Q+Art: Artist B.N. Blithe de Carona Imagines America’s Bright Black Future
“Freedom won't be so fickle in the future,” B.N. Blithe de Carona says, expressing more hope than actual certainty. “There have been so many points in history where Black folks were seemingly on the precipice of having the freedom to move throughout the world without being prosecuted for being Black, only for it to be revealed as an illusion.”
For now, the St. Louis-based artist drowns her anxieties in bright paper collages and somber self-portraits that seek to heal Black trauma caused by constant politicization, policing, and commodification. Using cerulean blues and bloody reds, Blithe de Carona creates a joyful paper universe populated by butterflies, blooming flowers, and Black people in the sunshine. When she works with paint, sculpture, or photography, however, the tone grows dark. “While [my] collage work features very light, joyful themes, most of [my] sculpture and canvas works are visually unnerving depictions of the harsh realities of the Black American experience,” she notes in her artist statement.
Blithe de Carona’s photographic self-portraits in particular are moody and poignant, capturing the artist at her most defiant as she shifts into the grim reality of being Black in America. Here, Blithe de Carona’s work seems to split in half as she alternates between two visions: the first, a rosy Black future, flush with butterflies; the second, a hard look at what it will take to get there.
As a student of Black existentialism, a philosophy concerned with the meaning of life as seen through Black contexts, Blithe de Carona makes dualistic work influenced by W.E.B. Du Bois’ notion of “double consciousness.” First published in The Souls of Black Folk, the idea of double consciousness arose from the internal conflict experienced by subordinated peoples in oppressive social structures. Blithe de Carona, who identifies as queer, muslim, and anarchist, understands the splintering of self better than most, though she’s working to change that dynamic: “[My] works are typically interactive, and constructed in manners that invite and welcome change,” she notes. “[I] will often leave [my] works unedited and untreated, as their themes reflect societal standards [I wish] to change.”
In Today’s Q+Art Interview…
B.N. Blithe de Carona discusses the “Blackity, Black, Black, BLACK” work of Hank Willis Thomas, creating a catalyst for change, and prioritizing her mental health over social expectations.
Which books, art-related or otherwise, belong on every artist’s shelf?
B.N. Blithe de Carona: The Sweet Flypaper of Life by Langston Hughes and Roy DeCarava, Reflections in Black by Deborah Willis, and Passage by Khary Lazarre-White. The Sweet Flypaper of Life was perhaps the first creative depiction of Black Americans simply living their daily lives to be published with zero intent of exploitation or degradation. It is beautiful and sublime, and reminds me so much of my childhood days spent sitting on wicker furniture with my granny, listening to her talk about the good parts of her childhood.
Reflections in Black was the book that made younger me believe that a career in art as a Black woman was even possible. Deborah Willis is simply one of the most important artists to ever live, period. The way that she connects history through art is masterful and incredibly inspiring. It's a must-read for art and history lovers alike.
Passage is a fiction novel that manages to artfully and accurately depict the often terrifying reality of what it means to survive as a Black person living in America. We are constantly reminded that we were never meant to be fully free, and Lazarre-White isn't afraid to dive into the horrors of racism and oppression in a way that still acknowledges and gives weight to the inherent beauty of Black existence. Passage is a book that I go back to often, as it reminds me that fighting for my survival and the betterment of all Black people is always worth it.
Which cultural concepts, themes, or philosophies inform your work?
BNBC: Islamic anarchism and Black existentialism.
If you could have dinner with any artist, living or dead, who would it be?
BNBC: Definitely Hank Willis Thomas, one of my all-time favorite artists. His work is PHENOMENAL and full of the most beautiful, Blackity, Black, Black, BLACK energy. Walk into a space showcasing his work and you will feel it before you even get a full glimpse of the piece. He manages to solidify our collective emotions each time he makes a sculpture. He is also the son of Deborah Willis, my #1 favorite artist, and I'd be too afraid to have dinner with her without first picking her son’s brain about how to ensure that she likes me!
What are you trying to express with your art?
