother would decorate. I lived in a brightly-colored space that reminded me of the Caribbean. As an adult, I see how that experience has influenced the way I am now. I have an even more intimate relationship with Jamaica and St. Vincent while finding connection to my roots in West Africa. My work is an experience of connecting these dots to figure out where I come from and how can I share these cultures and lifestyles through art.
I really connect to hand-made processes, so I started to study textiles from Ghana, Nigeria, Mali and Senegal, always looking at the hand-made, whether it’s something woven or a surface design pattern or a dying technique.
ICONIC LIFE: What is your approach to pattern-design and hand-building?
MALENE BARNETT: I really connect to hand-made processes, so I started to study textiles from Ghana, Nigeria, Mali and Senegal, always looking at the hand-made, whether it’s something woven or a surface design pattern or a dying technique. Once I understand process, I start to understand the symbolism to the patterns, understanding that each pattern is reflecting a different aspect of the lifestyle.
When we think about pattern design, if were tapping into African traditions, pattern is intuitive. It’s not about creating a preset outline or sketch, like how we’re trained in the European system. I purposefully wanted to disconnect to that when working with clay.
ICONIC LIFE: Wallcoverings and luxury carpets are lovely, but you are able to deepen the narrative and create art that invokes dialogue. Has this always been important to you?
MALENE BARNETT: When I was in school, all of my work reflected this idea of Black identity, but I wasn’t able to articulate it as much because how school is set up. I did research on my own, I went to Ghana on my own. I found a program because I wanted to do a study abroad and I didn’t want to go to Europe. I knew that by going to a Black continent, that would help advance my work.
In the contemporary art world and relating to the design industry, there is no room for a Black lens or a Black aesthetic when it comes to creativity.
I am saying no, we want to create and own our own narratives and be able to present our own work the way that we see it needs to be represented. I am saying to the industry that it’s time you respect it, acknowledge it, and for people to give credit to the traditions that inspired their work.
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I began weaving the clay like strips of fabric. When I started the process, I thought they all needed to be perfect and lined up and then I realized that our lives are not perfect, and the journey of a black female is so sporadic. So, I allowed the clay to tell me what to do.
ICONIC LIFE: Your most recent ceramics project titled Redemption, explores the perspective of a Black female. What led you to choose this medium to tell this particular story?
MALENE BARNETT: I wanted to tap into my photography—documenting subjects and exploring concepts. I had one friend pose for me and we wrapped her hair in indigo fabric I had brought from Senegal. I have always been interested in the way fabric folds and its different twists and turns. This head wrap adds such beauty and signifies a regal-ness. Culturally it holds a lot of significance as it is worn for different occasions and holds different meanings throughout the continent.
I knew I was going to create vessels, but I didn’t want to just hand-build, I wanted to add something else to it. So, I began weaving the clay like strips of fabric.
When I started the process, I thought they all needed to be perfect and lined up and then I realized that our lives are not perfect, and the journey of a black female is so sporadic. So, I allowed the clay to tell me what to do. I believe we are all carving our own path and through this process, I ask what that path looks like for me.
Favorite place to visit for creative inspiration? Jamaica, India or Ghana.
Favorite place to unwind? My living room.
Favorite meal? Curry tofu, rice and peas with plantain.
Favorite contemporary sculptor? I love so many! Donte K Hayes, Chuma Maweni.
Favorite musician to listen to while making art? Old school dance hall reggae, Soca or Youssou N’Dour.
Favorite podcast? Code Switch.
Favorite museum? National Museum of African American History and Culture.
Your personal style in 3 words? Global. Colorful. Bold.
Your artistic goal for 2020? To continue to be in process with my art.
What do you consider to be ICONIC? I consider a signature look, or a group of actions around a set of principles to be iconic.