SK (they/them) initially caught my eye with their feathered 80’s hair and eclectic style, but then I realized their art practice was just as compelling. Working in a variety of mediums, SK seeks to have conversations surrounding animation and performance, specifically centering blackness. As of recent, a fragile yet striking force of nature—the flower, has pervaded their practice through drawings, paintings, and plushies, otherwise known as conduits.“The flowers were born out of the idea that I’m a black trans femme, and I can’t go to protests or do a lot of the things I want to do. I’m older now, and I understand that, so this is my way to vent.” SK’s In Battle Petals Fall is running at Fortnight Institute until September 15th, and their Larrie exhibition, The Clouds and Flowers are always taking notes closes at the end of this year.
What medium(s) do you work in?
All I guess. My practice isn’t really limited to visual art. I do performance art, textile, painting, drawing—all the facets. Right now I’m focusing on drawing and painting.
What are the main themes you explore?
One of the biggest themes is animation and what it means to all of us. A lot of my work has to do with a big conversation with animation and a big conversation about what performance is, especially performance surrounding blackness. Those are the two big themes that I’ve been focusing on for the last couple of years, and I’ll continue to work on them because I think they’re important and often dismissed in a lot of ways.
“In Battle Petals Fall,” your current solo exhibition of drawings at Fortnight Institute is inspired by folkloric characters in the Antebellum South. What was your introduction to folklore, and how does it coincide with your work?
The flowers were born out of the idea that I’m a black trans femme, and I can’t go to protests or do a lot of the things I want to do. I’m older now, and I understand that, so this is my way to vent. The flower is such an amazing thing, and it can be compared to a Black person. There are so many different types of flowers and so many different types of Black people—the flower is the most adaptable plant, nature is adaptable, and so are Black people. I thought of what character I could build from a flower and how I can give it power. It’s so fragile yet so striking, so I think the parallel between that and my relationship with blackness made sense to have the two come together. When you see pictures of flowers, they’re delicate, but I wanted to make them a little more fierce and easy to get along with. They’re very engaging because you want to look at them, but they are armed.
(L) Chineus Okafuiolis (2020), Colored pencil on paper (R) Hallence Nickeralius (2020), Colored pencil on paper
The first time I recollect seeing anything related to folklore was from one of my elders. It was either my Mama, which is my great-great-grandmother, or my grandmother. Either one of them was reading me Anansi the Spider when I was younger, and it stuck out to me. I became obsessed with these children’s books where they had like Hansel and Gretel, but with Black characters—pretty much the same classic stories but with Black characters. So, it comes from reading a lot of that.
There are all kinds of folklore, and Black American folklore is also very interesting because it has a lot to do with slavery and right after slavery. It’s just a big bubble of stories that’s so expansive! I think taking that folklore and making new characters which have some conversations with those stories, the time period, and how you would be portrayed in that time is minstrel. Everything around that time, especially around performance, was most likely minstrel, so combining folklore and minstrel is an ode to remembering performance and minstrel. The folklore around that time was rich; it teaches a lot of lessons about struggle, it teaches Black people that things are going to be hard, but it’s easier to conceptualize that as a child.
I find it interesting how much you personify these characters and the traits that you attribute to them are unlike anything I’ve seen. Going back to what you said about folklore and trying to make your own characters, it’s so important because Black people’s lives and histories are so complex, so we should definitely be creating stories and characters that reflect us.
Animation was meant to be funny, uplifting, and for kids, but all the first animation characters were blackface characters! They didn’t even make white characters until around the 1960s, but at first, it was just Mickey Mouse in blackface, little tar babies, and different animals. Technically I feel that animation is owned by Black people now, so that’s why I think it’s very important to make the drawings in blackface because this is the first thing we had no part in that was all about us. It’s like reclaiming it in a lot of ways. I don’t think we should delete blackface because we need to know that it was another thing we did without being thanked for. It’s an interesting thing to research, and it’s something that should be spoken about more. That’s why I make the work I make, and that’s why I made that show.
About the plushies, these blackface dolls were conduits for white children to carry around because they looked like their nannies or emblemized the nice Black person who worked for them. Again, Black people had no voice in that, so now I make my own for other Black people. It’s something that’s not a big deal to some people, but it holds a lot of ownership. They made Black bodies to give to their children, so their children understand that blackness is lower than them—it just teaches so many things. My teaching with these is that they’re supposed to uplift Black people. It’s not for whiteness; it’s a 3-D conduit of animation that’s meant to appease the mind. I dress them up and make them hyper-cute.
