Interview by Amanda Quinn Olivar, West Coast Editor
April Bey grew up in the Caribbean (Nassau, Bahamas) and now resides and works in Los Angeles, CA. Her interdisciplinary work is an introspective and social critique of American and Bahamian popular culture, immigration, contemporary pop culture feminism, generational theory, social media, AfroFuturism and race.
She received her BFA in drawing in 2009 from Ball State University and her MFA in painting in 2014 at California State University, Northridge in Los Angeles. Bey is in the permanent collection of The California African American Museum, The National Art Gallery of The Bahamas and Baha Mar in Nassau, Bahamas. She has exhibited internationally in both biennials NE7 and NE8 in The Bahamas, Italy, Spain and Accra Ghana, West Africa.
Bey travels extensively to collect data for both her artistic and academic work, having traveled to Canada, Iceland, London, Bali, Dubai, Morocco, Senegal, Nigeria, Benin and Togo and Ghana, West Africa. She is both a practicing contemporary artist and art educator/academic, having taught a controversial course at Art Center College of Design called Pretty Hurts, analyzing process-based art and Beyoncé hashtag faux feminism. Bey is currently a professor at Glendale Community College.
This exhibition is all about the color red... Tell me about the idea behind your piece. What was the process to transform that idea into reality, and how is "red" significant?
Red here is significant because it relates to the African print collected while in Ghana. Each print I use in my work was purchased from a woman selling the Chinese knockoff fabric in West Africa so each design corresponds to a different black woman. They act as portraits. Red fabric undertones are not easy to find however—so this piece uniquely acts as a portrait in rarity. The process of putting money into a community and by that transaction making art is an important reoccurring motif in my work.
This woman tied to this red design in particular was the only one out of about 80 women asked who would work with me in Accra, Ghana. You see, women selling this type of fabric specifically refuse to cut lengths of fabric less than 6 yards—after three hours of soliciting over 80 women she was the only one willing to work with my project and cut me 2 yards. At this point, I’ve worked with her for years and she has earned enough money from me to positively influence her business and those she supports.
Where does your interest in making art come from... Was there an aha moment? Tell me about your career path. How did it all start?
My interest in making art is excretory in nature—trauma, frustrations, coping, thriving all coexist as byproducts produced from my art practice and making. There’s never an “ah ha” moment for me because I struggle and fight with my work constantly. My work starts from ideas and conversations I have with other people. The ideas of making often conflict with physics so my process eventually becomes laborious and tedious in nature. I persist but only as a manic necessity to work through the ideas and conversations had.
Career path is akin to a beaver building a dam—there is strategy based in the primal drive to survive and stay alive but at the same time I’m building my career with chaos and found objects/relationships. I did the traditional route of art academia because I grew up in a developing country, black and in poverty—going to school wasn’t an option and traditional western paths were pushed heavily. I like to say now I survived academia and I work in academia as an infiltrator and catalyst for change.
My art career is strictly based now on the recipe of making good art followed by aggressively pursuing any fair opportunity presented. I used to believe networking as being a sole indicator for success but my body and mind can’t cope and I’m not built for such exercises—I can however make art so I make that my primary objective.
Let’s talk about your subject matter and process. Does your body of work involve detailed planning and execution, or do spontaneity and experimentation play a role?
Both. There’s detailed planning and execution in the sense that I have to travel to obtain materials to incorporate into my work. West African travel is hard and unpredictable so I have to be very strategic and able to react to unplanned issues while in the field. I’m rule-based and thus process-based so my work requires ruthless strategizing and execution. My materials matter and technique is specific to the process.
Spontaneity and experimentation comes into play when I begin a piece and finish it. Sometimes resin reacts wrong or, as a designer, I don’t want to use the right typeface or color theory—so I don’t. While I follow rules I tend to break them just to gauge the negative responses from elitist purists. Their shade fuels my practice.
Who are your favorite LA artists and influences right now?
Too many to name here, but: EJ Hill, Todd Gray, Mark Steven Greenfield, Umar Rashid (Frohawk Two Feathers), Kenyatta A.C. Hinkle, Cole James, Lavialle Campbell, June Edmonds, Genevieve Gaignard, Abel Alejandre, Laura Aguilar, Narsiso Martinez, Rakeem Cunningham.
What is your favorite art accident?
In grad school I used to come in at 5 am and on the weekends to work in my studio to avoid the other grad students who made it very difficult for me to focus and work. One Sunday morning I was working and it was also the first time I had used resin. I mixed the resin in a plastic container that wasn’t the right plastic grade for resin or perhaps it was a bad batch—in any event, I mixed it as the instructions said and turned around to prepare my piece when the plastic container caught fire.
Resin heats up when mixed, or mixed incorrectly?
I freaked out and ran outside to the ceramics area to grab the raku metal trash can lid. I threw the ignited blob (wearing gloves of course) into it and took it outside smothering it in dry clay. For a good long time no one could understand why there was a raku trash can lid with shiny plastic resin cured inside of it.
The California African American Museum later collected the piece I had mixed that resin for—it even contained some of the ignited resin in it. I became very good at resin mixing and setting after that because I was afraid to burn down the graduate studios.
Photo of April Bey: Courtesy of the artist
August 25 - September 29, 2018