Getting to know the artist who killed it with Kendrick Lamar at Art Basel. Photography by Andrew Boyle.
I used to think the doodles I made in my school notebooks were works of art. Epic scenes of crudely drawn stick people and lines to nowhere kept me sane and kept me awake through science class, but I always knew that a solo show at a museum was never truly in my future.
Luckily, the same can’t be said for Shantell Martin’s poetic, black-and-white line drawings. Born and raised in the Thamesmead estate public housing complex in London, Martin jumped from classes at Central Saint Martin’s College to Japanese clubs. It was in Japan against the throbbing beats of neon-lit nightclubs that she began mastering her craft one night at a time. After all, as a VJ projecting her signature stream-of-conscious projections on the walls, her art only lasted as long as the party.
It’s been nearly a decade since she made the jump from Japan to New York and it’s safe to say that she’s thriving. From exhibitions at Black and White Gallery, Museum of the Contemporary African Diaspora, and the Brooklyn Museum to a visual collaboration with Kendrick Lamar that left an Art Basel crowd in awe, Martin has been slaying one line at a time.
Now she’s ringing in the New Year with a heavy slate of projects that stretch from coast to coast. We convinced Martin to put down her markers and pick up the phone to talk Kendrick collaborations, a last-minute trip to the Million Women’s March, and the commitment to avoiding color in her art.
You did a collaboration with Kendrick Lamar for Art Basel last year. It’s interesting how his music and your art both tend to follow a freestyling pattern. What was it like mixing that together?
I think one thing we tend to do—especially with different mediums—is that we imagine they’re very separate. One thing that was really nice about working with Kendrick was this clear realization that, actually, it’s all the same—as long as you bring your core self to it. We try to make it sound or seem more complicated than it is, which I think makes people stuck.
Yeah, as long as it’s expressing who you are. With Kendrick’s lyrics, he speaks to racial identity in America. How do you confront identity through your art?
Within my work, there are a lot of phrases and words that act as seeds. You might’ve seen the phrase “Are you you?” It’s an open question and a seed is planted, which searches for that vocabulary that describes who we actually really are.
I think we don’t actually understand what the question is. We don’t have the vocabulary or the emotions to answer those questions. When I ask you to tell me who you are at the core as a human without describing where you’re from and what you do, how would you describe yourself? Why is it a lot harder to do that?
It’s tough to express that through words, which is why art is so important. Why focus only on the colors black and white in your art?
For me, there isn’t an absence of color when you use black and white. When you have a viewer looking at the work, they bring the color and the palette. I started to notice that color is really easy. You look at it and you get it and you don’t need to come back to it. With black and white, there’s more space for discovery and seeing new stuff. Also, it’s just quite calming.
[Laughs] I’d agree with that. Let’s talk about social media and identity. So many of my friends have an Instagram to maintain an image and then a side Instagram to be who they really are. It’s so bizarre to have to separate those.
There’s also something lost. Because we’ve grown up in this space where we don’t allow ourselves to seem vulnerable, we miss out on understanding that many of us do grow up in environments that weren’t super nurturing. How do we really make progress if the real you or the real experiences that you have are never on the surface?
It’s definitely a tough question. Going back to activism, I saw that you went to D.C. for the Million Women’s March. What was your experience like there?
I wasn’t sure if I was going to make it or not because I was meant to be in London, but I decided it was quite important to go [so] I found a last minute ticket on a charter bus. Being on the bus with fifty-five strangers all going to D.C. for the same reason was quite inspiring—there was this sense of solidarity and openness. You pull into D.C. and see hundreds and hundreds of other busses and you’re like… wow, this experience that I’m having on this bus is multiplied by thousands right now.
It was really incredible [at the march] to see a huge variety of speakers and to hear these inspiring, and heartfelt stories. Then, to go back out into the march and become this stream of support. When do you get to see that or experience that or be in that? Very, very rarely.
Definitely. There’ve been complaints that people show up for this, but they won’t show up for Black Lives Matters protest. What’s your take on this argument?
If you want to go down that route, you can say there’s a bombing in Paris and people turn out, [but] there’s one in Nigeria and people don’t turn out. You can start to go down that spiral or you can say okay, a lot of people came out to support. Yes, support isn’t as balanced as it should be and those discussions should be had because there is a disparity in what people will come out for. Yes, people’s support can be very biased, [but] we can take this from the surface and [say] this is supporting everyone and showing solidarity. Now, let’s expand on that and push that into other areas.
Interview: Chris Thomas
Photography: Andrew Boyle