Revelation: An Interview with Chantay James | Hosted by Millie Norman

Multidisciplinary artist Chantay James' latest project, 'Revelation', adopts a transhistorical framework to explore and challenge art's deeply imbalanced and oppressive past. Through her electric marrying of digital art and poses from famous artworks, James smudges the division between contemporary and traditional modes of representation, producing works that act as powerful reclamations of spaces that have erased and othered Black women. In this interview, James speaks to us about her interdisciplinary approach, the role of education in her work and where she hopes to take her art next.

MN: There’s a real sense of transhistorical scope in this series – from the Renaissance motifs and aesthetics, the appropriation of poses from Modern era works such as ‘Olympia’, to your contemporarily-grounded digital manipulation of medium. What role does creating and engaging with this historical synthesis play in your work? How and why do these spaces interact? 

CJ: I think the role of creating and engaging with historical synthesis and transhistorical scope plays a major role within my work. It is part of the foundation that makes the conversation within it so important. By bringing the two elements together - both engaging with the historical western art periods and contemporary digital manipulation of my own realities - with the ability to recreate, the connected whole that both play into simultaneously is added to. Personally, one would not work without the other, hence why they interact.

Using digital art to portray these new spaces and creations whilst challenging a period which specifically used painting, furthered this idea of contemporary modes of representation. Additionally, in terms of ‘spaces’, my work definitely confronts many elements within both the historical and contemporary world. I say this as I also intend to alter the narrative of the female body within these spaces, by integrating the nude from renaissance art with the continuously over-exoticised black female body. Although my work changes the narratives of these works and women through racial understanding, it undoubtably questions sexualisation.

This sense of confrontation - statement, revelation even, equals with themes of purity, dignity, consciousness and validation. I believe the use of engagement, creation and manipulation through mediums, context and display allow these themes to take place. Truly, the work itself is filled with juxtapositions, due to its approach in opposing sides which essentially meet in the middle. By opposing sides, I mean the interaction of these historical and contemporary spaces, mediums, and approaches - all which play major roles.

MN: What was the experience or relationship like between yourself and your models? To what extent does performance play a role in the project?

CJ: Although I have some sort of relationship with my models, each experience from my point of view has differed. I say this because though each model is recreating poses from the same era, their body language, confidence, experience and mood changes the dynamic of an entire piece. I feel these ‘changes’ are a positive thing as it allows me to be challenged and work with them on a personal as well as professional level - rather than strictly a one-dimensional approach.

It is also important to me that I take the time to have conversations with each model. I want them to want to be a part of the work rather than being “the help”. I believe this also helps them feel comfortable, considering they are appearing nude in front of the camera. The level of comfort depends on the model of course.

Honestly, by just observing the intention and structure within each pose one specifically personifies, brings an additional theatrical and modern theme to the work. Whereas, another may lack experience in front of the camera, meaning there is an increase in direction, ultimately altering the experience for both me and them. This builds a different style of relationship and approach, effectively resulting in these images in particular having relation to the ‘everyday woman’. Noticeably there appears to be a laid-back approach to these specific pieces which I also love, essentially reinforcing the commonly portrayed renaissance models. Interestingly, these elements are brought to the work by the model themselves meaning they truly embody each pose and hopefully gain even more confidence.

MN: At the centre of ‘Revelation’ is a powerful reclamation of the culturally revered artworks and spaces that simultaneously portray Black women as othered, overshadowed, exoticised or subservient. What does empowerment and reclamation mean to you in the context of your work and creative process?

CJ: The meaning of empowerment and reclamation to me and within my work is seen through liberation, resilience and emancipation, by placing the black female body at the forefront of a treasured art period which overlooked her. Which was precisely a white patriarchal space.

This transformation is also portrayed within the mediums and processes within my work: taking a contemporary digital approach to challenge and question the modes of these traditional representations, which, from a distance, depict paintings when displayed,, confronting the audience to truly observe what they are seeing - medium and context wise.

Without a doubt, empowerment and reclamation contribute to the main drive behind my work, amongst other factors like education and starting conversations. It is significant in understanding my approach as the artist. I feel that there are several ways you can portray or critique something; however, through uplifting and educating others, reclamation can form - elevating the work.