Your current exhibition at Larrie NYC, “The Clouds and Flowers are always taking notes,” presents another side of your work— stuffed plushies or “conduits.” Unlike a painting on canvas or sculpture, these plushies are tactile and meant to have an intimate relationship with their owners. Can you explain more about them and their significance during the pandemic? I understand that some of the proceeds from this show are going towards COVID Bail Out NYC & HOUSING COVID-19 Relief Fund.
Art makes so much money, and it’s insane that a lot of artists are fucking stingy. I don’t get it! If you’re becoming a successful artist and selling a lot of work, you’re probably making $20K-$30K from one show. That’s just entry-level too, not just people who are selling expensive work. I feel like if you’re going to be selling work for a lot of money, a lot of it should go back. I don’t personally need to have $100,000. Donations shouldn’t be this big thing—you should be giving that money up. Nobody should be gaining without giving back; that’s what white people do. They just gain money and don’t give that shit back, and if they do, it’s through taxes and rarely to individuals. With my practice, I want to give things out, and I’m going to do that with every show.
Honestly, I made the conduits during quarantine because I lost my job, I was bored, and I was spiraling. I made so many that I started giving them away to friends, and realized that a lot of my friends would have them on their beds. One of them said they sleep with it and it helps them. I didn’t even know they were helping people like this! One of my friends carries it in her purse and one of my friends has it hanging on their bag. I like to give them life by sacrificing something; so I’ll cut little pieces of my hair and put it in there, I’ll write a spell and put it there, I have a lot of sacrificial items that I use like my blood. I really like to get deep into the connection with the thing. It’s crazy how many things you can use doll making for and how much magic is in doll making. My doll making is magical, and they have a lot of spirit in them.
Going back to when you said the plushies are meant to uplift Black people and are not for whiteness, what if they’re purchased by white buyers?
That’s something I struggle with still because once it becomes art it’s up for grabs to anyone. I make them expensive, but when Black people ask me to get one I tell them to pay me what they want. I do have a conversation with white people who buy my work and I do have them sign a contract when they buy my work, especially my sculptural work. The contract basically says: you don’t fully own this thing and I still have autonomy with it. They basically pay me to rent it. If you want to buy my work that’s fine, but just know that you’re not owning all of it. If you want to help progress my career that’s cool, but taking autonomy over certain things is not what I want to do.
This work is blackface, so it’s more than just me. I’m not the cornerstone of understanding blackface, and I’m still learning it, but for me, it’s more about sharing it with other Black people so they know about it. When white people buy my work I sometimes don’t get it! Yes, it looks good, but I have conversations with them like, do you understand what this is? A Black person is going to come into your house and have a lot to say about this, so be ready for that. But now I’ve learned that after they’ve bought it, it’s not my problem. I have to remember that because white people are going to buy whatever they want, and they own the majority of wealth. Being able to have open, calm conversations with white people, like my gallerist, where I don’t feel bad after and she doesn’t feel bad after is good. It makes me feel more comfortable about the work that I’m putting out.
In an art world that is elitist and exclusionary, I enjoy how authentic and rooted you are in your culture and identity—this goes for your social media presence and your creations. It’s refreshing to see that you can name a drawing “Leave That Shit at Home” or one of your plushies “Please sit your ass down.” I admire that you’re not accommodating anyone, but instead thinking about yourself and your immediate community. Has it been difficult to reach that place of comfort as an artist?
No, I’m lucky and privileged for that because I don’t give a fuck. I feel like we’ve had to bring this rhetoric of blackness to the next level, and it’s not giving that for me. I’m not that type of person; I’m goofy, I’m silly, I love dumb shit, I love smart shit, and I love mixing them both. You don’t have to be pretentious with a title. There are people in the art world who are chill like myself, and I make titles for my pieces when people say crazy shit to me. Being authentic has worked for me in a lot of ways, and I like to keep it one hundred on all fronts. I don’t want to be “that” art girl. A lot of the conduits I made were just an expression of my psyche at the time.
