ISSUE TEN | SPRING 2018
I first encountered Kezia’s work as we encounter many things today, on social media. I’ve been following her page Sugary Garbage, an online receptacle for her work and musings. Kezia’s illustrations and paintings confront the colonial and imperial trauma imposed onto Black bodies, all the while allowing her characters to experience joy, beauty, and fantasy. She reinterprets, reclaims, and transforms racist histories and imagery and gives them new framings and visions through storytelling and play.
—Ximena Izquierdo Ugaz, Co-Visual Art Editor, Nat. Brut
Kezia Harrell. 2018
Ximena Izquierdo Ugaz: Let’s start with the basics. Who is Kezia Harrell at this moment in time and how did she get here?
Kezia Harrell: It’s been 11 months post-art school, and within this large span of time I’ve gotten to reclaim myself artistically. There is so much pressure around making something great, that I’ve detached myself emotionally from my work. I’m relearning what attracted me to art in the first place and am recognizing the unconditional love I have for art. I have an innate longing to grasp onto my memories, as they are an embodiment of my past. I use my illustrative work to tend to this longing. It’s a very immediate form of drawing. All it requires is a thought that I’d like to see come into focus.
Over the last 4 years I have been working on a graphic novel titled Bananahead-Baby, which is set in my hometown of Cincinnati, Ohio. I’ve learned over the last year how important it is for me to have Bananahead-Baby to work on in between intense painting sessions. It’s like the light at the end of the tunnel.
XIU: You said that you’re relearning what attracted you to art in the first place. Let’s talk about that a bit more. What was it that called you to make art originally? What does that relearning look like, feel like?
KH: Yes. Well, it started very early for me, just like any child. I enjoyed the art-making portion of primary school. I’d specifically ask to tag along with my father when my mother would send him off to the grocery store, because I knew my chances of getting the Crayola 64-pack was more likely with him. There also was a time in my early adolescence that my parents put me in art therapy. I can remember my first art therapist, her name was Ms. Tea. She was a very earthy woman; soft-spoken, nodded at every word I’d say. I don’t recall making very much art wit her, but I do remember when she took me to McKie Community Center to swim. I also remember vomiting up the Red Mountain Dew she bought me in the pool. My second art therapist had a really intense grey mullet and I have the most vivid memory of her teaching me how to draw braided hair. I was fascinated with how real it looked and how I could draw that way, too.
FOR WEEKS ALL I’D DRAW WERE LONG BRAIDS ALL OVER THE MARGINS OF MY 2ND-GRADE ASSIGNMENTS.
For weeks all I’d draw were long braids all over the margins of my 2nd-grade assignments. That kind of immediacy is something I rely on to grasp my initial desire to make art. It has to protect my innocence and it has to feel natural. Coming from an art therapy background, and also being a wild child who loved making things, I confide in the relationship I have to my artistic process because it is my first memory of feeling truly validated from something outside of my family’s love.
XIU: I feel that your work is very much world-building. Can you talk a bit about what these worlds are? Who inhabits them?
School Friends, marker on bristol paper. 11" x 14". 2017
KH: That is a beautiful perspective. Well, those worlds are the cross between fantasticism and realism, in both my drawings and paintings. The fantastical part is the shiny neon grass, tickling the hairy creature child. It has an amount of curiosity of what utopia could be. The realism part is reflected in the journey to utopia and the monumental history of pain under colonialism and imperialism. In this way, I would say my paintings are more dystopian.
Wolves, marker on cotton paper. 30" x 22". 2018
This is why I need Bananahead-Baby, it is my comfort blanket in between worlds. I like to say my illustrations and comics are my subconscious and my paintings are my conscious.
XIU: Let’s talk about growing up in Cincinnati. What was that setting like? How much of those experiences are in Bananahead-Baby?
I SEE SO MANY STORIES OF THE BLACK EXPERIENCE BEING WRITTEN, PRODUCED, FUNDED, BROADCASTED, AND VISUALIZED BY WHITE PEOPLE AND, TO ME, THAT IS THEIR WAY OF EMBODYING OUR BLACKNESS AS A MEANS OF ULTIMATE CAPITAL.
