Toni Morrison said, “The best art is political, and you ought to be able to make it unquestionably political and irrevocably beautiful at the same time.”
This sentiment is especially true for Black artists who have historically and often used their work to navigate complex issues like racism, sexism, classism, and homophobia and find a way forward. For many Black artists, their work speaks not only for themselves but for the many others whose voices are often left out of mainstream media and art spaces.
“I don’t use my artwork to bring about social justice. It’s not one of my goals as an artist. However, I think that my artwork makes that happen and is inherently political because of my Blackness and queerness,” explains Gabriella Grimes, a visual artist who primarily uses their work to depict trans folks in beautiful, vibrant, and honest settings.
Grimes’ work is about self-acceptance and helping queer people of color, especially trans folks, celebrate their identities. They say, “By painting queer people of color with a focus on trans people, I put a part of the population that people like to pretend doesn’t exist directly into people’s vision. I tell people ‘we’re here, we’ve always been here, and we’re not going anywhere. We deserve to be happy and safe!’”
In a recent piece titled “I Must Keep Going,” Grimes explores the tough realities of trying to find safe housing as a queer couple. Trans folks are more likely to experience homelessness and housing insecurity than other groups. A 2015 survey found that 30% of trans people will experience homelessness during their lifetime.
“I Must Keep Going” was created in July 2022, as Grimes and their partner were traveling constantly between New York City and Philadelphia trying to find a place to live after spending a year in dangerous living conditions that led to their space being flooded 12 times in as many months.
“It felt like just as we began to breathe again, another flood would happen,” explains Grimes. “And we would have to deal with days of cis men coming into our house, dirtying it up, messing up our belongings, and leaving us with fans so loud we would have to stop work and leave the house for hours on end.”
Although this time was extremely difficult for Grimes and their partner, art helped Grimes be able to share their experience in a way that offered hope to others struggling in the same situation.
“My piece was a reflection of this struggle, and a public dedication to helping my partner and I move into more stable housing closer to the support of community. It was a really hard time, but my piece was received with open arms by my queer community who needed this illustrated affirmation just as badly,” says Grimes.
Through sharing their work, Grimes is proud to say that they have helped many people “come out, seek social or medical transition, or have open dialogues with those they care about.”
Similarly, multidisciplinary artist B. Carrie-Yvonne was inspired by the practice of archiving Black art and life when they decided to start archiving their own life and the life of their family members through footnotes and film photography. Carrie-Yvonne has witnessed how Black folks’ stories have historically been misrepresented to fit a certain narrative, and they want to leave behind a legacy of truth so no one will ever have to wonder who they were or what they stood for.
“I personally was preparing for my name change. I did not want anybody, whenever I passed away, to wonder who was B, and what did B do, and to talk about me in a way that was not authentic to myself,” they say. “Keeping footnotes and me getting into photography was a way for me to hold on to my truth. It’s exactly how I feel the day of what was going on, the music that I was listening to, so nothing will be inaccurate.”
Their passion for documenting Black life now extends far beyond only their life and the lives of their family members. Carrie-Yvonne recently became a birth worker so that they can assist Black birthing folks through the birthing process and write their stories.
Black birthing folks in the United States are met with a unique set of barriers—including racism and a lack of adequate healthcare—that can make the entire birthing process more difficult. Black women are three times as likely to die during childbirth than white women. Even after surviving childbirth, Black birthing folks have a harder time receiving paid parental leave and getting support for breastfeeding.
Carrie-Yvonne uses poetry to write about this vast range of Black birth stories—from abortions to miscarriages and those families who bring a baby home—and the people behind them because Carrie-Yvonne believes that Black life, full of struggles and triumphs, must always be remembered.
They explain their love of poetry, saying, “People can tell their whole story in the matter of a stanza. Southern people, we talk in metaphors naturally all the time anyway.”
Like Grimes, art has helped Carrie-Yvonne to uplift themself and their community. Carrie-Yvonne wants Black artists to know, “Your voice is your power. You know your own language better than anybody else, and you have people out there that love you who haven’t met you yet, so keep making art.”