Dedicated to Freedom: An Interview with Kavonna Smith

I’d tell you my name, but I go by many. Perhaps it’s a way to protect who I am.

My life could end today. 

With these words I desire to express what I stand for.

In doing so, I hope someone feels me, sees me, and fucks with what I’m about.

This body of work that I wish to share with you is part of a large collection. The collection is a statement of love, mostly. It’s also a spell for protection. Intentions. I set a lot of passion in these pieces. It’s as if with every stroke I lay I heal. I’ve found liberation through the creation of this collection.

These days when I paint, I let my guard down, and with the door to my invention space wide open, anyone can see me. In front of canvas I step into a space where only creation and I exist. I allow myself to tune into the present moment and express as freely and deeply as possible. In conversation with canvas I find myself tapping into soul beyond Earth. I see visions of my history articulated into something other than pain.

Painting has become a vulnerable process for me. Vulnerability does not lie in the act of conceptualizing, it lives in the physical process of creating.

The process of making this ongoing series liberates me because I let go of restrictions, I free myself of boundaries. Artmaking can be a stressful affair, but I think that has a lot to do with capitalism. As an artist with an undying passion to create, I found myself on an assembly line of creation. Felt the need to produce work every day. My passion became a product. That shit don’t fly well with me.

In American society we see a handful of various kinds of artists: those who create solely for money, some who create to survive, hella folx who create to inspire, and many who embody all three. Within me there has been an imbalance of the three, one that wants to bring about the demise of me as artist. Things go downhill when hustling interrupts your passion. I’d started creating from a place of need as opposed to being called to the work.

—From an artist statement by Kavonna Smith

JC: Before we dive into some of the ideas articulated in your artist statement, I wonder if you’d start us off by giving a sketch of your life up to this point? We know the basics: you’re a black queer revolutionary artist. Where did you grow up, and how did you become a painter?

KS: I’ve lived in so-called Michigan my whole life. I was born in Albion and raised in Battle Creek—both fall in Calhoun County. I like to say that I matured in Ypsilanti. I live in Lansing now. For me growing up is a never-ending journey. I’m still learning every day.

As a child I always gravitated towards the arts. It wasn’t until middle school that a classmate of mine inspired me to create more often. She had complimented my sketches and said she was interested in buying some. That’s when I started taking pride in the work. I’ve come a long way since, but I still honor that moment. At that point I fell more in tune with art and music.

So you’re not formally “trained” in painting? That’s mindblowing, because the works demonstrate deep emotionality and technical skill. When I see details of them online, I think of Faith Ringgold, Kerry James Marshall, Jacob Lawrence, but also painters like Marlene Dumas and Peter Doig—all of whose work seem to make expressivity and movement a priority. Which brings me to something you wrote in your artist statement: “Painting has become a vulnerable process for me. Vulnerability does not lie in the act of conceptualizing, it lives in the physical process of creating.” Does this mean that when you’re at work on a painting, you feel like you’re opening yourself up to the viewer’s critical gaze, or rather that the very act of making art calls out of you an energy that it feels dangerous or melancholy to engage?

I attended Eastern Michigan University for a year and a half. I had more art history classes than fine art classes. My ending program was Art Education—I wanted to be a teacher. Ironically, I dropped out because I didn’t feel comfortable in the program. I’ve been taught some things, but I do suppose that most of my knowledge comes from myself or other artists that I’ve watched create, like Gustavo Rimada or Monica Hernández. I was able to watch them paint sometimes via Instagram when I was in high school. The artists you mentioned—Ringgold, Marshall, and Lawrence—have become a big part of my studies as well. Aaron Douglas, too; he’s the undercover great man of the Harlem Renaissance.

As for vulnerability, I think it’s more so like you said, the act of making art does call an energy out of me. The energy isn’t as dangerous as it is relaxing. I mean it’s like I open myself up to a world beyond me. I allow inspiration to hit me like a wave. Almost as if something speaks through me. I am honored to be a vessel for these images because sometimes it really is as though I’m collaborating with what’s ethereal. That kinda connection takes a lot out of you and so you must be very relaxed internally as well as open to messages that may come. Softly said, it’s a very intimate process and intimacy breeds vulnerability.