BNBC: I try to express my belief that freedom won't be so fickle in the future. There have been so many points in history where Black folks were seemingly on the precipice of having the freedom to move throughout the world without being prosecuted for being Black, only for it to be revealed as an illusion. We saw this a lot in 2020 especially, with legislators kneeling while draped in Kente cloth and taking selfies in front of BLM street murals instead of enacting actual change. I truly believe that freedom IS possible and instead of driving myself mad wondering when it'll come, I drown my woes about it in my art.
What do you wish you learned in art school but weren’t taught?
BNBC: I learned absolutely nothing about business or finance while I studied art. I also learned nothing about law. If I hadn't also been studying public and political communication, which required media law courses, I would never have been able to have an art business. Even still, I'm learning new things about business and law each day that I work as an artist, because the information needed to actually be a working artist and not just a person who makes things simply isn't taught in art school. Also, I wasn't taught about a single Black artist, but that's a rant for another day I suppose.
What is the best advice you’ve ever received? What’s the worst?
BNBC: In 2018, I reached out to Deborah Willis during a really low point in my life. I was feeling extremely trapped and afraid to even seek a way out. She told me, "Fear is a part of our lives and once you recognize it, reach out and speak out about it." This is the best advice I've ever received. Before then, I'd felt that I was not worthy of receiving help and that I wasn't allowed to speak on the things that scared me, which kept me from progressing in all areas of my life. Now I have no problem vocalizing my fears and asking for help, and my life has improved tremendously. The worst advice I've ever received was definitely, "Going to college is the only way to escape poverty." THE LIES!!!!!!! My only debt is student loan debt. It was a lie all along!
What's your biggest barrier to being an artist?
BNBC: Money is my biggest barrier. I have an endless number of ideas, but not enough money to bring them to life. Additionally, I have a condition called hyperhidrosis; excessive sweating mainly focused in my hands, that prevents me from being able to work on a near daily basis. The treatment for this condition is palmar Botox, which costs roughly $8,000 each year. I hope to sell some sculptures and original collage works soon so that I can afford a six-month treatment, as I've never had normal palms in my life and can only imagine how much work I can create with six months of dry, usable hands.
How do you maintain a work/life balance?
BNBC: At the moment, I do not; my studio space is inside of my home and only partially constructed due to the pandemic halting renovations, so I've turned my living room into a makeshift studio instead. It is honestly awful not having a separate, dedicated workspace, but I'm still grateful to have space to work at all.
What does generosity mean to you as an artist?
BNBC: Generosity is important to me as a Muslim, so of course it's important to me as an artist and in all other areas of my life. Islam requires me to give to those in need, regardless of how much material wealth I have to myself.
With my art, I make my work as accessible as possible by offering super low-cost prints as well as by gifting as many prints as I can each month. I also sacrificed my professional Instagram last year by using the platform for mutual aid and raising close to $20,000 for individuals in need. Instagram banned the account from ever posting again and deleted all of my personal accounts. I started a new account this year and have not even 1/10th of my previous followers, as I'm always shadowbanned. It was more than worth it to get money to people in need during the start of the pandemic!
What does success mean to you as an artist?
BNBC: I'll feel like a successful artist once I see the themes of my work become part of my reality. I have a series titled, Call My Mama, Not The Cops, and it is my hope that one day, while I am still alive, I can witness a school-aged child visiting a museum and seeing this work only to ask their guardian, "What's a cop?" I want to live to see the fall of the government. I want to outlive oppressive institutions. I want to see Black kids live lives free of state-sanctioned terror. I want to be able to make beautiful collage work and never make anything radical again, because it's no longer necessary. Once that's possible, I'll feel like a successful artist.
What role does the artist have in society?
BNBC: Personally, I believe that it's the duty of artists to create both cultural catalysts for change, as well as historical markers so that we never forget why we needed to change.
What’s the worst job you’ve ever had?
BNBC: After dropping out of college, I began working for a company called Urban Eats, which has three cafes, one event space, a gallery and a catering service. I worked as the manager AND curator, opened & closed the main cafe/gallery space each day, made weekly orders for each location, covered dropped shifts, fed chickens, washed dishes, cleaned bathrooms, found artists and curated shows—everything.
