Jamaal Barber is a printmaker from Littleton, North Carolina. Although he admittedly hasn’t grasped the art of making fried chicken yet, he has repeatedly showcased his ability to conceptualize and skillfully create meaningful and powerful works of art. Barber recently sat down with us at ZuCot Gallery to discuss his process of creating, his responsibility as an artist, and his everyday life as a husband and father.
GG – Grace Gardner (Summer Intern at ZuCot Gallery), JB- Jamaal Barber (Artist)
GG: What is your sign?
JB: I’m a Taurus.
GG: What’s your favorite food?
JB: Oh man, what is my favorite food. I’m gonna say fried chicken.
GG: What do you like to do for fun?
JB: Make art and do printing.
GG: Who is your favorite artist?
JB: I don’t have one favorite artist because I take different things from different people. Romare Bearden means the most to me because I read his book and he talked to me. What [artists are] saying to me is important. Charles White and David Driscoll, they say something to me. When I see their work I feel it.
GG: What responsibility, if any do you place on yourself as an artist, but more specifically as a Black artist?
JB: That’s an interesting question because I’ve been grasping with that for a while. For me as an artist it’s hard for me to do innocuous art. By innocuous I mean cows, horses … just random puppies in the window. I can’t do that kind of work. It doesn’t interest me. Only when I start to say something, express something does the work start to flow and become interesting to me. And I think that’s a function. When I started drawing, I did it as a way to express myself. So now, I’ve been doing it so long, it’s pretty much the only way that I know I can express myself. So now it’s developed to the point where I can’t say what I’m feeling. I have to make a piece about it. I see all art through my own experience. Using that as my experience, I think it’s imperative that me as a Black artist especially I’m saying something about the world that we’re living in especially when stuff is happening that’s affecting us, that’s killing us – stuff that’s happening in the community because even my Hood Politics series—it’s about other things, but it’s also about us. It’s not just I gotta talk about our ears. … I’m speaking to all of it and I have to as an artist. I can’t sit back with all of this stuff going on and paint butterflies. It’s like I can’t do it because it’s not true. If my art is an expression of myself, it can’t be flowers in a window cuz that’s not me. That’s not my world. That’s not what I live. I have to speak to it. You know, but I know every artist is not like that so I don’t put that burden on all of them, but I think it’s a noble pursuit of art. It’s a good way to use your talents—to say these things, to make statements, to provoke people into thought, but it’s not necessary. Don’t think that just because I’m making all of these huge social statements that you have to make the social statements. No you can paint flowers if you want to. I may not be into it. […] When I see a piece that’s talking about Hurricane Katrina, about Black identity… that is interesting to me. I’m drawn to that as Jamaal, the individual. You can like whatever you like, but I know my function when I come to my art and I know when I sit down, if I’m not saying anything nothing comes out. I’ll sit there with a blank board […] and nothing will come out. You just gotta know your function. You gotta know what works for you.
GG: As a professional artist, do you ever find yourself in a place of conflict between wanting to make a living off of your work or making art that sells quickly, but isn’t work that you want to make for yourself or work that allows you to fully express yourself in the ways that you want to express yourself?
JB: Yeah that’s the constant part. Every time I sit down I think, “Who’s going to buy this?”
GG: How do you navigate between creating something where you’re allowed to fully express yourself and share your thoughts, ideas, and reflections on the current state of the world, but also…
JB: I don’t. See that’s the thing. For me, you gotta do what works for you. I’ve tried to do other things. It never works for me. So my focus has to come from not just doing the art that I like, but executing it – You execute it on such a high level, to the best of your abilities, that people can’t walk by it. That’s basically my solution to that issue: Do it better than I’ve ever done anything before. … The only way I can mentally deal with the stress of “maybe this isn’t going to sell” is for me to say to myself, “Jamaal, you have to make this the greatest piece you’ve ever done” every single time.
GG: What advice do you have for those pursuing a career in art or for those who just simply want to create?
JB: I tell everyone focus on the work. If your work is not good and you don’t develop a habit of creation, it doesn’t matter how you brand yourself. Does [your] work build a career meant to sustain itself – meant to evolve? Always keep the art first because the art leads to everything else.
GG: What is the most important thing you feel the world should know about Jamaal Barber, the artist and/or printmaker?
JB: I put it in the art. Everything you need to know about me, I put it in the art.