This piece was originally published in Summer Print Issue 13.
Over the course of three hours in a Castleberry Hill art gallery, a superhero came to life. Illustrator Kelsi Jackson sat at a table in the back of the venue, slowly drawing on a tablet wired to a projector casting onto a blank wall, etching out the beginnings of a figure of a woman with thick, curly hair and a defiant grin.
Over the course of the event, Jackson’s lines grew bolder, more purposeful, working over and onto the previous sketch, building off its previous infrastructure. By the event’s end she was fully formed, leaping off the wall, ready for action.
Jackson’s drawing was a fitting backdrop for “My Superheroes are Black!”, a digital pop-up exhibit and panel discussion co-hosted by Art is King and Cultivating Cultures, a gallery in Atlanta’s alternative art district. The nine panelists brought to bear a collective century’s worth of experience in art, design, media, animation, and literature, as they considered the recently released “Black Panther” film and the current state of Black art.
Toni Williams, creative consultant at Cultivating Cultures, put the event together as a way to capitalize on some of the energy behind “Black Panther,” prior to the film’s opening. “I think with the movie there’s a lot of excitement,” Williams told me.
She was absolutely right. The film obliterated box office records across the board, from its $25 million Thursday-night opening to its nearly $1.1 billion gross ticket sales as of early March. The movie is already the biggest solo superhero film in North America, easily surpassing mega-blockbusters like “The Dark Knight” and “The Avengers,” and it is the ninth highest grossing film in U.S. history according to IMDB.
The film's significance with audiences has tracked far beyond its revenue. "Black Panther's" central storyline touches on a whole battery of decades-long discussions within and across Black diaspora communities, among them colorism, Black rage, Black women's contributions to technology, nationalism and separatism, and varied relationships to slavery and colonialism among Black Americans and Africans. Not only does "Black Panther" address these topics with nuance, it does so with an imagined Black viewer in mind.
But every panelist who spoke at the event got their artistic start well before this film was even a glimmer in a studio executive’s eye. The movement around Afrofuturism, a genre of art exploring the intersection of Blackness, technology, and futurity, roots back to the 1970s. Afrofuturists and artists with backgrounds in similar content have been waiting for this level of excitement about Black world-building for some time now.
Cartoonist and self-proclaimed “Grady baby” Dexter Vines, for example, has been illustrating comic books for DC and Marvel for the last 22 years. Animator Allyssa Lewis, who knew that she wanted to be an animator since she was just two years old, now has five seasons of Archer under her belt.
Though many of the panelists got early starts to their careers, several expressed deep concern for the way the media often handles the stories of people of color. Although animation allows artists to imagine literally infinite possibilities for the racial composition of stories, Lewis has seen many of those possibilities clipped for Black and brown characters. “I’ve been in meetings where I hear ‘You’ve got to lighten that character up,’ or ‘Not so many of them.’”
Damita Gambino-Luciano, a stuntwoman on shows like “The Walking Dead,” got a sobering look at her own work through the eyes of her daughter, who wrote about her mother’s career in a recent application for a local arts high school.
“I play roles that she wishes I didn’t play. I’m often getting beat up when I’m working as a stuntwoman. I’m often playing a slave, or a victim in a police brutality situation, or a victim of domestic violence. More often than not I’m somebody’s victim on the screen,” Gambino-Luciano said. According to her, it’s the reason her daughter already wants to go into the film industry: to write and create more humanizing roles for women of color like her mother.
Another panelist, freelance artist Goldi Gold, started out drawing mostly anime, but quickly realized a frustrating trend in his own work. “I’m not really drawing my people, I’m drawing everybody else,” he said.
Years later, he has committed himself to bringing more of his own personal narratives and imagery into his art, in part just to create a template for other young artists to start from, to show “that we are valued and important enough to be expressed by us.”
For many young artists of color, the pressure of trying to find paying work while still creating art that feels representative of their own community can be enough to fully dissuade them from careers in the arts. Daniel Flores started his nonprofit Art is King to combat this exact problem, hoping to help young artists navigate the business-side of their work. “Just because we enjoy doing art and being creative doesn’t mean we have to be poor, starving artists,” Flores explained.
Although art and community service often go hand in hand, nearly every panelist had taken extra pains to turn the frustrations and lessons they’d picked up throughout their careers into supportive groundwork for artists and creators of color coming up behind them. Lewis started My Animation Life in 2015, a staffing agency for young animators to connect with studios who need them. Game developer Ron Jones started a nonprofit group, The Indie Cluster, to teach game design and production to kids of color. Science fiction author Milton Davis launched his own company, MVmedia, to publish Black speculative fiction and steamfunk writing beyond just his own.
Children’s book author and illustrator TeMika Grooms, who runs a Meetup group in Atlanta for other children’s book illustrators, sees her mentorship work as part of an effort to create space for Black and brown stories among mainstream, typically white narratives. “I want to be a part of that movement. I want to be a part of making sure that images and stories of people who look like me, Brown children, children of all the diaspora that look ‘non-mainstream,’ have the opportunity to have their stories told,” she said.
Davis sees a key opportunity in “Black Panther” to connect Black artists directly with Black audiences, something that can be a challenge within the white and male-skewed sci-fi and fantasy community. “We’ve always had to go out and seek it. ‘Black Panther’ has changed the dynamic such that people are now looking for us,” he said.
Davis has been in the business long enough to know that “Black Panther” is not reflective of any real attitudinal change about race and Blackness among big studios and financers. The studios, he noted, aren’t interested in creating cultural opportunities for Black communities—they’re looking for a return on investment.
“It’s not about them liking us any more than they did five, 10 years ago,” Davis said.
“We also have to be mindful that this is a dollars and cents game.”
What “Black Panther” seems to prove, however, is that studios can invest successfully in Black art catered directly to Black audiences. For many Black creators, the question that follows is about narrative control, ensuring that the stories backed by big distribution houses still feel reflective of the communities they depict. Can those stories still be told without ceding that control to white audiences who may not necessarily connect with or understand parts of those narratives?
Grooms believes that the work for Black creators is to continue to be unabashedly authentic in the stories they tell. “If you have your own stories that meet a niche market, you tell that story,” she encouraged the audience.
Davis sees “Black Panther” as the logical payoff for the years of work Black creators have put into developing a bedrock for a major cultural touchstone. “What we’re seeing now as far as ‘Black Panther’ is concerned is a culmination of all the work we’ve been doing,” he said. By continually telling stories and creating images of Blackness that feel personal and authentic, that push beyond white supremacist, stereotyped ideas of Blackness prescribed by big studios and big budgets, Black creators have made room for a film like “Black Panther” to exist and to thrive.
Flores believes the next wave of Black art, the post-“Black Panther” era, may now lie in the hands of young creators. “We want to inspire every age group that’s coming up. If we can inspire the young, we can get there.”
As the panel wraps I turn and notice a young woman sitting cross legged on the floor next to me. She’d probably been listening, but she seemed more focused on the open sketchbook on her lap, drawing out the beginnings of outstretched arms and a broad chest. It’s unclear still how it will turn out, but the door’s wide open.