Kelly Walters – Racialized Voices
Kelly Walters is a multimedia artist, researcher and curator who works to understand the construction of black cultural expression in mainstream media. Her aim as an artist is to identify patterns within language, both visual and articulated, as a source from which she can re-frame how American audiences interact and consume black culture today. Her work as a researcher, heavily relies upon close observation of racial tension, historical context and socio-political frameworks that impact the identity and representation of black people.
GDW: You’ve recently earned an MFA in graphic design from RISD. Congratulations! Your presentation at the 2015 Design Incubation made quite an impression – in a good way! How did you develop the concept for your thesis “Sitcoms, Slow Jamz & The White Cube” and the conversation surrounding the visual representation of black culture?
KW: It was somewhat of an organic process purely based on my ongoing interests in black identity and representation. I was reflective of my childhood watching sitcoms portraying iconic black figures and connecting with prominent music artists who transcended race through their music. I was surrounded by so many visuals that held significant meaning in and outside the black community. At the same time, I was also completely engrossed in the present and wanted to make sense of how social media, reality television and high fashion were shaping contemporary black identity today as well. In tandem with all these projects, I curated an exhibition entitled Kindred that showcased the work of RISD students and alumni of African descent. This exhibition worked to showcase how race/racial identity has or has not impacted the art and design of RISD artists. Together, these three points of research: television, music and the exhibition space became the cornerstone of my thesis.
GDW: You have designed some interesting ways of calling to our attention issues surrounding how Americans interact as well as observe black culture. Will you explain some of your points of origin?
KW: Many of my projects began by looking at the visual aesthetics of a particular subject. I wanted to see what components were used to make it function and uncover the messages that were being conveyed. Understanding the color palette, the shapes and its overall form were key in order for me to reframe it into a new design. For example, in the project Martin + Fresh Prince Prints, I began with the Martin television show logo identity as a starting point. After eliminating the typography, I created an abstract shape inspired by the original mark. From there, I designed a repeat pattern that would be the basis for my own textile print that was modeled by Kente cloth.
GDW: Today’s climate in the US has unfortunately been charged with new racial tension in light of a series of cases involving police prejudices and violence. This is a heavy topic, but do you see your work encompassing even more radically charged content in the future?
KW: It’s funny, your question reminds me of a recent news story that has particularly resonated with me about Rachel Dolezal. For the past few weeks, I’ve been completely fascinated by how racially charged her story has been. As I watched her in various interviews explain how she lives and identifies with the “black experience” even though her parents have identified her as “ white,” I can’t help but be confused and intrigued by it. I think much of my thesis has been trying to examine what makes something “black.” When it came to curating Kindred, it was clear there is no one single black experience and her story just confounds that even further.
As a designer, I’m constantly thinking about deeper implications like this. and how visual cues, symbols and language are used to craft real or fake identities. My work has been trying to strike a balance between being somewhat playful, bold and declarative in order to engage the viewer. As I continue to make new work in response to today’s racial landscape, I think that I’ll continue to straddle being both playful and confrontational in my attempts to tackle larger systemic racial issues.
GDW: do you have a particular memory (visual or otherwise) that you return to when you are looking for motivation for your work or research?
KW: I often reflect on a passage from an essay written by Barbara Bloemink and Lisa Gail entitled Re/writing History where they discuss what it means to understand history, stating, “No single version of history accommodates the richness and diversity of American history, nor can any new interpretations supplant or displace extant readings of the past. All history is a process of layering and uncovering; it is continuous and open-ended. There is no last word, no definitive statement to history–ours or anyone else’s. History is subjective: it is only the ‘truth’ as seen through the eyes of those who record it.” In this passage, Bloemink and Gail acknowledge the multiplicity of viewpoints and perspectives that define the American experience. I’m inspired by their words because I find that my art making is an opportunity to share my “truth.” I believe it is imperative to break down complex racial aspects that shape black representation because it provides insight into why black rappers sing about Versace or why 17th-century sculptures of African women are characterized with overly emphasized facial features.
GDW: I love the power of these words from your thesis:
“From minoritized voices, racialized voices to authoritarian voices, I seek to understand their role and impact in different social contexts.”
Just curious, how does feminism fit into these contexts, if at all?
KW: Yes, I think that feminism is present throughout all of my work. I think there is empowerment in knowing who you are, in recognizing that you can be attached to multiple labels (not defined by any one thing) and in the ability to challenge the forces that tell you that you should be a certain way. I think these aspects of feminism came directly into play in Hidden Beauty, Can I Touch Your Hair? and Instagram Personas, where the discussion of stereotypes was exploited and sharing the process and tools behind styling black hair became evident. Through these projects I could honor complexity and beauty in all forms.
GDW: And finally, what is “real” about Kelly Walters? What do you do to “let your hair down” and have fun?
KW: The “real” Kelly Walters is a multimedia designer, artist, researcher and curator. In performing each of these roles, I seek to identify patterns within language, both visual and articulated.
When I have free time (as cliche as this sounds) my favorite thing to do is to get a really good book and read late into the night. I get so caught up in a great story that time slips by and before I know it, it’s already light outside.
For more on Kelly Walters, visit her website: brightpolkadot.com