Meet The Lady Who Is Bringing The Idea Of The ‘Carefree Black Girl’ To Life With Art

Carlene Thomas-Bailey chats with the artist about Instagram and identity

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Debra Cartwright is an artist whose debut solo exhibition called ‘Made In Her Image’ is currently on show at The Sol Studio gallery in Harlem.

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Through the display of 23 watercolour prints, she explores the idea of being a carefree black girl with paintings that show black women with their natural hair out, having fun, being fashion forward and living their best life. We caught up with her to ask about how her watercolours went from Instagram favourites to getting their own exhibition and why now it’s more important that ever to be part of the carefree black girl movement. 

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Hi Debra, your exhibition is a celebration of black women and the case for being carefree. It feels very timely since at Elle we just wrote an article on this same topic, how did you try to convey this idea via your paintings?

Yes, I love that everyone is coming together on this idea. The timing felt just right, there’s definitely a whole movement around celebrating the need for women and especially black women, to find the joy in the face of so many struggles. I wanted to celebrate this whole awareness. In my watercolours I made an effort to paint my girls with this dreamy look, they might not be smiling, but they are effortless cool, and they have an allure, that carefree confidence, that’s a quality I worked hard on creating with their facial expressions in each picture.

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Tell us a bit about the background to the exhibition?

The exhibition came out of two things really, one was my love of painting and specifically fashion illustration, and two it was a chance for me to explore my journey with my hair, transitioning to my natural afro. I had always been interested in history, but I started to get more aware of race, the civil rights movement and feminist reading, looking at how these things inform what it means to be a black woman now. Also particularly in the last year or so, important conversations about race were happening in the US (with unarmed black men being killed and black women being harassed) and that started seeping into my work. So I used the illustrations to contribute to the dialogue and celebrate my natural hair.

Why watercolours?

I started using acrylics, as well as prints but those mediums were just not doing justice to what I was trying to represent. Then I saw how well the watercolours lent themselves to my message. They have such a light airiness to them that just reinforced the carefree motif. And once I started loosening my technique, I just felt like I was almost there. Also I think we have enough heaviness around black women: stresses, anxieties, societal pressures and stereotypes. We have enough. So yeah, using these specific materials mattered to me very much.

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The exhibition is on-going this month, how did last month’s opening go?

It was amazing. I was walking to the gallery with my mum and I was just talking about how amazing the feeling was. It’s so big for me to have this exhibition especially in Harlem. Harlem is so rich when it comes to creativity and art, from the Harlem renaissance with artists like Jacob Lawrence, the African-American painter whose work is currently at MOMA right now. All of the amazing artists in Harlem have and continue to inspire me, so to be exhibiting here is so lovely, so empowering to me.

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You’ve built up a huge following for your paintings via Instagram- how does it feel to be Insta-famous?

I’m still so overwhelmed! If you told me last year I’d have a show on Harlem I’d have laughed at you. If you had told me I would have followers, even 200 followers on Instagram, let alone 14k I wouldn’t have believed you at all. It’s been such a great platform for me, someone who works with McDonalds found me on there and then I was commissioned to create an illustration of fabulous black women for the McDonalds campaign at Essence Music Festival, and there are more opportunities in the pipeline. It was also a good way for me to spread the word about the exhibition.

What do you hope people take away from the images?

I’m so fortunate to be able to get out how I feel visually and see that connect with other people, so I just hope that continues. Using social media is so great because I’m connecting to people from London, from Paris. I’ve had people in Africa contact me about buying my pictures to hang in their homes, it’s really blown my mind to be able to connect with women across the diaspora, I love it.

Going forward I’d love to show in different places. I think part of being a carefree girl means travelling, exploring and meeting new people. I would love to be able take this exhibition to Europe, and connect with other carefree girls, so fingers crossed.

debracartwright.com

instagram @beginningkisses

 

Photography credit: Chi-Chi Agbim

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