KH: How wonderful that you ask. Growing up in Cincinnati was kind of theatrical. Everything had a reason, a history, and a specific place of belonging to capture the moment in its essence. For most of my childhood I lived in Winton Terrace, and this is also where Bananahead-Baby takes place. I guess, when you Google it, all you’ll see are young men being murdered or videos of young women fighting in the streets, but it is so much more than that. It’s a space that comes from a history of not allowing Black people to navigate that space. There is actually so much beauty in seeing an area where we get to move around with one another. Winton Terrace was built in the 1940s for whites only. It was basically a white utopia because Winton Hills is surrounded by the forest and is secluded from the main parts of Cincinnati. By the 1950s, the city built a housing project for Black people, which was just right up the street. Eventually, the whites moved out of Winton Terrace because of the influx of Black people. I lived there from 1999-2005. It was much different then, but I still recall a good amount of violence. My daddy used to call it “Winton Scare Us.” But all of the snot nosed kids called it “Brick City.” There were big brown town houses as far as the eye can see, engulfed by the woods. It kind of looked like the greenery was eating up the neighborhood. In the summer, hundreds of lightning bugs would swarm above the grass. My friends and I would run around in the itchy grass, trying to catch them in pop bottles.
My time in Cincinnati was the pinnacle of my life, really. I call Bananahead-Baby fantastical realism, because it has aspects of realism, but it also has qualities of forces outside of our realm of reality. Whenever I speak about Bananahead-Baby, I just say, “You’ll just have to read it.” Because it will hold you here and unravel its layers for hours. What I will say is, the visual story of Black children will be told by someone who was once a Black child. That’s a big deal to me. I see so many stories of the Black experience being written, produced, funded, broadcasted, and visualized by white people and, to me, that is their way of embodying our Blackness as a means of ultimate capital. This type of thing is nothing new, it appears in every form of art and it’s our job to reclaim it and preserve it.
Yes, that was a little rant. But I truly feel this way within every bone of my back, because I stay hunched over my drawing table writing and drawing this graphic novel, which means the world to me.
Our inner Black little child is a reflection of who we are today. And nothing about that can be glazed over with a story told by someone who hasn’t experienced the trials of catering to that internal entity.
...MY APPROACH TO ALL OF MY PAINTINGS IS TO SPEAK OF CONTEMPORARY BLACK INDIVIDUALS.
MY PAINTINGS ARE AN EMBODIMENT OF FLESH
AND BONES THAT LIVED AND DIED WITH NO ONE
TO TELL THEIR STORIES.
Dreamtastical, marker on bristol paper. 11" x 14". 2017.
XIU: The way femmes show up in your work is really powerful. They are superhuman, gorgeous and have bodies still not often represented as beautiful in mainstream media. What most inspires you to portray these bodies?
KH: I attempt to refrain from a narcissistic approach to draw or paint bodies that society deems are grotesque. I learned through making Bananahead-Baby, and discovering my own beauty, that it is impossible for me to neglect that perspective. I’ve always been the fat girl, it’s how I know how to move through the world. I actually used my own body for the reference photo of Dreamtastical. This is something that artists have done for centuries, though.
Also, my whole life I have been embraced by femmes with this body type. Even my father was a big man. He was 6’3” and 350 pounds. When I think of fatness, I really think of an over-abundance of love that should be cherished. I think of the whimsicality of our rolls and of our extraness. Fat people literally and physically take up space in history and I am always comfortable with drawing us because all-in-all, I’m fat. [laughter] I love being fat and Black. [shrugs]
XIU: In Dreamtastical, the protagonist is surrounded by various entities. Who are these creatures and how do they bring the protagonist comfort?
