People, history, culture and music inspire Chicago artist and designer Caira Lee Conner to create works that explore blackness and black identity. if i may be so BOLD talked with Conner about her inspirations, Afrofuturism and her brand Afro X Naut.
if i may be so BOLD (IIMBSB): Tell me about Afro X Naut. What is it and how did you come up with the concept?
Caira Lee Conner (CLC): Afro x Naut began in my senior year of college [at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago] when I was developing my design concept for my senior collection. I was initially researching the relationship between street art and urban landscapes, which led me to this incredible street/visual/performance artist, hip hop artist and ultimately ideologist named Rammellzee. He was a true renaissance artist, a little off, but creatively brilliant nonetheless. He wrote a manifesto about his theory of words and letters being mathematical algorithms and all of this other rather convoluted stuff that I found so interesting because it used elements of history with this truly new way of thinking. His work came out of these ideas of the past, present and future using found objects on current forms to create new shapes and ideas. In my research, Rammellzee was popping up in all of these articles about this thing called Afrofuturism that I never heard of. Once I saw the movie ‘The Last Angel of History’ by John Akomfrah (an Afrofuturist film) I was hooked. I quickly realized how the work I was already doing had elements of afrofuturism in it and how I was already drawn to afrofuturist inspired artists and musicians. It was literally like I woke up and found my identity. I began developing as an afrofuturist fashion designer, but I knew that I didn’t want to be boxed into one form of creativity. In that way, Afro x Naut functions as a way for me to do anything under one name that all comes from this same headspace. I wrote a brief sort of definition of Afro x Naut when I created it. I won’t say the whole thing but the last line reads: Afro x Naut adopts, borrows, and steals subconscious and conscious symbols of blackness. It is our past and our future. Pyramids and Spaceships. It seeks to recognize and uplift the manifold, fractured, beautiful black self.
IIMBSB: Would you describe yourself as an Afrofuturist? If so, why?
CLC: I would absolutely describe myself as an Afrofuturist. Before learning about it, all of my art pieces were about my search to understand my identity as a Black woman. I have always been really into history, specifically Black history. I think as Black people in America it is important that we don’t buy into the idea that our story starts with slavery. There is so much more rich and fascinating history that has happened all across this planet lived by people who look like us, so why not know it? I use history as a way to uplift myself and others, and I use futurism to do the same thing. As a Black person, a member of a marginalized people, I feel a compulsory longing for the future. I think it’s an affliction for many marginalized people to be constantly thinking of a better and brighter future where oppressive institutions don’t exist and identity is not used against anyone, but rather celebrated. Afrofuturism for me does exactly that. It looks at the past with reverence and uplifts it past the present to the future to create this amalgamation of self. I believe that is what Black identity is anyway, a melting pot of all these different influences across time.
IIMBSB: It seems like you’ve been really active in the Black Lives Matter movement. How have recent social, political events influenced you as an artist and designer?
CLC: My work hasn’t been directly affected by the current energy but I think only time will tell, I mean I do have a few ideas for paintings and t-shirts that are marinating right now so we’ll see. While I’ve always consciously made an effort to be aware, conscious, awake or whatever you want to call it, I never sought to be active until recent events. I feel like Trayvon grabbed my arm, Mike Brown and Eric Garner twisted it behind my back, then Rekia Boyd and Aiyana Stanley-Jones pushed me against the wall.
At first I passively took up a role as a social media ‘activist’ (sarcasm) meaning sitting in front of a computer posting any news stories or articles that I came across for my ‘friends’, which surprisingly enough people actually reached out and thanked me for because I guess they weren’t hearing about things otherwise. Eventually I fell into a space where I was only posting these articles while watching my partner, who is a real activist and organizer in Chicago, do work all over the city. Between seeing him be active and the growing angst and energy of the movement, I realized I needed to be doing something and really had no reason not to. I have gone to several actions, events, rallies, and panels over the last year, which allowed me to learn about some of the amazing organizers, and groups that were doing work around the Black Lives Matter movement, which led to my interest in the Chicago Light Brigade (CBL). What drew me to start working with CBL was their focus on art in the movement more specifically with radical arts education for active youth. So while my work under Afro x Naut may not touch on the movement, I am still working with art in organizing.
“I have always been really into history, specifically Black history. I think as Black people in America it is important that we don’t buy into the idea that our story starts with slavery.”
IIMBSB: Who/what else are you gaining inspiration and perspective from?
CLC: I am most motivated by music and people. Music that I can just get lost in tends to inform my doodles and drawings, which is where everything always starts. I doodle A LOT. Doodles have turned into whole projects, tattoos, and illustrations just because a song or album gave me a certain vibe. I’ve got a collection of paintings planned out now that all started when I was listening to a playlist with Betty Davis and Jimmy Hendrix. It could be anything though. People really inspire me too. I love interesting looking people. The features of their face can draw me in or just their own style or vibe. I’ll see a cool looking kid walking down the street and redesign his outfit, or just imagine him in something else and then ideas are born. I can’t forget history too. I like reading about different cultures and practices and seeing how it would manifest in an afrofuturist form. Things like that don’t always develop into projects but it definitely keeps me creative.
