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Shantell Martin on her spontaneous drawings that explore the issues of identity

Through her immersive works created in a live setting, the British artist speaks to STIR about projecting her personality in her art that invites viewers to question intersectionality.

by Rahul KumarPublished on : May 25, 2022

Shantell Martin, a visual artist originally from the United Kingdom, and now based in the United States of America, explores the themes of identity and individuality through her art. Her immersive large-scale works are created in a live setting. She says that when one draws with an audience that is watching, you have no time to hesitate and plan. And that is when you cannot be anyone else. Therefore, her own personality comes through in her works, most accurately and genuinely.

In her artist statement Martin elaborates that the future she imagines is expansive and infinite, which includes a myriad of voices representing contrasting points of view that embrace the traditional, the avant-garde, and other voices that we have yet to consider or fully engage with as we are still searching for a fuller, more inclusive acceptance of difference in our society. Her goal is to deliver a truly multicultural world. She says, “I have learned to embrace my multivalent perspectives and double consciousness and to see strength and exalt in my personal and cultural in-betweenness. These lines, shapes and figures are some of those internal dialogues of our shared humanity that I lay bare.” Her preference of working in black and white is an apt metaphor of her own existence.

Martin at work | Shantell Martin | STIRworld
Martin at work Image: Michelle Mosqueda; Courtesy of Shantell Martin

I speak to Shantell Martin on her spontaneity with nothing that is planned ahead of time and on the ideas she expresses through her art.

Rahul Kumar: You are a visual artist, philosopher, cultural facilitator, teacher, choreographer, songwriter, performer…how do all these come together? How do you approach the choice of discipline to materialise an idea?

Shantell Martin: Wow, that's quite a long list there. I would essentially say that I am not considering that there is a choice. I am not considering that there is a separation of disciplines. I am not putting my work into individual or specific boxes when I create. As an artist, as a philosopher, etc. I am more interested in exploring myself, my experiences, surroundings, past, and present in the mediums or industries that are intriguing to me. Perhaps at the time of creating, areas that are also accessible to me. In addition to that, I love to challenge myself by exploring different mediums/industries that I might not already be familiar with. Lastly, I would say that as creative people, it's almost our responsibility not to put ourselves into boxes. We can widen the boxes and break them down. So, on that note, I would encourage artists and creatives out there to explore different disciplines and to bring their whole selves to them and not see them as limitations but as opportunities.

Presentation at Ralph Lauren, 2022, installation, ink on surface | Shantell Martin | STIRworld
Presentation at Ralph Lauren, 2022, installation, ink on surface Image: Theo Coulombe

Rahul: Your practice investigates themes of intersectionality, identity, and play. Please elaborate your conceptual concerns that you desire to address through your work?

Shantell: I am not sure I would use the word ‘concern’, but perhaps conceptual investigations or explorations might be more fitting. In my practice as an artist, the core of my work, in a way, starts with myself. As someone who grew up not fitting in, not looking like anyone around me or in my school and environment, I was initially able to see how people treated me differently from others who did fit in and looked and acted like everyone else (even if this was under some kind of pressure).

Shantell Martin creating work Image: Courtesy of Shantell Martin

In a way, this made me very aware of my own identity. It encouraged me to be very observant of people and their actions and emotional reactions to race, class, and sexuality at quite a young age. This is something that I have been able to explore through my art and my thinking. At the same time, I have also been an observer of how the art world works and how institutions work. And this has led me to understand the importance of openness, playfulness, transparency, responsibility, and directness. And I believe that's one of many reasons that those are recurring themes within my work.

The May Room, Governors’ Island, 2021, installation, ink on surface | Shantell Martin | STIRworld
The May Room, Governors’ Island, 2021, installation, ink on surface Image: Timothy Schenck; Courtesy of Shantell Martin

Rahul: Further, the spontaneous hand-drawn line in your work straddles fine art and design, and often provides a new relational perspective for the viewer with immersive experiences. How does your audience engage in a deeper conversation and interpretation of your practice?

Shantell: This is an interesting question. A big part of my work is asking the audience and viewers of my works meaningful and reflective questions that they can take with them and reflect on and ask themselves. These questions are often about self, identity, and place for example, asking Why are YOU here? Why do I watch too much tv? What will YOU do today? Sometimes profound and existential, occasionally playful and encouraging. On the other hand, I am also encouraging people to pick up a pen, draw for themselves, and create and write more. In addition to all of that, I believe that reflection is also a big part of this immersion. Having the viewer reflect on themselves creating and making art as children and having them reflect and ask why and how was it so easy as a child but can be so difficult as an adult. So, the immersion is almost the permission and the freedom to also be creative.

The OCULUS, 2021, installation | Shantell Martin | STIRworld
The OCULUS, 2021, installation Image: Steven Simione; Courtesy of Shantell Martin

Rahul: Are there specific reasons why you choose to work only with the colour black?

Shantell: There isn't an absence of colour in my work. If you were to look back at my career as an artist, you would see so much colour in my work. From the years of being a VJ in Japan to drawing on people for many years, to collaborating with my grandmother, to fashion collaborations with brands like PUMA, and colourful artwork shows. It's just often that you have to look a little harder to find those moments. With that said, I do believe that something is super compelling about working predominantly in black and white. When you work with lots of colour, our brain tells us how to see the colour and in what order to see the colour. But when you work in black and white, we are not necessarily told by our brains where to look. Therefore, we all create our discoveries and rediscoveries with black and white artwork - kind of a pick your own adventure way of seeing art. Black and white art can also be very calming. If you were to walk into a giant black and white installation, for example, The May Room, there's something incredibly calming about a space like that, but that would not be the case if it were super colourful. Lastly, you aren't able to hide in black and white. When you create a black line, you can see every mistake, every hesitation, and insecurity in that line. And I love the profoundness of something so simple that says so much about the person who created it.

Martin creating one of her spontaneous works Image: Courtesy of Shantell Martin

Rahul: Please share the genesis of your new site-specific installation titled The Future? What should the viewers expect to experience when encountering this work?

Shantell: The show itself is built around a manifesto that I wrote called The Future of Art. This manifesto is a hope and a wish, and an encouragement for us to look deeper into how we support artists, how we protect artists, how we empower artists, and how we value art and the artists who dedicate their lives to their craft. This manifesto has 27 points broken down into different artworks, from works on canvas to works on paper to objects and the space itself. As the viewer walks through the space, I hope that they have some experience with these meditative manifesto points that they connect with the art. And that they have the opportunity and space for reflection of the present and hope for the future of art. Lastly, I hope that the show is a gift to everyone to question, explore, and delight in this shared human experience.

Shantell Martin | STIRworld
British visual artist Shantell Martin Image: Courtesy of Shantell Martin

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