I totally agree, and if we’re paying attention we can feel this/see this vulnerability-as-intimate-connection in both the work as well as the lives of our heroes: they open themselves up to feeling what’s in need of being felt in this world (and I don’t want to forget that Hero, the Greek goddess, drowned herself when she saw her lover had drowned—a radical act produced by feeling), or they’re open to being conduits and amplifiers for energy that’s emerging from grassroots movements. I also don’t want to gloss over your experience of non-comfort at EMU. I’m fully aware that its art department faculty is almost a hundred percent white. There’s just no way that a white professor is going to be equipped to offer a young black artist much beyond some scholastic or technical minutiae. Maybe we can tie this political fact of academia (the professoriat is overwhelmingly white, which is no less than institutionalized white supremacy) to another passage from your artist statement: “Artmaking can be a stressful affair, but I think that has a lot to do with capitalism. As an artist with an undying passion to create, I found myself on an assembly line of creation. Felt the need to produce work every day. My passion became a product. That shit don’t fly well with me.” I think what I’m wanting to ask is whether or not you feel like your having liberated yourself from the academic model of the painter’s trajectory has also meant you’ve bypassed one of the primary pitfalls of the capitalist artworld: in order to be a “successful” visual artist, you need to sacrifice your vision, your specific life, and your political integrity in order to get the right MFA, remain on a course to meet the right people and attend the right events (in LA or New York) so that you can secure a gallery with visibility, all in order to sell your work and make a name for yourself; and yet, if we take these career-oriented steps in the American artworld, our work runs the risk of becoming only pretty, trend-savvy, devoid of political content, etc.

Exactly. I think people are able to pursue their self-realized purpose when they allow themselves to be vessels for and to the cause.

I applaud the black people who have made it through the program at EMU. I just couldn’t see myself creating in an environment that for me was sterilized. Too whitewashed. By my sophomore year the two black womxn that I started the program with were all in different classes; there was no likeness anymore. That’s why I do value the community of black creatives on campus. We found a way to exist together outside of our courses. It’s lowkey sacred when I really think about it.

I don’t think leaving the program allowed me to bypass the pitfall that capitalism creates. Perhaps it makes me fall deeper into it. I have no “professional” roots, or even public prestige to my name. People who know me closely respect me, but galleries and museums won’t, without me hustling to get to that point. In this society people love cosigns and titles. I’m a self-proclaimed artist and there’s nothing wrong with that, but there are certain institutions that won’t give a shorty like me a chance. Mind you, times are changing, and you see more often that the “underdogs” are being given a chance with brands and organizations. Though that does raise the question of whether or not these opportunities are being granted genuinely or for publicity. I think that if you aren’t white it’s gonna be hard to penetrate the renowned art world.

What leaving the program has allowed for me is a chance to clear my mind in whole. I spent over 12 years in a school system that taught me what America wants me to know, not necessarily what I needed to know, and not what’s needed to survive. Being out of the public school system has given me the time to be introspective and create my own curriculum which consists of spiritual, political, artful, and overall ancestral teachings. Leaving school has put me in a place where I don’t even care too much about the way capitalism influences/effects art. It’s allowed me to do art for spirit, not for sport. In this era it’s a big privilege, as a person of color, to be able to not have thoughts of “how am I gonna survive off my passions if there’s no room for me?”

“I spent over 12 years in a school system that taught me what America wants me to know.” For me, make that 19 years. I empatically share your sense that schooling systems in the U.S. exist to reinforce complacency with capitalism and settler-colonial histories. You wondered whether people making use of renegade “unknown” artists like you are doing so out of genuine respect and desire, or instead for publicity, and I really feel that. It brings to mind what Nike did with Colin Kaepernick; it also brings to mind things I see on social media, posted by radical artists and designers I love, about how peers and corporations and non-profits “love” their work and want to make use of it, but often for unsatisfying or ultimately exploitative ends. About your current art practice—“for spirit, not for sport”—: can you describe for us some of your immediate desires for it, and ambient struggles/aspirations you’re discovering when you take a break and peek down the road? Have you got aesthetic comrades in your community?

Fuck colonialism, right? For real, every problem in America started with the colonizers. You made it through the system though and seem to have broken free of most colonial ideas.