Black artists who make more emotive, cuter works are dismissed a lot. I think that work really speaks to childhood in many ways. I don’t give a fuck how great your parents are, because if you’re black, society is going to raise you faster. It’s kind of like a psychedelia into childhood and anyone between 20-35, a lot of your life has been shaped by animation whether you want to believe it or not. I don’t know one person who can’t quote Spongebob—who doesn’t like cartoons? A lot of people our age do, and when you think about cartoon titles they’re very simple and I love that.
(L&R) ‘The Clouds and Flowers are always taking notes’ (2020), Larrie, select stuffed companions
Who are some of your favorite artists?
Aeja Monet is one of favorite artists; she’s a really good illustrator and she understands how to place characters in situations better than most. Alake Shilling, another great artist who plays with cuteness and sadness within cuteness. Ikeda Golding, I love her work as well! She’s a really talented, skilled, and detailed artist. Janiva Ellis. Betye Saar is one of my favorites of all time, and I think she’s one of the best sculptors in the world. My good friend Tau Lewis who is one of the best sculptors of our time. Diamond Stingly.
As far as music goes Prince, Whitney Houston, and Cody Chesnutt who is super problematic but his album slaps. I really love Miyazaki films and I think his character development and depth is something I look towards. The biggest person has to be my 12-year-old niece; hands down she is the best artist in my opinion! She has a mind that’s untouched by the world and it’s beautiful to watch her do her thing.
Have you encountered any obstacles as an artist?
Financially I’ve ran into a lot of problems as an artist. Things are a lot better now, but it used to be really hard to get good materials. Being able to fund yourself as an artist is really important, and when I get to a certain level as an artist I want to be able to alleviate that for a lot of Black trans femmes because that’s who really needs it the most. The people with the money don’t have the ideas, it’s the people without the money who have all the ideas. That’s a big struggle for me and it’s a struggle for me to watch people deal with that bullshit as well. Being Black in this art world can also be a little fucked up, and having to explain your work to people. Other than that, art is my escape and I try not to put too much bad on it.
What support systems do you wish were in place for black artists?
More aid, more money, more counseling! Black artists are statistically going to be poorer people which is the first obstacle. That’s the systematic racism in it, because you have to be rich to be an artist. You have to have money, you have to have disposable money, because you need to build this career. There needs to be things in place for artists such as coin and social coin as well—there needs to be more people putting Black artists on. With all of the atrocities that happened with Black people this year, I’ve seen more Black faces but it’s still not enough. I would say if you’re not Black and you’re making work right now, half of your production or practice should be helping a Black person—especially if you make work that includes us. If you’re a successful non-Black artist, you need to give your money back and I want to see that more.
(L) Finding luck through the sound of Venus (2019); Installation shot of ‘MMHHMM’, Larrie; (R) Taylorischeirus (2020), colored pencil on paper
School is a big thing! There are a lot of Black artists who don’t even know they’re artists, there are millions of Black artists in the world right now who don’t know because they think they have to play sports or do all this other crazy shit, but there are so many different forms of art. Black people are making art constantly, little Black kids are making art constantly, and they need Black art teachers who have had successful art careers to tell them they can do this, show them how to do this, and say you have more content than everyone else because you were born Black. You need to build them to see within themselves. My white art teachers were always really nice, but I couldn’t relate because they weren’t Black and I understood that at a young age. Hopefully we get more Black art teachers because there are next to none. It really comes down to education and funding; that’s what I want to change about the art world. That’s the cornerstone of it all and that’s how we’re going to get more people in.
Provide a few tips that may be helpful for young artists
Don’t be afraid to grind and put your all into it. Don’t be afraid to take the leap when you know it’s right, because there’s a time where you won’t know if things will work, but don’t be afraid of all the obstacles that will come. If I can do it, then a lot of people can do it, because I’m not the best or the smartest. If you’re coming up as an artist, keep it real with yourself and others. Don’t sell yourself short! Just because someone’s smiling in your face and telling you what you want to hear does not mean they want to help you. Don’t excuse anyone’s abuse in any form.
Be safe around certain people in the art world because people will take advantage of you mentally, physically, and financially. Always talk with your peers and understand that collaboration is important, especially for Black artists. Collaboration will always help the Black art world become much stronger because everyone will have conversations, more things will be written, and more ideas will come out when people are brought together.