Artist Shantell Martin on Communicating With Lines and Her Most Meaningful Project


Internationally acclaimed artist and LGBTQIA+ activist, Shantell Martin, explores the themes of identity, intersectionality, and play within her signature black and white drawings.

The London-born, New York-based creative connects with her audience not only through these key themes, but with live drawing performances in which she relies on audience participation to shape the lines, phrases and figures within her works.

While her art connects with all who view it on fundamental level, Martin has also collaborated with the likes of Kendrick Lamar for Miami Art Basel, Lizzo for World Pride Day, and The New York City Ballet in a recent project she describes as one of her most meaningful — though she has further collaborations lined up and a dream to one day work alongside Opera Australia.

Currently in Sydney for the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras with Absolut Art, we sat down with Martin to discover more about her career to date and find out just what it means to her to celebrate PRIDE with the Australian LGTBQIA+ community in 2020.

“It’s a wonderful honour to celebrate PRIDE in Sydney this year. Now more than ever, especially as a queer, woman of colour, and artist, I feel a deep responsibility to use my craft and my voice to connect, celebrate and honour my community,” she says.

Shantell Martins is a self-professed line obsessive. Image: Supplied

Within a series of events over the next few days, kicking off on Wednesday, February 26 with a talk in conversation with interdisciplinary Australian artist Brook Andrew at the 107 Project in Redfern, Martin will be exploring the three themes that personify her work: identity, intersectionality, and play.

“Play is quite simple. I am very fortunate that I draw for a living — something we all used to do as children. Where things can be simple, they can be playful. They can be fun. They can be engaging. They can be intuitive,” Martin tells TheLatch—.

“I think sometimes we get bogged down with everything that comes with adulthood, so much so that we forget to play; we forget to connect and we forget to be big children.”

Martin’s approach to identity is a little more nuanced. At the beginning of every new work, she asks either herself, her collaborators, or her audience member a series of questions that may include, ‘Who are you?’ and ‘Are you you?’.

These phrases, that often appear as a motif throughout many of her artworks, are “here to ask us if we’re on the right path; if we’re being ourselves; and if we’re being true”. It may seem easy on the outside, but as Martin explains, the questions can be incredibly difficult for us to answer.

“It doesn’t matter how smart we are, how travelled we are, how educated we are. We can talk about where we’re from, and we talk about what we do, but we all struggle to talk about who we are at the core,” she says.

“By asking these questions in my work, I’m finding fragments of answers that help us create the vocabulary or perhaps even some of the emotions to help us to answer that question.”

“If we’re only able to say where we’re from and what we do, then we’re going to have limited views in life that are lacking the empathy and inspiration that’s needed.”

On identity, we asked Martin if after all this time quizzing others with the questions of who they are, she was able to answer it for herself. But as it happens, the words that define us should be collected over time; accumulated over a number of years and edited as we change.

“I’m someone that’s still finding their way, and so I use ‘Who are you?’ almost as a mirror. When people answer my questions, certain fragments will feel true and may resonate within myself. So, in a way, it’s about collecting those words — those fragments — and building a vocabulary that describes who we are.”

Martin’s work is described as a meditation of lines; a language of characters, creatures and messages that invite viewers to share a role in the creative process. A self-professed line obsessive, the irregular free-form lines that make up the base of Martin’s works are perhaps her most recognisable artistic feature.

In the formative years of her career, Martin spent some time in Japan — a country with a craft-based culture that sees generations of people working to perfect a hobby or occupation for the entirety of their lives. Inspired by this way of living, Martin says she too will work to develop her lines indefinitely.

“I love lines. They’re the foundation and the formation of everything. Everyone on the planet can create some form of line or gesture of line, be it written or with their body.”

“When I started writing or drawing, it wasn’t something that I thought was art. It’s just something that I did because it made me feel better.”

One of Martin’s most memorable collaborations to date saw her working closely with the New York City Ballet and its dancers. Within this partnership, Martin’s work spread across a myriad of media including a large-scale installation in NYC’s Lincoln Center, on-stage live drawing as part of the performance, and worn artworks on the dancers on both their costumes and bodies.

What’s more, all phrases within the works as part of this project were collected from the company dancers during interviews conducted by Martin. “I wanted to make the work as much about the people that the whole company is built of,” she tells us.

“But the more importantly, being able to make the ballet accessible and to show it can be diverse — that someone like myself can be creating an installation there and be on stage, was an important reason this project was so meaningful to me.

“That kind of visual is everything when it comes down to accessibility, especially in these more traditional creative spaces where don’t always believe we’re welcomed.”

On Friday, February 28, Martin will be conducting a live light performance at Sydney’s Bondi Icebergs. An audience member watching her lines unfurl will often be asked to participate with a word, or by answering her questions about identity. Ultimately, it is the answers of those in attendance who shape the way the finished work appears.

“Performing live keeps me honest because I don’t have time to overthink what I’m doing,” she tells us. “Secondly, drawing live exposes the process to the audience, and you lose no magic when you do that because you’re creating a connection.”

“When I’m creating work, it’s a mixture of something that’s very spontaneous, intuitive, but on the other hand, there is this language of the lines. That language, it’s full of its own characters and words and, in a way, it knows how it’s going to unfold. And then what the audience does is add the atmosphere. They add the words; they add the direction to it; and they create the experience.”

Shantell Martin and Absolut Art launches in Australia this February 2020 with a pop-up exhibition at MCM House (from February 27), a live light performance at Icebergs Dining Room and Bar (February 28) and a talk in conversation with Martin and interdisciplinary Australian artist Brook Andrew (February 26) during the week of Sydney’s Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras.

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