KH: I was thinking about the ultimate protected space and the ultimate protective things, which for me are stuffed animals. I wanted to bring them to life to make commentary on Jacques Lacan’s mirror stage theory. The stuffed toy is one of our first attachments with something outside of ourselves and is also one of the first things that differentiates the “I” from the “it” or the “other.” I wanted to give those comfort objects a life with their own agency. So, they’re humanoids, really.
XIU: What is Sugary Garbage and do you see it as separate from your other work?
KH: Sugary Garbage is my digital art gallery, but it is also intimate. It’s not necessarily a separation from my other artistic practices; it is a more realized space to share some of my work and other artistic works in the future.
XIU: I was really drawn to your work through your incredible draftsmanship. Let’s talk about your process. How do ideas populate your mind and what are your favorite materials and tools to use?
Is You Hungry? Oil on panel. 5' x 5'. 2017
KH: I use very specific materials. I could be down to my last coin, and I’d spend it on top quality oil paints,before I buy an outfit or something. Investing in my art materials makes me feel like a special snowflake. It’s like “Yes, self, you deserve this Badger hair mop brush, you deserve multiple buttery brush strokes.” I take great care of my materials because I have an affinity for objects that bring me solace and good quality products will last decades if you take care of them.
Ideas populate my mind simply by them populating my mind. [laughter] Really… it’s like having an over abundance of demanding colors, visions, and words telling me to let them free. I also converse with my family on a daily basis and there is so much content in our experiences and our conversations. I can’t exactly pinpoint one place an inspiration for a piece of art comes from. It really comes from my constant growth and my trying to understand why we live on a rock floating in a dark abyss.
THE NARRATIVES IN MY PAINTINGS ARE NOT A SPECTACLE FOR THE NON-BLACK GAZE.
XIU: In Is You Hungry? and Black Daddy/White Daddy you use the watermelon as a really prominent figure. There’s an intensely grotesque quality to the basket of watermelon and fried chicken. In a previous interview a few years back, you mentioned how America treats slavery as a folk-tale. Let’s talk more about that, do you find that your work often allows for conversations around this?
KH: It’s impossible not to integrate the history of chattel slavery while making art on one’s African diasporic roots. My family and I are the descendants of long lines of Africans held as slaves in the United States. The narratives in my paintings are not a spectacle for the non-Black gaze. They’re not a myth or a conversation for them to use as brownie points. They are evidence of the time. So, my approach to all of my paintings is to speak of contemporary Black individuals.
My paintings are an embodiment of flesh and bones that lived and died with no one to tell their stories. Therefore, I cannot make art that doesn’t bring my ancestors’ undocumented lives into a visual reality. This art also serves as a place that is validating the lives of their descendants into permanence.
Paintings are the longest surviving artifacts; they have existed since the human condition existed. Yet, only white hands have told the stories of Black people, which depicts the performance of servitude or captivity.
So, yes. I suppose they do create conversation around slavery as a myth, due to the caricature quality of the objects used and the performativity of the people. But, that is the content of the painting and the reality. I’m just beginning to think that conversation does not change everything. I hope my paintings make people angry enough to overthrow whatever is happening in the White House at this moment.
XIU: Art definitely has a profound impact on people and I believe and hope that your work can turn people to action rather than just conversation! What has been viewers’ response to your work? I know there was a lot of contention from white people especially around your exhibition I HATE WHITE PEOPLE BUT I LOVES YOU How did that play out?
KH: Well, during the time of that show, people had a lot of things to say. From my perspective, most of it was engaging and insightful. A good portion of it was salty, too. Mainly from people on the internet with Confederate flag profile pictures. You know, Bubba and ‘nem.
It’s even more satirical now because of the way white people behaved around the title. Everything that the work was saying was being performed on the internet and even at the show. That day was scorching hot and I served fried chicken, watermelon, and Kool-Aid. I remember walking by and seeing a white man grub down a big plate of fried chicken while standing in front of my large-scale drawing. That moment must have been the Holy Trinity for me. I was thinking that if my ancestors were watching, they’d be laughing in tears. These white people were subjected to images of themselves becoming a Sambo, the Coon, or the Pickaninny eating an entire watermelon half. I thought about the joy, though, in those artifacts. I was trying to understand that joy and that joy was culture. The watermelon is a part of Black culture; it kept many of our families fed and kept clothes on our backs. I believe the white illustrators who drew us as minstrels were intimidated by our happiness. They exaggerated our condition, because they didn’t believe we deserved to have pride.
