Malene Barnett is more than an artist. Her work explores the African diaspora and spans disciplines resulting in a staggering body of art, community-building initiatives, and most recently, a Fullbright scholarship to Jamaica. Malene has worked with everything from ceramics to textiles, blending patterns, textures, and colors to celebrate and elevate Black culture while raising awareness of racial injustice. With someone who so seamlessly blends their work and life into a vector for impact, we were excited to see how she brings her style home. In our latest chat, we talked about her work—how it's evolved and the themes she always returns to. We also revisit her Kindred Collection and see how she's incorporated patterns and wallpaper in her home renovation to curate a space to live, to celebrate, and to be.
As an award-winning multidisciplinary artist and founder of Black Artists + Designers Guild (BADG)—you've been redefining what it means to be Black and female in the contemporary art world. Can you reflect on how that has informed your work throughout your career?
Over my career, I have realized the importance of challenging social constructs that define and separate art by medium or discipline, and my studio practice is constantly disseminating the hierarchies between art, craft, and design. Keeping this in mind, I work in various archival materials and processes focused on remembering ancestral-making techniques, from hand-building in clay, weaving to mark-making, and building communities, with particular attention highlighting Black women makers and the objects we make.
I'm constantly evolving and seeking ways to grow and connect Black diaspora histories, and my studio practice centered on Pan-Africanism continues to drive me to unearth Black diaspora narratives around crafts. An example of my evolution is in the " Legacy wall, " a ceramic mural wrapped around the fireplace in the living room. Each terracotta tile, hand pressed and carved and intentionally fragmented, analyzes a tactic of stripping the humanity of my ancestors during the middle passage. The "Legacy Wall" encourages Black people to focus on the beauty of being a part of the Black diaspora and our ability to piece our fragmented histories together to create new narratives to celebrate Black culture. In addition, the pattern and mark-making continue to drive me to use repetitive marks as a visual language to unite the community and encourage dialogues around Black craft traditions and culture.
My advocacy for Black craftspeople and desire to contribute to inclusive craft dialogues brought me to Jamaica on a Fulbright to explore my interest in African Jamaican pottery. And lastly, my ability to build community with BADG reminds me of the power of collective action over individualism. All these experiences are helping me redefine who I am as a maker of contemporary art.
We love your recent home renovation! How did you approach this revamp? Do you feel as though your work and your at-home aesthetic overlap?
The renovation started with a conversation with interior designer Leyden Lewis of Leyden Lewis Design Studio. I wanted Leyden's curatorial eye to review my patterned wallpaper and fine art. I needed Leyden to look at the work objectively to expand on the color palette and create narratives around the space. The process started with installing wallpapers from the Kindred collection throughout the house and revamping the entire townhouse. I wanted the interiors to blur the lines between my art and design practices and represent my philosophy of using patterns as a language to connect Black diasporic experiences..
What's the story you want your home to tell when people walk into your home?
I want people to see that an unapologetic single Black woman lives here. Black culture, laughter, and love live here too. It is intentional for my house to be a space to nurture ideas, share space with art and artists I admire, and host celebratory events. It's a theater for my own life.
It's been well over a year since the launch of the Malene Barnett Kindred Collection. It's nearly impossible to choose, but do you have one favorite, and has that changed over time?
Of course, it's hard to choose, but each piece brings me joy; knowing that I pay homage to the ancestors and celebrate Black culture, I can't help but love all of them.
You've previously shared styling tips on how customers can incorporate the collection into their homes. Tell us about deciding which space to style each wallpaper in.
I analyzed each pattern and color with Leyden's creative eye and asked a few questions to help allocate each design. How do you achieve an earthy, grounded kitchen? How do you create a gallery-like space? Alaari was selected for the kitchen because the tactile terracotta surface grounded the room. We wanted a softer palette in the living room compared to the kitchen, and Heritage wallpaper was the perfect fit. The more soothing palette allows the room to stand independently and serve as an excellent backdrop for the art. In the bedroom, we thought Mosaic was the ideal balance to create a jewel box-type room to support self-care. Ultimately I want people to intimately engage in my creative practice and be inspired by the collection.
You've added wallpaper into unexpected areas like the kitchen, entry, and bathroom. Could you speak to the benefits of bringing rich patterns and texture into spaces like those?
Installing wallpaper in the kitchen, entry, or bathroom is not unexpected. I wanted the walls to be sculptural instead of flat like paint, and adding wallpaper is just like placing art. Adding pattern and texture is beneficial because the design can live independently to create spaces like living art installations. The wallpaper is the foundation for adding art and changes the room by blurring the lines between each area. The wallpaper can act as a base for more complex layering in any colorway. The question is, how far do you want to go?
Artwork and personal touches make a room—tell us about your favorite pieces in your living space.
I'm biased. It's incredible to see my fine art living with my decorative art. My personal art and art collection have always inspired me, and seeing my patterned wallpaper as the foundation of the interiors is an example of living with art.
Malene, it's been such a pleasure to sit with you again, and congratulations on your recent MFA graduation and Fulbright fellowship! What are you looking to explore next as an artist?
Thank you! I'm working on ceramic mural projects and writing a book on contemporary Caribbean makers with Artisan Books, which will debut in Fall 2024. In addition, I'm creating a new body of work and a digital archive of Caribbean ceramic artists from the research gathered from the Fulbright experience. I can't wait to share more!Photography by Pratya Jankong