MN: ‘Revelation’ places your models at the centre, rather than as an adjacent, and by reclaiming the poses of works such as ‘The Birth of Venus’ they operate as the sole signifier of traditional, natural, feminine beauty – reserved almost exclusively, both historically and in contemporary spaces, for whiteness. Is there ever a tension between the power of reclamation of oppressive spaces and an element of destabilisation in working within them?

CJ: I believe, it may cause tension for some individuals or raise particular questions. But I feel that may come from ignorance to an extent, which I do not let derail my motivation. In all honesty the thought of supposed ‘tension’ encourages me to keep producing work. I personally feel as though the ‘controversy’ when changing or reclaiming a space as the oppressed also comes from a space of fearing change and comprehending something people may not be used to. It also stems from the pedestal these old masters and Western art periods are put on, amongst being highly valued and respected. Some may perceive these spaces as territorial – triggering protectiveness resulting in deflection away from the artist's intention.

I personally do not gain tension when creating or releasing my work online or in public spaces because it revolves around my reality within the art scene. Ultimately, art tells a story – and this is mine.

Regardless of the particular art period I chose to base it around, I am speaking from my truth. I also feel that tension between reclamation of oppressive spaces and the element of destabilisation can be necessary in some cases as it provokes vital educational and meaningful conversations, which are pivotal elements to peoples understanding of things. I like to view my work as a form of empowerment, rather than solely a critique. It challenges notions, educates, raises questions and includes meaning.

MN: A key aspect of the project is education. Have the failures of museums, cultural centres and other art education institutions, in part, rendered this a core principle in your work? With so few Black curators, museum directors and artists in major permanent collections, is it possible for them to be reformed enough to become inclusive, truthful spaces? 

CJ: Yes, the lack of representation in these institutions does contribute to the core principal ideas in my work. Essentially, these are the spaces where art is widely required, which sets the tone to its audiences on what is deemed to be ‘good enough’ or ‘accepted’.

Unfortunately, this can be detrimental to the artists it fails to represent, essentially perpetuating systemic racial inequalities across the art industry, which perhaps links to the absence of black curators, museum directors and artists within these major permanent collections. I believe their lack of support overshadows their existence within these fields. Personally, I feel reformation comes with acknowledgment and acceptance of the things we may find difficult to accept, rather than the urge to ‘fill a gap’. Then the process of truth and inclusivity can begin.

Essentially art is a form of education and teaching of history. An education which should also adapt to both historic and contemporary periods – one which is inclusive across the spectrum of diverse artists and their history too.

I feel reformation comes with acknowledgment and acceptance of the things we may find difficult to accept, rather than the urge to ‘fill a gap’. Then the process of truth and inclusivity can begin.

MN: On the representation of Black models in the fashion industry, bell hooks said ‘Often Black women's bodies are positioned in a freakish, distorted manner. Black women are put in unnatural wigs and shown in contorted positions so that the adjacent White female body always appears to be a signifier of 'natural' beauty’, demonstrating the endurance of the ideals at the core of the representation of Black women in the Renaissance era (othering, overshadowing, exoticising). In what ways does ‘Revelation’ celebrate Black femininity?

CJ: I totally agree with bell hooks -we see this beyond, during and after the renaissance period. It is a modern issue also.

'Revelation' celebrates black femininity through its understanding and acknowledgment of black women’s positions and experiences in terms of: racism – by placing the absent black body within a period which neglected it, whilst also raising awareness to their non-existence within the contemporary art industry. Also Sexism – by specifically using the nude / barely clothed black female body, which is largely exoticised. As well as class oppression – by challenging, questioning and critiquing western art history as a form of restoration and empowerment. Ultimately this makes up the definition of Black Feminism.

Revelation celebrates this similarly through colour, theme, resilience, display, the leading subject and size.

MN: Where do you see your work going next?

CJ: Next, I am trying to work towards eventually having my debut solo exhibition. I am also continuing to make new work, and honestly just enjoying the process of making. All whilst working towards getting my work into some new exhibitions (big and small) alongside other talented creatives.

Genuinely, I have also found myself using this current time as an opportunity to connect with new artists. Whether it is simply through appreciating each others work, buying, promoting, joining collectives, collaborating or signing up to open calls. So definitely getting experience and creating new opportunities for myself is high on my agenda too.

Ultimately, I would love my work to be well established because of its message and seen within these very spaces that I challenge within it. I believe by doing so can create a space for work similar to be normalised within art institutions for generations to come.