Black and brown people are always at risk of being exploited. It’s rare that we find spaces (not created by us) where we are able to express our truest selves. So I do wanna take a moment to thank you for holding this space for me right now. It’s important that once you invite a person of color, or even a womxn into a predominantly white/male space that you have someone who will wholly advocate for them. We can do it ourselves but often times white folk/men see inclusion as “good enough,” meaning you’re in this space now so what more could you possibly want. We want our voices to be heard and to not be a token in these spaces. That’s why some POC don’t even want an invite—the spaces uphold white supremacy and it’s crazy that people don’t even see it.

As for my future endeavors and those current … I felt a shift in self after the summer of 2018. Two of my friends passed away in separate yet tragic events. Marcus Major and Daziah Crawford. They were both 19 and carried the richest spirits ever.

I guess it was really traumatic for me because I definitely don’t remember a lot about who I was before losing them. I think I was just another human being trying to survive and “make it.” These days it seems I’m more in touch with the world around me.

I’m at a point where I’ve adopted a radical mind to coexist with my radical heart. I’m working on gaining knowledge to help me step into the work of liberating oppressed people. I have so much to learn and I have to pace myself because sometimes studying is taxing. I don’t want to push too hard.

My art is fleeing from the forefront of my mind. Creating is what I do best but I don’t want to limit myself to it. When I do make visual art I try to keep it around the themes of black and brown unity as well as emotional liberation. I have an ongoing series titled November that I’ve dubbed my “liberation paintings.” I hope to sell those pieces to earn money that will help fuel the work of many grassroots organizations.

I’m in full support of so many young people doing great work. Unfortunately, I’m unaware of grassroots orgs that may be in Michigan (if any black, brown, indigenous, or queer led organizations in MI are interested in connecting please connect with me.) There’s a few folx/collectives that I’ve found via Instagram that keep me motivated in this ongoing journey. [Editor’s note: see below]

Overall I just imagine a future with unity within the communities that I fall into. Unity can really change the status quo.

How would it be possible for people to buy one of the liberation paintings, if they feel like supporting you and housing one of your paintings? And yes! I’m aware of what a supporting spirit you’ve got—I’m often really moved by how you choose to lift up your loves and comrades, especially in a context that’s so drenched with people megaphoning their own image. I wonder if you’re able to trace your generosity to some elder or circumstance, or do you instead feel like it’s the spirit you were born with? For me, near midlife, I’ve grown to feel the only reason I’m still here, and want to be around, is so that I can care for the ones I love and respect, and support and amplify the people whose struggles are vital to reshaping this world.

I feel the same way, about staying present to love on and uplift those close to myself in spirit and struggle. I think it’s so fulfilling to share space with people who love and will grow to love you.

My generosity does come from an elder. My grannie passed away when I was 15. I remember one time this man’s car had stalled in the middle of an intersection, and my grannie parked the car and got out to help him. I always reflect on that moment as one that can truly sum up the beauty of her spirit. I come from a really helpful family. We all have kindness embedded in us. I think that’s why I’m a “just because” kind of person—I’ll often show kindness “just because.” I wasn’t always this nice though. Was sort of a lil asshole before high school. I grew out of that though, quickly.

To buy one of my liberation paintings, one could contact me via email or DM me on Instagram (@theessenceofk). I rarely sell work because I tend to undervalue myself. Depending on the size of the piece, I charge either $20 or $100, unless we work something out. I’m also into trading or bartering, which means almost anyone can receive my work. I’m more interested in sharing my work in my communities than with folks who don’t care about my peoples’ lives on a daily.

The liberation paintings larger than 18” x 24” are meant to be sold for a higher amount—definitely over $5,000. I figure these pieces should be able to pay someone’s rent for close to half a year. They’re expensive because I feel it’s one of the only ways (right now) that I can help people doing the more hands-on work, like helping migrant families, aiding transgender and gender non-conforming folx, bailing out people who’ve been fallen into the jail system, among many other things.

