Interview with Shantell Martin

Interview with Shantell Martin

August 17, 2020

Shantell Martin is an internationally recognised contemporary artist who is known for her bold confident lines, questioning statements, and gripping spontaneous style. You may have seen her work while trying on a pair of Puma trainers, looking through the glass ceiling at Tiffany & Co, getting groovy at a club night in Japan or while trying to find a contemplative space at The May Room on Governors Island…. Her work seems to be everywhere, and it carries with it a powerful message about identity and finding oneself through the act of creating. 

Shantell grew up in Thamesmead, a concrete jungle in South London that didn’t leave a lot of room for people who look, act, or think differently. She describes herself growing up as, “A brown girl with an afro in a blond haired, blue eyed world…” From an early age, drawing became a means of understanding for Shantell which she has carried with her throughout her life.

Her journey of understanding herself as a human and as an artist has taken her around the world; immersing herself in different cultures to understand true identity and how that translates visually into drawing. Throughout her entire life, Shantell has turned to drawing to understand concepts, express ideas and share her story. We hope you enjoy this interview and that it provokes you to answer the question, “Who Are You?”…

Shantell, thank you for taking the time to speak with us. As an organisation that promotes self-discovery and understanding the world through the power of the pencil, we are eager to delve into your story…

To begin, could you share with us your first memory of drawing? 

"I don’t have a specific memory but as a child, I was always drawing. It was a way for me to escape and to heal and to really explore a world that was outside of the one I was living in at the time."

BD: From Thamesmead to Central St Martins, your London memories must be completely varied. What aspects of London’s capital city inspire(d) you?

"Being at Central Saint Martins was the first time I was around so many different people, who came from different backgrounds, with so many different perspectives. That was what was so powerful about that period of my life… and what is still inspiring to me about places like London and New York. I feel like it really fosters and supports growth and creativity."

After graduating top of your class from Central St Martins, you decided to move to Japan to get completely “lost”. What was that experience like?

"Well, let’s remember that I also went to Japan at a time before Facebook and smartphones, and when social media networks weren’t as integral to society, so there really was this sense of distance and disconnection from anything I had ever really known before. I was able to fully immerse myself, more than getting lost really, and that allowed me to just BE myself in this new world that didn’t have any baggage attached to it.

"What’s really important about the culture there that has stuck with me and has supported my work is the discipline and the understanding that time is vital but you don’t have to rush. The process of creativity IS the work/art."

From Japan, you moved to the Big Apple, New York City… How did you find that transition? What role did drawing play in your life during that time of intense self-discovery? 

"New York is really intense in a different way than in London or Tokyo. I really didn’t know exactly what I was getting into when I decided to leave, but I did know that I needed a challenge. I needed to feel that part of creativity. 

Drawing was what it always has been for me, it grounded me, and it really helped me to stay focused. You can get so distracted and discouraged but if you stay committed and disciplined and trust the process, there is so much growth to experience when you dive into the unknown."

What is it about your work that people identify with? What do you hope people think when they first experience it?

"I’m not sure. Like all things, it’s subjective but what I hope people connect to is the purity of it. Drawing is something everyone can do. We sometimes can forget that the world tells us in various ways what “art is” but really... it’s YOU. So, I hope that my work inspires or elicits a sense of connection to one’s own creativity and voice. 

I hope that people really connect to the core of what my work is trying to achieve which is in a sense a conversation about connection, accessibility, creativity, and personal identity."

Within the arts sector, there are issues with diversity and equal representation especially concerning Black artists. With the momentum behind the Black Lives Matter movement, do you have certain hopes for the future or changes that you would like to see? 

"I actually just published an Open Letter with a few artists where we discuss a lot of this and you can see it here:"

 (In this letter Shantell Martin along with Thenjiwe Niki NkosiMia ColemanJade Brown, and Jordan Moss advocated for the following…)

“We are calling all overwhelmingly-white organizations to engage with these strategies:

  • Ensure that workforces, leadership and decision-making teams are truly diverse in racial and ethnic makeup and that these persons are paid equally and promoted equally, that Black artists and creatives are truly represented in management and creative teams and that all are heard for their ideas and experiences – these are the only ways your organizations can have a real understanding and appreciation of issues affecting Black people’s lives.
  • Decision-makers in your organization will need to resist the urge to virtue signal and look within — within your organization and within yourselves. No one needs another performative symbol of solidarity.
  • Hire Black creatives, advisors, leaders, and educators to support the changes you say you are committed to making.
  • Stop silencing, ignoring, disregarding, and devaluing the Black creatives and individuals who are already within your organizations. Collaboratively build a culture that supports and listens to Black people.
  • Invest time and money in building your relationships with Black people and our communities, outside of trending topics and PR stunts.
  • Create real, actionable policies that effectively respond to injustice, through consultation and dialogue.”

Throughout your entire life, drawing has been a constant. What advice would you give to someone who is at the start of their journey of artistic discovery? How can drawing help us discover, “Who We Are”?

"Just follow the line. Listen to it, let it lead the way. I’ve always found that it leads to the truth."

Thank you Shantell!

Interview: Devon Turner in conversation with Shantell Martin

If you were inspired by this interview with Shantell and would like to find out more about her work, head to her website here.

Registrations are open for The Big Draw Festival 2020: A Climate of Change! Find out more about the benefits of becoming an organiser here and other ways to support The Big Draw's mission here.