In celebration of Black History Month, we are publishing an archived interview with Christina Hairston from February, 2016.
Images by Christina Hairston
Christina Hairston is an artist, activist, and senior student in VCUarts. Around campus she is known for being a trendsetter and being actively involved in her community. Her striking ensembles and significant, consistent presence make her instantly identifiable. She is a founder of Black Art Student Empowerment and is also an organizer of the BlackVCUSpeaks movement. In 2017 she received the Black History in the Making Award for the Communication Arts department and served as the student representative on the Search Committee for the Dean of the School of the Arts. She has served as a representative on the VCUarts Dean’s Advisory Group on Diversity and Inclusion, a Student Admissions Ambassador, and the NSFP Family Team Captain. Currently she is a graphic designer at VCU Office of Multicultural Student Affairs. In her own words, “I’m in like, everything.”
Elise Ketch: How would you define the role of a black artist as compared to other artists?
Christina Hairston: I would say from personal experience and other shared experiences that the role of a black artist is a little bit different in terms of other races and in terms of the box you’re put into. It’s not necessarily a voluntary place that you might want to be or a title that you even want, but it is a box that you’re put into because of your blackness, in a sense. For example, if I am a black theatre student, and I am an artist in my own right, I’m put into a box automatically as a black actor or actress- and not necessarily voluntarily, but just because that’s who I am, and then that puts you into not only different stereotypes, but different roles. From talking to theatre students, especially here at VCU, roles like the angry person, the antagonist, or a crazy person (which is kind of weird, you don’t really think that, but from their experiences that’s what they’ve been telling me,) they’re put into roles that they wouldn’t specifically always want or that they would go for, but they’re put into that box. That’s just an example, but I would say that is something that black artists in general- all different types of art- go through, being defined as a ‘black artist’ even if you don’t want to be.
You can take the negative or positive; and we talk about that in my organization a lot, Black Art Student Empowerment- that was our first actual general body meeting ever. We discussed what being a ‘black artist’ means and how we feel about that term. There are positives and negatives: if you want to embrace that, you don’t have to try as hard because you are black. The negatives would be being defined in a way that might not really suit you as an individual; so I would say that’s the role so far.
“It’s a realization moment, and then you can either decide for yourself, do I want this to be me? Is this me? Is this the route I want to take, or do I not? And do I just want to continue to be in my space of ‘just being an artist?’”
EK: So is it personal preference whether or not you want to embrace it?
CH: It’s definitely personal preference, and after talking to other members in my organization and from my personal experiences, I definitely feel like it’s an individual choice. For me, I choose to be defined as a black artist, and show that through my work, and I’ve always done that- not even consciously, my interests have just happened to lead down that way. And I like to do a lot of figure drawing and realism- a lot of that stems from my own self; I am a black woman, and my interests were an unconscious decision. But, for some people, they never thought about that before college- like, I know some of our freshmen members, when we discussed this at our meeting, were telling me that they went to a very diverse high school, so they never thought of themselves as a black artist, but rather as “just an artist,” then they came to VCU and saw the diversity here. The differences are apparent even in critiques; they realize, “oh, I am a little bit different,” or, my subject matter and what I choose to do is very different than other people’s in class. It’s a realization moment, and then you can either decide for yourself, do I want this to be me? Is this me? Is this the route I want to take, or do I not? And do I just want to continue to be in my space of ‘just being an artist?’ And either people do both, or people do one or the other. It’s really a personal preference, and I don’t think anyone should look down on either, because it’s all about the individual.
EK: Speaking about that, do you feel that black artists are equally represented in the community? You can speak specifically about VCU if you want.
