What mark do you want to leave on this world? For Malene Barnett, the answer lies in celebrating and building on a legacy of makers, one stretching from West Africa to the Caribbean to the United States. Through her extensive research and travel, she looks to connect firsthand with maker communities across the African diaspora, taking in different ways of making and being. Honing on those distinctive aspects of life and traditions, Malene explores various mediums, processes, and handcrafted techniques with her art, always embracing and connecting those stories to her own.
This summer, our team had an opportunity to sit in the studio with Malene for a wide-ranging and stimulating conversation. As she freehand carved and etched a piece of clay, we discussed her inspiration for our collaboration, her thought process in designing the wallcoverings, and how she sees her work as connecting the dots within the African diaspora experience. So, in her own words, read on for the artist and activist's account of how the Kindred Collection came to life and what she hopes these pieces will inspire in people as they bring them into their own homes.
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Exploring Methods and Materiality In My Art
I would describe my style as an artist as a blend of contemporary concepts always reaching to the past, embracing traditional techniques, patterns, and colors. One of the things I'm really focused on with my practice is that I'm not just working within one medium. It's about the materials and being able to tell multiple stories with them. That's what's important to me—it's working in materials and knowing the processes of how you make a piece. Because each has a way of operating, the exciting part of working in different materials is developing other techniques, hoping that it's something new and unexpected. That sense of discovery is what makes the work special to me. And so learning is lifelong, and it's at the forefront of my life and my practice.
My Inspiration As An Artist
The inspiration for my art involves many sources. I start with the material culture of the African diaspora. Going back to origin stories in West Africa and then I travel through the Caribbean as well as America. Being an African-American, first-generation child of Caribbean immigrants, I go back to Jamaica, where my father is from, and St. Vincent, where my mother is from, to start to dissect those stories and really connect the dots to those West African traditions that you see prevalent in my collection and all of my work.
When designing the Kindred Collection, I hoped that it served as a continuation of my work, not only with the patterns it is based on but also the attachment people feel to the pieces. My work is rooted in charting the path of the diasporic experience and channeling the legacies of local potters, textile weavers, and woodcarvers who came before me. So, I appreciate that this collaboration encourages people to connect with these stories and bring them into their own homes.
Creating A Multidimensional Experience With Wallpaper
My connection to clay is a spiritual one. Unlike other mediums I've used in the past, clay is flexible in both surface and form. All my work is etched, carved, and painted freehand. My finished pieces have traces of my fingerprints, and this allows you to follow the making process. So, my first step in designing this wallpaper collection was reviewing a recent series of mine of hand-built ceramic vessels. I had to reimagine what spaces could look like incorporating both the look of the patterns and the feel of those pieces. I knew I wanted each wallpaper to be as tactile as my vessels, and the papers have textures and multi-pile heights, encouraging people to come close and touch the walls.
What I Hope To You Leave With
I love the color palette of this collection. It is representative of Mother Earth. From the indigo plants grown naturally to the terracotta Earth found through West Africa and the Caribbean, and the chalky whites used in spiritual, ancestral ceremonies. I'd say the Mosaic Wallpaper was my favorite pattern because of the meaning behind it. I see it as symbolic of the African diaspora experience—the experience of different communities being dispersed amongst the world, yet we stay connected through our culture. I hold dear to that idea, and I hope that this collection makes people feel inspired, empowered, and dream. I hope when people touch the wallpaper and spend time with it, they also feel that connection to that heritage and the ancestral stories it links back to.