IIMBSB: Did you see or hear about Kara Walker’s “A Subtlety”? I know the hype surrounding it has died down, but I’m interested in what you think?
CLC: I’m still upset that I didn’t get a chance to see it in person. I love and appreciate the hell out of Kara Walker as an artist and I wanted to be able to experience that work first hand. Much like this piece, her work always has a sense of repulsiveness and dissonance to me. Her paper cut out pieces juxtaposes childlike storytelling with imagery from slavery. If that’s not jarring then I don’t know what is. ‘A Subtlety’ does that same thing just in a much much larger space. You
expect to see sugar in a sugar factory, but you don’t expect to see an art piece that speaks to the history of sugar production that looks like a large black woman. I understand the hurt and confusion people felt because of the reactions from visitors, specifically white visitors and for the representation of Black women in the piece itself. However I don’t view Black art and consider the reactions from white audiences first off, and I am not one to say that we have to completely sensor the way we show Black female bodies. I think people’s reactions stemmed the way we as Americans view the naked body combined with the social history of the Black female body. Both of these I believe Walker was conscious of, I mean she didn’t use a sphinx and the head of mammie for no reason. I can go on about this forever but I’ll stop there.
IIMBSB: Best design moment so far?
CLC: I’d have to say the collaboration between my friend Slater and I on the photo shoot for my junior collection. The concept for my looks that year was the beginning of my understanding of identity. At a loss for how to search for identity through fashion and after reading W. E. B. Dubois, I drew on stereotypes of what it means to be Black and what it means to be American. The result was large blond afro’s, jumpsuits made out of african prints and picnic table fabric, shoes with american flags coming off of them….it was bright, weird, disjointed, and honestly jarring but well worth the results of the photos. I met Slater through school and knew from his own work that he would be the best photographer to work with. As a Black man, he not only knew where I was coming from but had explored the same ideas in his performance art. Our collaboration proved to be one of the coolest things that I’ve done and I am looking forward to working with him again soon.
IIMBSB: Most embarrassing design moment?
CLC: I made a headpiece that was supposed to be an enormous afro made out of cotton, but the construction underneath was questionable to say the least. I struggled building it for two weeks and never really felt great about it. During the critique, my teacher stopped me only a minute into my presentation to ‘put Krystle out of her misery’. My friend Krystle had the headpiece on while I was speaking but it ended up being so heavy and cumbersome that she was wilting under the weight of it. I didn’t get a great critique on that one but it made way for what would eventually be my junior collection.
“Make sure what you create and bring into this world is intentional in some way. By real, I mean you do you. […] By real, I also mean on a larger scale. Don’t appropriate culture.”
IIMBSB: Any advice for aspiring artists, designers?
CLC: I feel like I’m still aspiring myself but if I had to say, I think it would be to make sure everything you do is intentional and real. I see a lot of art and design coming from other young artists that just doesn’t seem to be purposeful. I’ve never been a fan of art for art’s sake because of the social implications that happen down the road. Art doesn’t exist in a vacuum, nor can it be created in one, so I don’t think the purpose of it should be devoid of context. This is especially critical for Black artists. I believe black art, much like our bodies, are inherently political. A lot of people don’t agree or like the idea that Black artists can’t create things without them having to do with Blackness or fall under ‘Black art’ but I believe the two can’t be mutually exclusive. So with that point, make sure what you create and bring into this world is intentional in some way. By real, I mean you do you. It’s so easy to mimic what other people are doing around you, some would argue it’s impossible not to, but I think it is your duty to try your hardest not to. By real, I also mean on a larger scale. Don’t appropriate culture.
Artists/Designers who appropriate other usually marginalized cultures, and show on white bodies or in socially recognized ‘white’ spaces are showing the rest of us that they have no creativity and it truly bothers me.
IIMBSB: What are you working on now?
CLC: Right now I am working on one of the paintings I mentioned earlier that will be part of a set of 3. The working idea is ‘hip hop’ portraits that will be done on wood. The first one is based on a photoshop composite of Erykah Badu and her huge fro wearing a hat with flowers. The finished piece won’t be of Erykah but it’s supposed to be reminiscent of a formal portrait with this wild child Black woman. It’s a the biggest piece I’ve painted or drawn before on a 3 ft x 5 ft plank of wood but it’s coming along really nicely and I’m excited to finish it.
I’ve been doing some side art-related jobs as well and building on my layout and graphic design skills. Most recently I’ve been contracted to do illustrations for a children’s book for black girls.
IIMBSB: And just because I’m curious, what are your thoughts on NYFW so far in 140 characters or less?
CLC: Favorites (so far): Alice + Olivia, Public School, and Alexander Wang. Kanye West: underwhelming and disappointing. Rodarte: almost makes up for the last season.