Keeping Company With Jaguars: Art and Identity With Brianna McCarthy

Originally published in print issue #133 of Metro Magazine on 28 March, 2014.

Her women are reflected in her. That much is clear as I sit with Brianna McCarthy in the Propaganda Space in Belmont; a communal art space administrated by Robert Young of The Cloth, for our interview. It’s where she works when she isn’t working in her private studio.

Anyone familiar with her work can immediately make the connection between art and artist: elements of Brianna’s own image turn up constantly as motifs in her work. From the shape of her nose, to the kink of her hair, there is a little bit of herself in each of her women.

According to Brianna, this is both intentional and unintentional.

“I think, I create women because I am a woman. My work is personal. They’re not quite self portraits, but I think I’m definitely trying to work through something in my art. My work is how I get things out in a way that feels organic to me.”

It’s in this way that the theme of identity is paramount to Brianna’s work. By deconstructing faces, and putting them back together again, she began the process of making and remaking identities.

“I think we’re constantly in the process of making ourselves, and I’m fascinated by the way we are constantly creating our own universes in a way. That kind of came out in seeing how I put faces together.”

“I have this thing I call the Maker/Mender Mythology, where people are constantly constructing and deconstructing themselves. I believe we have the ability to fix parts of ourselves we don’t like, and for me that’s no different from me switching out a piece of fabric in one of my pieces. It’s obviously not that simple because as people we’re far more complex, but it fascinates me that we are able to create ourselves.”

And create herself she does. For even though her women are constructed with everything from polka dots to lace, they remain somehow distinctly “black” in spirit.

“I think that’s something that comes from my own experience. It’s always been important to me to find my own face in another. There’ aren’t that many reflections for black women to look at, or for them to see something in themselves. I think it’s important for me to do that for black women because they don’t get that enough. ”

Her first solo show in 2012, “After Colour” dealt with ideas around skin colour and beauty quite directly. After receiving a skin-bleaching pamphlet in the mail, Brianna began her exploration of the way skin colour ties into our perceptions of beauty.

“I think, I just had such a reaction to that pamphlet. I felt so violated by it. I felt like, no one had the right to leave it in my mailbox. And the idea was on my mind so I got online and started looking. And that’s when I realized how deeply ingrained shadeism was, and how deeply rooted the issue is. It felt almost pointless to tackle it.”

This train of thought led her to create her first doll of cloth. A faceless, mismatched amalgam of colours and patterns with an afro of lace, the doll allowed her articulate the link between looks and identity.

“I just thought… we’re made up of so many different parts, that it didn’t make sense to me that all you would see is skin colour, and then decide that that was what made you beautiful. I mean, this doll didn’t even have eyes, and people still thought she was beautiful. ”

And out of that, After Colour explored a different way to engage the issue of skin colour; her dolls illustrated all the complexities we would be able to see in people after we stopped seeing colour.

Another project, entitled “CC: Everybody”, a collaborative project with artist Rodell Warner explored the ways in which we express what we find valuable about ourselves and others. The project, which involved recreating personal classified ads on party posters, was distilled to those dealing with race for the show.

“Nice. Thick. Red. That’s all the ad would say. And I think it’s interesting that when we are called on to sell ourselves, skin colour usually plays a really big role. You wouldn’t find “dark” so much, because obviously, that wasn’t a selling point. But you would find that if a person was light skinned, and they wanted to convey that, that would be the first word in the ad.”

But throughout our entire conversation, Brianna is careful to avoid the bombshell word: race.

“I think that the thing itself is discussed in so many ways that to add to the conversation, you have to add something that isn’t already there. I don’t think it’s necessary to be so direct all the time, because it can become quite abrasive. It’s something we have to address because these problems aren’t going anywhere, but I choose to do it a little differently, and encourage people to think about it from a different perspective.”

With such deep intentions, it’s no wonder that Brianna personifies her women. Her creations are individual women with distinct personalities.

“I feel them. Sometimes I dream them. They have different vibes and they feel different to me, so it only makes sense to personify them. They are only “she” to me.”

Becoming an artist was an organic decision for Brianna. While working as a Corporate Communication Officer at a graduate business school, Brianna would get to work early to post her artwork online to her blog. The exposure the internet granted opened her up to a much larger audience than she expected, and eventually, realizing she was busier with her art than at her job, she took the risk and quit in 2009. She’s been a full-time artist ever since.

“I’m completely self taught!” she laughs. After starting classes at UWI in 2003, Brianna changed her major three times, and then dropped out. She has never studied art in a formal way, with the exception of her CXC art classes.

But despite no formal art education, the 30 year old already has two solo shows under her belt, as well as the cover of Arc Magazine, a Caribbean arts publication.

While she doesn’t have anything immediately in the pipeline for 2014, Brianna does hope to release an older collaborative project she did in 2012 with photographer Sancho Francisco.  As to the future? In 5-10 years, Brianna sees herself traveling and continuing to work.

“I just think I would like to experience my life however it happens, and see where it goes.”