Janelle Monáe on the future of Black creativity and the vital importance of Black artists who "challenge what we know about art"
The Little Paris Group, a Black artist collective in the 1940s, was formed to create opportunities for underrepresented artists in a segregated industry.
In March, the collective was revived in Brooklyn, New York, with help from singer, actress, and artist Janelle Monáe
The multi-hyphenate spoke to Insider about the importance of cultivating community for Black artistry to thrive.
Janelle Monáe wears many hats — singer, rapper, actress, activist, to name a few. This month, they're taking on a new role in the revival of The Little Paris Group, a Black artist collective founded in 1948 by artists Loïs Mailou Jones and Céline Tabary.
Opening its doors on March 23 in the heart of Bed-Stuy Brooklyn, Martell's Little Paris Group will provide a captivating space designed for Black artists to exchange ideas, critiques, and support, featuring workshops by leading artists Emonee Larussa and Blue The Great. On display will be an archival selection of Loïs Mailou Jones' artworks and artifacts, featuring pieces from throughout her career and historic items from the original Little Paris Group.
"The Little Paris Group was designed to cultivate community amongst a group of underrepresented artists," said Rebecca VanDiver, an associate professor of African American Art at Vanderbilt University. The cohort that formed The Little Paris Group met weekly and was composed mainly of public art school teachers and federal government workers. Alma Thomas became one of the most well known members of the collective.
"They would gather, show new artwork, and receive communal critique. The goal was to have at least six exhibition worthy artworks each year so that they could go out, leave the group, and show their work," VanDiver said.
The group was a solution to the segregated American art world denying exhibition opportunities to Black artists. Jones herself fled to Paris during the 1930s and 1940s where she took classes at famed academies and successfully showed several different artworks at various influential Parisian salons held each year. When she returned home to Washington, D.C. the collective was born.
"Even though it didn't continue into the 21st century, it was this idea that community is key to cultivating creativity, and the importance of providing and creating space for Black creativity and artists of all sorts of walks of life and varying levels of professional success," VanDiver said.
The new Little Paris Group will continue Jones' legacy of offering models and opportunities for younger generations of artists who likewise might be finding their way. Insider spoke with Janelle Monáe about the importance of reviving communal spaces like these for Black artists today. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
What inspired you to be a part of the revival of The Little Paris Group?
I feel a connection to Loïs Mailou Jones and what she did during the Harlem Renaissance with The Little Paris Group. It's very similar to my arts collective Wondaland, and she recognizes the importance of community, the importance of mentorship, and also a lot of people don't know about her. And I thought this was a wonderful opportunity to shine light on someone whose shoulders a lot of the artists today stand on, and they might not know.
I love her work. I love the art, the paintings that I've seen. I'll admit I wasn't really familiar with her work as well as I would like, and I think this is just an opportunity to say thank you to her.
Why are revivals and spaces like these important for the Black creative community?
I think community is important for humans. And when I think about the Black community and I think about art, for us it's such a specific, perspective, and not that all Black folks are monolithic, but there's some sorts of ways of life when we're talking about Black history and we're talking about Black future that we can all talk about freely and feel like we can be honest and we can support each other and we can feel seen and feel heard.
So these spaces allow for those sorts of conversations, those sorts of debates, those sorts of inspiring moments.
What does the future of Black creativity look like to you? More gathering spaces? More prominent artists connecting with aspiring artists? More mentorship opportunities?
I think it's everything you said. I think that us coming together more, talking, sharing, being vulnerable with each other, if you have gotten to a certain level of success, mentoring other aspiring artists, giving them the coordinates that you took to get to where you've gone. How do you work through those tough moments? How do you work through moments of doubt, fear? How are you handling success? I think when we reach back and when we're actually sharing our stories, that's going to be very important to the future of how we sustain our careers.
What excites you about the next generation of Black creatives?
I think that I'm excited to see how other Black creatives and artists take what they've learned to the next level. I love when I see a young, wild, Black, free spirit creating art, whether it's music, visual art, TV, film. I love when I see us coloring outside of the lines and not following a blueprint, but creating a blueprint, like what works for them and not doing conventional ways of creating. I think that's going to be super important that we have more artists who are not afraid to challenge what we know about art.
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