I’m thinking of Janet Mock’s spoken passage at the beginning of Blood Orange’s “Jewelry”:
So, like, my favorite images are the ones where someone who isn’t supposed to be there, who’s, like, in a space, a space where we were not ever welcomed in, where we were not invited, yet we walk in and we show all the way up. People try to put us down by saying, “She’s doing the most,” or “He’s way too much.” But, like, why would we want to do the least?
It brings you to mind—a young, largely self-taught and self-organized working-class artist who’s on the margins in the midwest, and yet who is unabashedly creating works of power as well as speaking up on behalf of other voices from the margins, or even beloved comrades who’ve left the margins for eternity, like Daz and Marcus. You’re making a link between your own habit of stepping up and that of your grandmother’s, and I really dig that link because it’s a reminder that so much that’s good in us comes in some way from the modelings of the elders and mentors who loved us best, and who also demonstrated a capacity to care for anyone in need of care—like the man stalled in the middle of the intersection. I guess what I’m wondering is, when you “show all the way up” as a black queer womxn in social spaces as well as private/familial spaces, how do you manage the dangerousness and anxiety of that process?

You know what? I haven’t found myself in many spaces that pose a threat to me. I don’t walk into spaces where I know I may be mistreated or abused. I don’t work jobs with white bosses. I always quit jobs because of white managers. I don’t get out much these days so I don’t encounter many high-risk situations. I guess my reclusiveness provides a layer of protection for me.

Looking back, I’m seeing that in artistic spaces I find myself most anxious. I’ve encountered a few gay white men in the scene who seem to care more about themselves than the general public.

Ya know, to be black and proud is lowkey to be opinionated and loud about what you’re feeling, as well as why you feel that way. I’ve found over time that showing up, loud and doing the most, starts with advocating for yourself. Walking into a room knowing what awaits you but still being present and determined to effect that space. It’s speaking over the person who just rudely cut you off. It’s making sure your presence isn’t just seen but truly felt.

If I’m in a space with a lot of people who may want to send hate to me, I stare them in the eye. I’m not afraid to be me. I’m not afraid to let someone know that they are fucking with my energy. I’m a really blunt person.

I’m fortunate to have adapted a mindset where I truly believe in giving everything your all. This is my one life as Kavonna Smith—I will not be silenced. I will not be defeated. I have the power of my ancestors, and the African diaspora standing by me at all times.

Showing up for myself is realizing that this anxiousness I feel, this terror that may come for me, from being black, queer, and woman in America, is not something I should hold onto. I shouldn’t be afraid to do the most. I was born to be as me and free as possible. I manage being in these dangerous spaces by understanding that I should not be afraid, I should have no fear. Spirit got my back. I’m protected.

I do understand that many situations may pose a threat to my life, and there was a time when that scared me, but I can’t let that prevent me from living life as loudly as possible.

I’m protected in a way that many of my queer, trans, and femme friends aren’t. I’m saddened by that, I’m enraged by that … By showing up for myself I can show up for them as well. Hopefully one day we can all be loud enough (within ourselves and uncomfortable spaces) to expel fear from our hearts and hate from our oppressors.

I know it ain’t that simple but becoming resilient within ourselves is a really good place to start. Never let a person who could never understand what you experience diminish your vigor.

While the iron is so hot, may I ask you about your muses and favorites and shining stars?

Shining stars? Boris Gardiner said it best … Look it up. I love niggas. Every nigga is a star. I lowkey pride myself on digging into every artist that I get wind of. I try to pay attention to everyone’s craft, ya know? We all deserve love.

Most often my muses are people who identify as femme. Womxn of color have a way of taking my thoughts and enhancing them. It’s as if I plant a seed thinking it’s a daisy, then months later a sunflower blooms. That’s how womxn impact me. They take something already groovy and turn it into something mystically amazing.

Can never forget about the Earth though. She’s taught me everything I know. My time here has given me the lessons needed to create the art that I do. All that I make essentially comes from luv or heartache. These days I think my muses are womxn of color, elements of rage, grief, and mortality.

Speaking of empowering womxn, can you share with us some of the origin story of this portrait you’re at work on?

ks1

The portrait is of a being that I highly respect. I have this project I’m working on, called Orange Identity. It’s meant to showcase and develop the unity between black and brown cultures. In my mind, citrus is a common fruit between many cultures as well as a connection to nature. This is just an abstract conception of my love for my brown/indigneous relatives and the things that link us: fruit, plants, Earth, and Hennesy.

