Who are you?
It’s a question that’s followed Shantell Martin her whole life, and it’s become the engine behind her signature sprawling freestyle line drawings, a collection of which is on display at Northeastern’s Gallery 360 through March 12. The show coincides with her talk Wednesday afternoon at 4 p.m. in Blackman Auditorium.
“As a young person, people would always ask me who I am, or why am I different from the rest of my family,” explained the London-born artist. “I’ve always been conflicted by people bringing their emotional baggage to who I was and why I maybe looked a different way.”
Perhaps it was then, or perhaps it was the jarring move to New York after five years in Japan—where she became a wildly popular video jockey—that this exploration of self, of identity, began for Martin.
“Who are you at the core? That’s something we all struggle to figure out,” she said. For Martin, however, figuring it out doesn’t mean putting herself in a box.
Martin is a queer artist of color, raised in working-class London, though those descriptions are far too narrow.
“I see those as boxes,” she said. “Yes, we need to lift these boxes up, but we don’t necessarily need to put ourselves in them. When people have asked me what it’s like to be a working class, queer, mixed race person of color, it’s difficult because I’ve not actually thought about those things; I’ve not put myself in those boxes.
“Instead, I’m an individual who’s trying to tell her story through the medium of drawing,” Martin said. “Through that, almost as a default, I’m lifting those boxes up as opposed to putting myself in them or holding those stereotypes down.”
Ultimately the question—“Who are you?”—took root in Martin and bloomed in her drawings.
Her artwork, which has appeared in the Brooklyn Museum, the Museum of the Contemporary African Diaspora, the Bata Show Museum, and at the prestigious Albright Knox Gallery in Buffalo, New York, is less static drawing and more conversation. And her techniques combining technology and art have garnered her success elsewhere as well. She’s a former adjunct professor at New York University and a current artist-in-residence at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab.
The lines in her artwork, which appear to have sprung off her pen with a lifeblood all their own, roam through her canvas—or sneaker, or shirt, or wall, or anything, really—with an energy that invites the viewer in, that makes accessible the often-opaque process of making art.
“I like the idea that I do something that’s so profoundly simple that we could all do it,” Martin said. “I draw. There’s nothing in there that’s inaccessible to you or anyone else out there. If you go to the Albright Knox and look around, it’s all drawing—I’ve drawn on found objects, on the wall, and I’ve done it all with ink or markers. You don’t need anyone between the art and the viewer to explain what it is. Everyone in some sense can relate to it; the process is accessible to them.”
In fact, Martin doesn’t want a single interpretation of her work; she wants viewers to find something in it for themselves. “I like to say that I’ve done my job—I’ve made the lines, I’ve made the marks—and now people can view it and bring their own ideas to it,” she said.
Such is the case with the pieces, 14 in all, that hang in Gallery 360. The drawings spread across panels whose backgrounds blend from yellow to green to blue to magenta, invoking a celestial atmosphere intentionally rendered.
Martin explained that she completed the drawings in her studio in Jersey City, New Jersey, a setting that inspired the colorful backdrop—a break from her usual black and white pieces. “There are literally the most amazing sunsets with all these crazy wild colors in it,” outside her studio, Martin said. “I felt inspired by these crazy colors that you get in Jersey City of all places. And we’re coming around on a new year, so I’ve thought about doing a gradient piece that is light to dark and has a story that evolves in it and through it.”
The pieces are also a departure from the way Martin usually works, in the sense that she created them without an audience. Her typical method of live drawing is meant to further break down the barrier between art and audience, artist and viewer.
Martin, who firmly believes that every artist should be equipped with the entrepreneurial tools to manage their art as a business, will deliver a lecture today in Blackman Auditorium, starting at 4 p.m. Following the event will be an opening reception of her new work in Gallery 360. The exhibition was co-organized by the Northeastern Center for the Arts, Gallery 360, and the Office of Institutional Diversity and Inclusion.