In the literal sense, making a collage is surgical. Beyond the obvious parallels of cutting out people – their images, in this case – Kenyan collage artist Wangechi Mutu postulated that the medium and medical practice are solutions to problems. In a 2015 interview, Mutu explained that the act of cutting pictures for collage is her way of “destroying a certain set of hierarchies that I don’t believe in,” she said. “The process of combining the man-printed version of the world and the magazine-printed version of it is my translation of that. It’s my way of putting my mark on it.”
For black women, the representation often includes an asterisk. Like when Solange’s braids were edited from a 2017 magazine cover. Or when a beauty brand’s foundation products still fail to recognize deeper hues. The prevalence of stories like these makes artists focused on black women in their radical and vital work. As Mutu put it, creating from and for the perspectives of black women is both “questioning and solving the problem of our invisibility.”
In the same spirit of artists like Mutu, Mickalene Thomas and Lorna Simpson, New York multimedia artist Chantel Walkes’ collages are a celebration of black beauty. Her designs have a striking active time – lively expressions, abstract bouffant hair, and the blend of past and present beauty trends. On Walkes’ canvas, black women are the complicated protagonists, detached from conventional representations of Afro-diasporic beauty and free to take center stage.
Walkes says the retro references and focus on Black stemmed from what she did and didn’t see grow up on screen. “My mom and I watched a lot of black-and-white movies and old 80s shows, so these images always stood out to me,” she explains. “But what struck me the most was the lack of representation of blacks. I bring that [era] back as a positive memory, but I amplify it by inserting what I would have liked to see; what I would have liked my mother to see. I’m sure if she had had that point of view, she would have had a lot more confidence in herself today. “She considers her work as” an ode to what was already there, transposed in the context of today.
The black beauty extravagance in Walkes’ collages aligns with its predecessors. Looking ahead to Lorna Simpson’s 2018 compilation, Collages by Lorna Simpson, the poet Elizabeth Alexander compares the hair of black women to “galaxies in themselves, solar systems, lunar landscapes, volcanic interiors”. Bringing these looks to life is the favorite part of the Walkes process, as evidenced by the abundance of high buns and asymmetrical ruches. As such, her most frequently referenced era is the ’60s. “I love the hair shapes (from this decade). They are so dramatic. I love the cuts of the clothes, the winged eyeliner, the extravagant eyelashes, the colorful eye shadow. ”
For Walkes, previous explorations with painting and photography hadn’t focused so much on hair. “When I painted, I never combed the hair, I just made faces. When I started to do collage, I felt like something was missing, so the hair became the final piece for me. me. I’ll put everything together and when I choose the hair, it’s a moment. “
Although hair is her favorite, she also places great importance on the skin of her subjects. “Black is so beautiful and I do my best to make sure I amplify darker skin tones because I recognize my privilege to have lighter skin,” she explains. “Women with darker skin are always a priority in my work and that alone is beauty.”
Composite designs have an otherworldly futuristic quality that is still intrinsically linked to the past, with images sourced from Walkes’ personal photographic archives, vintage magazine collection, and found textiles. Black women have established a legacy by using collage to juxtapose eras and question their under-representation in the media. For Mutu, it was born from the fact that she re-explored her favorite movies and shows, then asked herself, “Where am I in this story that has obsessed me for fifteen years?” “
Walkes’ tone changed when she described feeling underrepresented in galleries. “I didn’t see a lot of art that particularly uplifted black women,” she recalls. Reflecting the active time of her work, placing black women at the center of each of her pieces, she follows the tradition of black female artists proactively creating the representation they wanted to see. With each image, she immortalizes facial features, beauty innovations and black hair, finding the perfect balance between depth and lightness. “I didn’t want trauma to be at the center of our concerns,” she said. “I wanted the focus to be on joy, confidence and resilience.”