I made $8.75/hr to start, and eventually moved up to $10/hr after a four-hour meeting with the owners wherein I was made to prove that I needed (not deserved—needed!) a raise. They simply didn't think that my life expenses warranted $10/hr. I gave them two months’ notice when I submitted my resignation and they fired me the next day. Not only does the business still exist, the owners are now deeply entwined in local politics, which comes as a surprise to no one who knows how corrupt the Missouri government is and always has been.
If you had to pick one, would you rather be a historically significant or commercially successful artist? Why?
BNBC: I choose both because I deserve both. I deserve to profit from my art because art is my chosen profession and in creating and selling art, I deserve to have the means to meet my basic needs as well as my desires. I also deserve to have my work inspire future generations to continue fighting for their survival and hoping for a better world. That being said, I care much more about eventually making the list of notable Islamic Anarchists on Wiki than I care about personal financial gain or acclaim. All the cool art kids make it to obscure Wiki lists!
What role should money play in the art world?
BNBC: I don't think money should have a role in the world at all, so let's start and end this right there.
What’s your relationship with money?
BNBC: I view money as what it is; a man-made construct that inhibits us far more than it helps us. I recognize that it is a tool for survival, but only because humans made it so. If money were obsolete, engineers would still build because we all need shelter. Artists would still create because we're simply compelled to create. Doctors would still practice medicine because we all need healing. Farmers would still farm because we all need food to eat. The world would continue to spin without money, just as it spun before the first coin was ever minted. As this is my opinion of money, I have no problem spending it at will and giving as much of it away as I possibly can to those who are struggling to survive.
How do you deal with the ups and downs of the market?
BNBC: I'm Muslim, we have a prayer for everything! When I'm not making sales, I make dua to increase my wealth and sustenance. If needed, I'll also utilize a professional fundraiser who helps me raise funds and collect donations that allow me to support myself without taking on a 9-5 job that'll ultimately distract me from my art.
Have you ever turned down an opportunity? Why?
BNBC: I've turned down a number of in-person art shows and events during the pandemic for the simple fact that I enjoy being alive far more than I enjoy socializing and elbow rubbing in the hopes of making a sale.
What are you working on that you’re excited about right now?
BNBC: For the first time in my life, I have a workspace that's large enough to allow me to safely create sculptures and large canvas works. I grew up homeless and housing insecurity has followed me my entire life. It wasn't until December 2020 that I moved into a house large enough for me to accommodate a workspace, and I'm excited about this every single day.
What do you do to maintain your mental health?
BNBC: I meditate every single day, for no less than a total of 30 minutes. Sometimes I meditate for four to six hours in one day. I also use a gratitude journal and an affirmation journal each morning before I start my workday. I will always prioritize rest and my mental health over work and any other societal expectation of me.
What do you dislike about the art world? How would you change it if you could?
BNBC: I dislike the many layers of inaccessibility due to the classist nature of the art world. It is extremely disheartening to see artists who are able to support themselves through their work who got into the industry not necessarily because they're talented, but because their parents are curators, collectors, museum owners, etc. Nepotism is the true darling of the art world and we simply hate to see it.
Is there a specific time you recall feeling marginalized by the art world?
BNBC: Every single time that I apply for a grant, residency, or show that requires you to have an MFA, which renders these opportunities wildly inaccessible for most working artists.
How does your geographical location affect your work and/or success?
BNBC: My geographical location is both what radicalized me and led me to art. A lot of my peers in this industry were radicalized in the safety of their college classes. I was radicalized as a toddler when my house was raided by the St. Louis Police Dept. and they aimed guns at my face while my papi held onto me for dear life.
But I was also led to art because of my location. In the efforts to give me a good childhood, my papi took me to see art near weekly, which was possible due to the myriad of free museums, galleries and art exhibits available to residents of St. Louis. With that being said, while this city births great talent, it absolutely fails to foster creatives who don't fit a very particular and respectable mold. Most of my buyers aren't located in the Midwest at all. However, I definitely make work from a Black Midwestern lens, as this location provides an endless supply of materials that inspire me to create.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. All photos published with permission of the artist.
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