Exploration of Identity as a Queer Artist of Color

British-born, New York-based artist Shantell Martin’s work is an exploration of her own identity as a queer woman artist of color, and has often affirmed the viewer’s identity, with written messages like “You are you.” She brings together fine art, performance art, and technology in a truly unique fusion, and has adorned walls, sneakers, cars and even circuit boards with her whimsical visions.

Martin has exhibited her work at venues like the Brooklyn Museum and the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, in Buffalo, New York; she has partnered with institutions such as the New York City Ballet and artists like the Grammy- and Pulitzer-winning rapper Kendrick Lamar and Lizzo.

We caught up with Martin to talk about her ways of drawing her subjects out on their identity; what it means to her to work in front of live audiences; and what it was like to take a fashion shoot to the housing project where she grew up.

You say that a core part of your work is helping find a way for people to express who they are at their core. Your collaborations sometimes involve asking people those questions directly, like your interviews with dancers at the New York City Ballet. How do you foster those kinds of insights in the people you work with?

I think that a big part of it is creating the space to explore those questions. That and really learning how to listen to other people. The world is very loud, there are so many voices and I think one of the things we’ve started doing as a society is really trying to have our own voices rise above it all, but there’s something that’s vital and so important, and that’s really taking the time to listen, to hear, to be open to other people—their voices, their stories, their experiences. This has been a big part of the shift in my own work. I started out with the singular “Who Are You” and that has now progressed to “We Are We” and exploring community, collaboration and creating connection. I’ve started a conversation series around this, “We Are We”, which actually launches virtually this month, and I’m really proud to be a part of the community more now than ever.

You often limit yourself to certain materials and methods, like, for some projects, black Lumocolor permanent markers with medium tips, and yet you draw a very wide range of effects from those limited means. (Though you’ve also said that what may look like rules might just be a careful observation of your style.) Can you talk about that combination of narrow means and wide-ranging results?

Ironically, I’ve never felt like the tools I had access to limited me. Actually, quite the opposite and maybe this is why they’ve taken me so far and continue to do so. My perception probably has played a big role in how I’ve been able to manifest the results that I have.

You often work in front of a live audience, so that the energy of the crowd inspires you. What have you learned from a life of working with an audience?

They keep you honest.

I’m surprised that you’ve said that left to your own devices you’d stay at home alone and watch TV. Your practice is so extroverted! What advice would you give to other creators who might want to just hide at home?

There’s nothing wrong with that, if that’s what you want to do. But if you do want to get out and draw, start small.

I am an introvert by nature, and a lot of the work I do is in public spaces, with the public, so when I’m not working, I do need that space and time alone at home to recharge.

The main thing is to do what feels right to you and not feel guilty or ashamed of listening to what your mind and body need in order to be healthy and creatively inspired and active.

Your earliest collaboration was on crocheted works with your grandmother, who was white, which provided a way for you to have newly intimate conversations with her. That collaborative practice has grown over your career so far to collaborate with choreographers and ballet dancers, technologists, DJs, interior designers, and musicians like Kendrick Lamar. What do you suppose your grandmother would say if she could see it all? (Or maybe she does!)

This question makes me laugh. She’d probably say something like, “Oh, good on you,” and then probably ask me what’s on TV or to play cards with her, where she’d still steal my money, like always!

I see in the catalogue to your new book that the look book for your 2018 collaboration with Puma was shot at the Thamesmead housing development where you grew up, which was poorly constructed and tended to be closed off from the rest of the world. What was it like to highlight Thamesmead in what might seem like a counterintuitive way?

While I was growing up there, people were consistently shooting there. Fashion videos, TV shows, car commercials, you name it. But it always felt like they were using the environment to stylize or fetishize growing up in a working-class environment and everything that comes from that. As you can imagine, it always felt really exploitative. Because they don’t know what it’s really like.

But I do. I know it firsthand. I wanted to shoot there because I was born and raised there, and the collection was inspired by my youth. So it felt like for the first time, to me at least, the environment was a fundamental place to include. It wasn’t just a backdrop.

I did receive a lot of criticism. People said that I was doing the same thing. But what they don’t understand is that I lived it. Thamesmead is a part of me. It’s a part of my story.