I thought of Thomas Hovenden’s painting I Know’d It Was Ripe as I witnessed all of the joyous melanated people with chicken grease around their mouths trying to untangle their confusion about my drawings. It was everything. My family and I laughed at the irony and embraced that moment. What I really wanted people to take from that show was to embrace their Blackness, all of it. Especially the part that hurts to claim.
Kezia Harrell. Black Daddy/WhiteDaddy [detail], Oil on panel. 5' x 8'. 2016
THE WATERMELON IS A PART OF BLACK CULTURE; IT KEPT MANY OF OUR FAMILIES FED AND KEPT CLOTHES ON OUR BACKS. I BELIEVE THE WHITE ILLUSTRATORS WHO DREW US AS MINSTRELS WERE INTIMIDATED BY OUR HAPPINESS.
XIU: What and who are you looking at currently? Any inspirations? Shoutouts?
Jan Verkolje, Portrait of Johan de la Faille, oil on copper. 11.8" x 16.1". 1674
Thomas Hovenden, I Know’d It Was Ripe, oil on canvas, 21.9" × 15.8". circa 1885
KH: Over the last several months, I’ve been working with my mother on her cooking show “Home-Cooking with Chef Celeste” (which you can find on YouTube, Facebook, and Instagram) I do the filming and editing for it. It’s really beautiful to see her in her element, looking like a superstar while doing her favorite thing. I see so much of her in me—her intricacy with cooking. It’s definitely my biggest inspiration. My brother is also an artist. He performs drag and we work together to bring Ego to life. I do the makeup and hair for Ego. I’ve also created a garment for her. So, I’ve really been hanging out with my family and cats, making non-stop art. It’s the support and spiritual push I’ve needed for the past 6 years when I was alone in San Francisco.
XIU: That is so wonderful and dope that you are able to support your family in their own endeavors as well through your own art. You mentioned that Bananahead-Baby is the light at the end of the tunnel. What are other ways you show yourself love? What are other things you love to do?
KH: Well, from time to time, I take out this pair of rollerblades my father bought me for my 8th birthday. Naturally, I can still fit in them because I’ve always had big Dragon Tales feet. First I just stare at them like “Wow, you survived.” Then I’ll slip on some fluffy leg warmers over the skates and drift off into the sunset.
Or another thing is I chill in my Spongebob-themed room while watching videos on YouTube of early 2000s Saturday Morning cartoons. Whenever it’s perfectly warm, I’ll sop myself up in this patchouli & rose oil mix I make. Then I’ll go outside and lie flat on the prickly grass. Just… yeah.
I just like to be Kezia as much as possible. I established that so long ago. It seems like if I do anything else, I’ll feel a void. There are too many reasons to love yourself dearly than to treat yourself as if you are not worthy of happiness.
XIU: Yes, definitely. Anything else coming up for you? Any final thoughts?
KH: This fall, I’ll have my first solo exhibition with all new works at the Luggage Store Gallery in San Francisco. Also, physical copies of Bananahead-Baby Issue #1 will be released on that same day, on November 18th. I’m very excited about this show because I get to display my work for the first time with an outstanding gallery.
Kezia Harrell is an interdisciplinary artist and alumni of the San Francisco Art Institute.
Ximena Izquierdo Ugaz is a multimedia artist, curator, and educator based in Brooklyn and is originally from Perú. She is the co-curator of Visual Art at Nat. Brut, as well as Teen Programs Coordinator at the Brooklyn Museum, and co-curator of Sweety’s, a gallery and platform dedicated to supporting and exhibiting artists of color.