CH: This is my second full year at VCU, so from personal experiences here, I would say no- only in a statistical sense, when you look at certain things at VCU. That’s the point of my whole organization, honestly; how our organization came about was first awareness. When I got here I didn’t go through Art Foundation (AFO), but I talked to plenty of people who have, and they say it was really diverse in AFO, they were all together, close-knit- and then you get into your majors and you realize it’s not like that anymore. I’m not saying that you’re not going to be close with people, but the diversity can go because some people after AFO might not get into the major they want, so maybe they don’t pursue art, or they go into a major that’s predominantly white. For instance, graphic design, or even Communication Arts, from my personal experiences are predominantly white; like when I look around, even in my classes, I could be one of two or three black students in class, at the most three. That was the first thing that we realized- we were like, “man, we need to representation in the art school.” That’s one of the things that we focus on in my organization, and that’s what I see at VCU; there’s not that many of us and I want to make sure that people see. I wouldn’t say that’s anyone’s fault- that echoes in the art world as a whole, as white males are predominantly in the forefront of the art world, not just at VCU. And that’s going to trickle down; that’s going to be representational in college; that’s where we go, and then we go out from there. You have to start from some point, so we figured getting high school students interested in coming to VCU is important, all different types, and then from then on we can start to like try to change that, because it is a world problem, not just a VCU problem.
EK: Do you feel that on top of being a black artist, being a female artist also affects you?
CH: Oh yeah. It’s all about intersectionality. First we’re women, number one; once you’re a woman you’re already below the men, in any workforce or any profession at all- or just generally in life [laughs], at least in America. That’s the first thing, and then being a black woman, especially, puts you even lower on the totem pole (if you like to call it that,) and that definitely effects a lot of things. If you’re creating art about black women, and there’s a smaller percentage of people like that in the arts, then there’s going to be a smaller want for that type of art, because though there might be plenty of galleries around (like in Richmond,) there’s still only so many would want my type of artwork. That’s something a lot of people might struggle with, being a woman, and being a black woman; when it comes to like what your interests are, if you’re not seeing that in the population, then of course it’s not going to be as easy for you to get out there. But, then since there’s less, you’re kind of at an advantage too, because I have a different viewpoint than other people, and some people really are interested in that, and there’s not that many people they can look to see that viewpoint. I always try to look at positives and negatives of everything- that’s just how I am. But I would definitely say being a woman is number one in the art world and in the professional world, and then being a black woman; that’s another section for that intersectionality that people deal with, especially in art.
EK: Thank you so much for that perspective. So often I only hear one side of the dichotomy.
CH: Yeah, you have to be positive, because things change and they gradually are changing; you see that now, things are changing, but it’s going to take time, just like how women still don’t even have all of their full rights. So you have to be optimistic- and yeah, we want change now, but you have to be realistic about it; so the best thing to do while waiting for that change is to be positive and see the positives in what’s now, in the present.
EK: So your organization, B.A.S.E. has been garnering up some interest especially between the faculty between VCUarts. Do you want to talk about that a little?
CH: Yeah! My organization just started, we officially became an organization in July . Once we got that we jumped into planning- we planned out our whole first semester and the events we did were mainly social. As artists, we already have a lot on our plates, so we wanted our organization to be more of a social-fun environment and a support system- that’s why it’s called BASE, and it stands for Black Art Student Empowerment. The biggest event that we had was our showcase, and that was right before Thanksgiving. We happened to want the theme of the showcase to be “Justice Or Else,” because the anniversary of the Million Man March just happened the month before the showcase. Then we thought, “oh, we can show pictures of ourselves there, and then we can base the art on what that means to the artist.” So we kept it open with a broad theme, because we didn’t know how many people were going to show work; then with all that’s happening at the school, it made it more imperative, like, “oh, we need this.” The timing was perfect. We had posters that we made from different protests that we did with BlackVCUSpeaks that we used in the showcase, and the people had artwork centered around what blackness meant to them or what “Justice or Else” meant to them. There was some artwork about police brutality and the lives that were lost this past year and the years before due to police brutality and other violence. There were also celebratory images of blackness. It was really nice- that ended up being a huge, huge turnout. That was our biggest event last year.
EK: How can a student who’s not a black artist or not a minority show support, to positive effect?
CH: What I’ve learned about being an ally is that it’s not about being at the forefront of everything all the time; it’s about taking in and being there to support the people at the forefront. For instance, if you wanted to be an ally to me or to my organization, you would come to and support my events, and tell your friends! That’s all you have to do. I would call it a positive relationship- I wouldn’t even call it an ally. I really think it’s more of a positive relationship, because if you’re in a positive relationship with someone, then you’re supporting each other.
EK: It seems that a significant ally is Professor Stephen Alcorn. I personally love the portraits he’s been doing of BASE students.
