Meet black beyond, the collective centring Black femmes in the world of digital art and design
The collective is expanding the horizon of digital art, bringing Black femmes to the forefront in its new exhibition, _origins.
- Joey Levenson
- 17 November 2021
It’s time for the world to see the work of black beyond, a Black and femme-led digital art and research collective (mindfully and deliberately formatted in unicase, mind you). Constituted of New York-based artists jazsalyn, Shameekia Shantel Johnson, and Yvonne Mpwo, the collective got its start back in 2019 as a proposal for an in-person group show at the Kellen Gallery in Parsons School of Design – first conceived by jazsalyn and fellow artist neta bomani back in 2019. “We intended for this show to fill the void of space accessible to cultural artworkers, both inside and outside of institutions,” jazsalyn tells It’s Nice That. “A space to create and share work exploring the intersections of critical race theories and technology.” The pandemic has unfortunately postponed the show until February 2022, but the burgeoning force of these artist’s talents lead them to think alternatively to the physical realm. Consequently, jazsalyn took the collective digitally. “I launched the virtual space of black beyond to cultivate community and support the forthcoming exhibition,” she says. And so, black beyond was born.
Their current exhibition _origins is a perfect example of what jazsalyn describes. “_origins is a prelude to _assembly, alchemy, ascension (a^3),” the original exhibition planned to show at the Kellen Gallery, jazsalyn tells us. The digital exhibition is a beautiful XR experience and new media art exhibition which seeks to “reimagine Black femme futures,” as jazsalyn describes. One look into _origins and your mind immediately unravels, immersing itself into an intellectual and wholly-enriching experience. Whilst its digital rendering locates the aesthetics squarely in the realm of an Octavia Butler-esque science fiction, much of the topics are far from a fiction. They are but a deep reflection of the reality of the lived Black femme experience. Even more spectacularly, the exhibition highlights several black femme digital artists – demonstrating a wide breadth of talent in a community who has long been overlooked in the medium. Hosted on New Art City and featuring 12 Black femme digital artists, there is plenty to engage with.
The exhibition is currently in reprise, which means the collective have been able to add even more exciting content towards it. “This means we’ve reopened the show, along with an installment of virtual activations and performances by Ahya Simone, Danielle Braithwaite-Shirley, Yves B Golden, The Heaux History Project and more,” jazsalyn tells us. But, at black beyond the work isn’t just art for art’s sake. As jazsalyn tells us, the collective intertwines a deep personal connection to all that they do. “On a more personal note, _origins emerged during a time where I was confronting erasure in the digital art scene,” she explains. “Instead of succumbing to that erasure, I collected what strength I had left to culminate in a community of Black femmes to defy that erasure, to amplify our existence.” To elaborate on these feelings, black beyond explore themes “such as the ancestral realm, Black trans power and erotic radical resistance” in the exhibition, creating some profound digital imagery that pushes the boundaries of what we can conceptualise in the stratosphere of digital exhibitions. “This exhibition really serves as an ode to black femmes, women, gender non-conforming individuals, and beyond,” jazsalyn reiterates.
Shameekia also finds the exhibition resonates on a much deeper level too. “Whilst working on _origins, I was reflecting on Legacy Russell’s book Glitch Feminism, the pending environmental crisis and the havoc of 2020 where so many Black femmes lost their lives, and how there was an incredible amount of erasure surrounding that tragedy.” In spite of all this, Shameekia was headstrong in creating a space – “a black femme paradise” – that recuperated the ‘glitches’ of a feminism which had foregone them. “Essentially, we wanted to ‘glitch’ the internet, glitch our worlds,” she says. In particular, Shameekia highlights Elizabeth “Liz” Mputu’s Control and Zainab Aliyu’s Google my Memories as two ‘rooms’ in the exhibition that she’s been gravitating towards the most, ones which beautifully unravel all the themes of ancestral Black femme utopia that the collective fortified together.
“I am looking forward to providing a platform for artists to exhibit work and I’m very excited about our current and future collaborations,” says Yvonne on the importance of highlighting artists such as Liz and Zainab. “The conversation we have started around Black virtual and physical spaces is one I hope to continue as we navigate both planes.” It’s undeniable that black beyond are putting in hard labour, labour which deserves to be recognised at a level that highlights its artistic prowess and quality. The exhibition even includes typographic design work by jazsalyn herself. “I teamed up with graphic designer Avery Youngblood to create the custom origins type,” she says, remaining humble all the while. “While developing a visual language for _origins, I’d begun researching organic matter and Avery was down to iterate a custom type based on these findings.” The two referenced the “cosmic terrains of Octavia Butler's landscapes and the primordial pools of the Danakil Depression in Ethiopia,” which they transformed into a custom 3D logo.
Now, the collective has their sights set on their in-person exhibition in February 2022 in New York. “I’m also interested in expanding and iterating on the intensive design research side of this project,” jazsalyn says. “It’s a dream of mine to create an experimental design research lab as an extension of the work we do.” Meanwhile, Shameekia has plans for the collective to steady itself in a web of collaboration. “All I can hope for is the opportunity to expand black beyond across seas, across physical and digital spaces by partnering with other collectives,” she explains. “As we continue to expand on art practice as community practice, I’d love to offer services to the community similar to the Lincoln Detox program, foster environments dedicated to food, or have a public film series with black beyond.” One thing is clear: black beyond is not done growing. In fact, this is only the beginning of their evolution.
black beyond: _origins poster (Copyright © black beyond, 2021)