Shari Phoenix is a 23-year-old artist from Barbados who confronts stereotypes around the black collective identity by creating provocative ‘grotesque’ visual representations, which urge the viewer to rethink beauty ideals.
Initially leaning towards a career in the sciences, her passion for art became clear so she pursued her fine art studies at the Barbados Community College, a year later she is now a professional artist.
C – Could you elaborate on the concept of ‘grotesque’, where it came from and how you would like to develop this? What are your inspirations?
S – The idea of the grotesque came from the characteristic of the black racial caricature when I was looking at Black representation in my second year of the Bachelor’s program at the Barbados Community College. I was having difficulty justifying the use of the caricature in my work at the time. So from there, I started researching the qualities of the caricature and discovered the over-exaggeration of the features of the caricature, which eventually led to the discovery of the grotesque. I kept researching the grotesque and found out about grotesque realism and the carnivalesque which are both theories by Mikhail Bakhtin.
The work then developed into the over-exaggeration of the costume pieces which deconstruct and challenge the idea of the ideal beauty and of perfection through the human’s most natural form. I’m not sure if it can develop any more than it currently is but who knows, I may have to see where the work takes me. I would have to say my experiences as a twin would be one of my biggest inspirations as well as struggling with this idea that if I do not look a certain way, I am not pretty or gorgeous and I think that is a problem a lot of us Black females struggle with. Accepting ourselves for how we are and how we look.
It is an attempt to reclaim the power in our features that were taken to ridicule us. Not only our features but our speech and actions.
C – One of your most controversial series: ‘I am not your Nigger’ emphasises the racialization of black features, through exaggerated and distorted mouths and noses, how effective is your visual activism ? Were you influenced by James Baldwin’s literature ?
S – I know of James Baldwin but I am not that familiar with his literature, I will need to change that. I have seen some of his interviews and His words always move me. I want my work to make people think about their Blackness. I would hope that through my radical artwork that it is effective and moving, even if it isn’t moving, I want it to be heavy on the minds of the viewers. I want them to feel something. One can say it was a response to the caricature which was made of Serena Williams.
It is an attempt to reclaim the power in our features that were taken to ridicule us. Not only our features but our speech and actions. In reclaiming these forms of Blackness, I would hope that they would no longer have a hold on us.
“This piece experiments with using the racist black caricature as well as my costumes to disrespect the classic representation of whiteness, in the same way, they use these same caricatures against us. For example, the Serena Williams caricature when she broke her tennis racket or the images of Obama as monkeys.
This piece attempts to make people think about what they are doing when they use racist imagery to attack black people. In a way to see how it feels, If I did this to “Mona Lisa,” would you be outraged. If I did this to “The Girl with the Pearl Earring,” would you be angry? … And we are not to be angry when you deface mural promoting that our lives matter? When you throw paint on Breonna Taylor’s billboard or deface George Floyd’s mural? We are fighting fire with fire at this point. If it is successful or not, you tell me. Give me your feedback in the comments. On another note… outside of the concept… I think this painting is absolutely gorgeous and I love it soooooooo muchhhhhh and i know the images are absolute trash but heyyyy such is life” – Shari Phoenix’s instagram post.
C – Using blackface to disturb the comfortable, the series ‘Are you offended yet’, confronts the ridicule and the process of destruction through inserting masks onto classical paintings, and flipping the script to question whiteness – what inspired this process ?
Anger and frustration. I am a very emotional person so that tends to drive my work quite a lot. This series was created during the George Floyd protest in the States. At that time there were murals and sculptures of him as well as Breonna Taylor that were defaced and destructed. I was so upset so I was like, ok if that’s what you all are doing, I’m going to fight fire with fire. Get vexed now. I was so angry. Hence the title “Are you offended yet?” I wanted the view to be appalled and disgusted. I want them to understand how it feels for that to be done to our representations of Blackness.
5 – You are based in Barbados. How does Caribbean culture influence your artwork ?
Yes, Caribbean culture does influence my work, Caribbean carnival culture being the biggest influence especially in regards to costume making. Thanks to my upbringing I have been exposed to the happenings of Crop over as many band leaders came to my house to commission my father to make costumes for fore-day morning as well as grand kadooment. I believe that is how my work eventually got to the point of the costume.
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