CH: Yes, I’m really close with Stephen. We met when he came to a critique hosted by BASE- we do critiques for my organization where we invite anyone to come, including chairs or anyone who would like to help critique our work. That’s when I first met him, and ever since then, he has been the perfect ally. He comes to all of our events, he supports, and he came to our showcase (that’s when he got some of his drawings.) He’s a great guy, he’s one of our biggest supporters.
“I always end up doing it about something that I’m really passionate about, which is the identity- because no matter what I do, it’s always about some form of blackness.”
EK: Does your art reflect on black identity, and what messages are you trying to communicate or objectives do you attempt to accomplish in your art?
CH: I think my work does reflect on black identity, for the most part. And like I said, it’s kind of like an unconscious thing! I don’t even think about it when I do it, it’s interesting. When I get assignments, I always end up making it related to black people in some way. It’s really hard for me to not do that. For instance, I had a Photoshop assignment to try to do a realistic-looking edit. We were supposed to replace something in the picture, so I took black women and replaced their hair with natural African flowers, wildflowers, for their hair. If they had an afro, it was full of flowers instead of hair. The message behind that was about the natural hair movement, and I wanted to show that in an interesting way. It was just a simple assignment, but I always end up doing it about something that I’m really passionate about, which is the identity- because no matter what I do, it’s always about some form of blackness. And that brings up a common misconception, something often overlooked: there are different forms of blackness. You can’t define them- you can’t say, “oh, there’s six forms and”- because there are different types of people, and they are all individuals. So, in my artwork, I don’t just highlight a specific type of person, but I try to show that blackness is a range of things. Sometimes I’ll have African women in my work, or they’ll be African American, or a businesswoman, whatever- I want to show all sides of that. That’s something that I definitely try to do, and it’s something that I love to do.
And it can be a box- but you can embrace the box. For instance, if I was to compare our artwork, when I look at your work, it’s going to be mainly white people because that’s something you’re familiar with. That’s the normal thing to do, but because I’m a black artist, it’s almost not normal; but, if I were white, it would be normal. I’m just doing things that I know, and a lot of people don’t think about that. I’m not doing anything different really, but being a black artist, it can stem or come to the point of being defined as political work, because you can always put it in that box. I could simply do a self-portrait, but if someone didn’t know me, they might think, “oh, this has to be political, because this is about a black woman, and she’s just independent”- it can always fall into the political identity type of thing for some people. There’s no way for it to not be political in a sense, even if you don’t want it to be.
EK: Do you want society to eventually reach a point where black art isn’t considered political anymore? Do you think we should strive towards that, or should the interpretation remain open?
CH: Well, we can view the same artwork and see it in totally different ways, so I think it should always be up to the person, the viewer, to decide how they feel about it- and I think that’s what makes art amazing, because we can look at the same thing and get a totally different emotion or feeling from something. I don’t think it should be either- it’s just whatever the person feels. And that’s why I like art- it’s a form of expression. I would like to keep it open because everyone sees art differently.
EK: Do certain artists, galleries, historical events, etc. inspire you? What is exemplary of the black artist experience in the public view?
CH: History is very, very important, but I think that we dwell in history too much sometimes, though you definitely should know it and reflect upon it. But I think for me, my influences are more of now. There are so many things happening right now, especially if I look at the Richmond community of artists; there are so many things that are going on and events that I can look to for inspiration. I definitely do like to look at artwork from the past, but I also try to look at my peers now, including people at VCU like Malcolm Peacock, Denzel Boyd, and my friend Angie Scott, and the things that I see us doing. That’s something I always try to think about. And when people talk about Black History Month, we have always been taught, since we were younger, to look back to the people who did this and that- of course, you need to know that- but, I think we should also look to the future and look to us, because we are black history. That’s what I tell people, especially now- we’re in a really interesting time in history, and when we look back, people are going to ask us about things that we lived through. I like to tell people, especially artists, we are black history: everything we are doing now is going to be history in the future, so I look to people now.
“I like to tell people, especially artists, we are black history: everything we are doing now is going to be history in the future, so I look to people now.”
Christina is now in her third year at VCU. Her current artistic inspirations include Kehinde Wiley and Fred Wilson.
You can see more of her work here.