And then there’s a less figurative work like this one, with its utterly surprising colors, and shapes that invoke both flora and anatomy.

ks2

This piece is a part of November, my liberation collection. I feel like this series hosts the very essence of my being. As I developed as an artist, I found that I didn’t understand abstraction and therefore didn’t like it.

I grew up thinking art had to have a story—something for the reader to dissect and understand. With this piece and others like it, I’ve found a peace within artmaking. I’m not forcing a story or thinking too hard on what the piece emcompasses. It’s fluid, like me.

I think this is my contribution to the public and my people: fluidity through imagery. The colors represent the heart, soul, and passion.

I’m hoping that this collection will become what helps me feed my culture.

Tell us where you’re headed, and what you see when I say the words “Kavonna Smith in the year 2020.”

I’m heading towards a journey of redemption. A journey that involves a strong fight against oppressors. One that will continue to protect the land against the exploitation and destruction of greedy capitalists and consumers. I got high hopes. Right now I’m trying to get my life together and figure out how I want and need to show up for my communities. Danger is imminent in so many spaces, it’s hard to sit around and worry about myself only.

I’m walking into a new era in my life where I need to study and comprehend the concepts surrounding activism and organizing towards mobilization to create a change.

Artmaking will always be a passion of mine but I do see serving others as something I need to do daily.

To inform y’all of my future in art aside from painting, I’ve been practicing woodworking and stone carving. I don’t want to contribute too much to the waste problem here on Earth, and there’s so much waste involved in making art, from paint tubes to the packages materials come in.

I’m mad interested in receiving what the land has to give, I’ll only take what’s for me, and I see trees and stone being part of those offerings. I’m trying to connect with those who came before me and I think the land has a lot to offer me.

I just had a thought pop into my head regarding this interview—I grow so much in every minute and every hour. By the time people are able to read this, my answers will have evolved. I know what will stay the same is my dedication to my people.

When I see “Kavonna Smith in 2020” … I see a haven for mistreated and marginalized peoples. I see myself involved in grassroots collectives. I don’t ever wanna see fame for being talented. I just wanna see more people off the streets, out of prisons, less kids taking their lives, more people honoring their connection to this Earth. I see a life like magic, where more people say fuck fear and all bullshit. I see myself being in the middle of alla that. I definitely don’t want to tell my own personal plans because, while this interview is about me, I’m hoping people are taking something from it for themselves.

I just want to be a facilitator for change within the people closest to my heart. If ever I fail I just wanna get back up and try again because I know what’s at stake: liberation.

One last thing to mention is that I intend to bike from Michigan to New York. I wanna do it as a solidarity journey. A ride to understand and connect within my ancestors and the land. A ride to reflect love towards my comrades and people who share my likeness. A walk to honor those who’ve passed away violently and naturally. I basically want to align and be in solidarity with those who were and still are impacted by the middle passage and the trail of tears. I’m trynna mentally and physically prepare myself for that. I told one person and she told me to be safe—I kind of forgot that danger exists out in the world, but I think I’m committed to this journey. It’s gonna take a while to be prepared but in my heart I feel it’s something that needs to happen. It’s an instrumental part of my stepping into the realm of revolution and radical change.

I’m not surprised your parting words reference revolution and radical change, Kavonna. Your statements here, your art, and the life you lead make it clear you’re nothing if not committed. Thank you for sharing your visions with us.

Thank you for having me. I feel very thankful to share my voice. It’s not something I do often. Thank you to those who’ve read this far. I value you and I hope this day blesses you greatly.


Here are some individuals and organizations to learn from (via Instagram):

  • @spitjustice
  • @culturestrike
  • @wocsolidarity
  • @thoughty_organizer
  • @thehoodhealer
  • @vrye
  • @nuestra_patriapr
  • @decolonizingtherapy
  • @dr.thema
  • @audrelordeproject
  • @iharterika
  • @blkgirlblog

And a couple podcasts: Cosas de la Vida Real and Soul Rebel.

There’s also an unofficial but near-accurate representation of where Indigenous nations once or presently resided. Want to know whose land you occupy? Check the link.

Here’s A Demand to White Coded and Nonblack Artists of Color, from Women of Color in Solidarity.

To support the legacy of my friend Daziah, stream her music and consider donating to the foundation established in her honor, which supports students pursuing study in journalism and the arts.

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