Olisa Jr. interviews New York artist Jewel Ham on her latest exhibition, ‘i said what i said.’
Interview & Words by Olisa Jr.
At 23 years old, the New York artist Jewel Ham, living through her rookie and the vet stage as she refers to it, is making a name for herself with every beautifully luminous painting she creates. “It became clear in high school that I wanted to be an artist. I mean I felt like I could succeed as one, but at the time there wasn’t really no proof,” she blithely shares as we briefly speak on her upbringing and the birth of her artistic realm. “I grew up in Charlotte from young till around high school, and well …I hated it. There was this Disney movie, and I’m not sure if this was in your time, but it was called Stuck in the Suburbs, and I used to think it was about my life. I was always the odd one out, I guess maybe cause I always liked art. I was also fortunate enough to be raised sort of culturally aware, and I’d say that came with being able to travel quite a bit when I was younger, and I was perceived as this air-headed artsy girl, which definitely wasn’t the case when I went to Howard on a full ride.”
Jewel’s recently opened exhibition i said what i said, on view at the Anthony Gallery, celestially puts on display her stunning world of vibrant colours, unwavering black joy, and an undoubtedly striking sense of cultural and self-understanding, conveying the strong truth that Jewel’s work is an unfiltered testament to her authenticity, as she also states that her work is an extension of herself “talking shit”.
I had the wonderful opportunity to catch up with her and talk about creating multi-dimensional art for the black gaze, expressing chaotic good through her paintings, and how black influence on culture has informed her emotionally-charged colour palette.
Why do you think you chose art or painting as your form of imprinting your thoughts and emotions into the world?
Jewel: To be honest, I would say I was just always good at it. I could always draw, like when I was in elementary school, the kids always wanted to be in my group, and also it was just fun. I taught myself how to do acrylics, continually refining that throughout high school. I was also ahead with my high school classes and started going to community college part-time. So I guess with this quasi “I don’t really go to school” schedule, I was more focused on the art thing. I taught myself how to oil paint in my room, and I spent the entire senior year just trying to refine my craft. And then I got to Howard, and I was one of the only two at the time that oil painted. It reached a point where I was trying to really make it as an artist in the city, and really keep hustling which definitely helped me. Fast forward, I popped into New York and hit the ground running. I think also, at the time, I was really into true self-expression and art just happened to come the most naturally.
You’ve also mentioned, at the time, starting to share your work on Instagram also helped as a conduit for that self-expression—would you say there was a difference in how artists shared their work then than in comparison to how it is now?
Jewel: I won’t say I fully think so, but I would say right now it’s a lot more calculated. I think back then it was just fun. Before they had stories and stuff, I was posting multiple times a day, simply because I was having a bang-up good time. And I think now it’s a lot different, and the difference is definitely motivated by the pandemic. We sort of live in a world where the internet is the real world, unfortunately. I know we know better, but because so much of this chunk of time the internet was all we had to perceive people, now I feel like that’s sort of still all there is. I went to Art Basel this last year, and it wasn’t my first time going, but my first time going as somebody [laughs]. I had gotten all these business cards printed but everyone kept asking instead for my Instagram. I mean there are certainly ups and downs, and I might be wrong, but that’s how I feel.
Viewing the progression of your paintings, from early 2016 till the present, they’ve always portrayed subtle hints at the ascension or transformation of your colour palette to the now vibrant scarlet, yellow, orange, and pink tones that are dominant in your work. Would you say it was a conscious decision to do so? and what inspired this visual rendering?
Jewel: It’s both. I’ve always loved colour, which isn’t something special to me because everyone is sort of drawn to colour in some way. I think I’ve also always looked at the skin as having that dimensionality in its tones. I remember early on when I was in AP Studio Art, in high school, we had to do a self-portrait, and the colours were supposed to be very representational of our personalities and I wanted to do neon. So, I guess colour and building things like that was always a big thing for me. Come 2020, I saw this guy at a protest literally holding a pig head, and I wanted to put that on a shirt but that would’ve been crazy, so I had to think of a way to still represent it in a way. I wanted to use a skeleton which I did, but I also had to think of what colour to use.
At the same time, I began thinking of how to be black is sort of to be frustrated with so much, and that’s excluding being up-in-arms every day. It’s something that’s just within us. I think that frustration and fury is also the reason we’re able to do the type of things we do that other races cannot; like soul food, or everything that we do with rap music, lyricism, fashion, and all the things in culture that we either influenced or birthed. That’s a bloodline. And having that with us, being able to use our frustration and put it to good use, that’s then the red which is the blood that has sipped up to the skin, and I knew that red would always be the anchor in my work. How it manifested could take on different tones: the pinks, the oranges, the purples, and so forth, but that red will always be the nucleus.
In what ways would you say your work perpetuates notions of recontextualization and reclamation?
Jewel: I think colour is always super important, especially to our culture in general. Looking through history, it’s always been vibrant, colourful, neons, and everything alike is so integral to our culture. For me and my work, in regards to colour, I just want people to enjoy it. I think there are a lot of black artists who already talk about humanizing black folks. I think it was the initial black artists who really made it, those who undoubtedly I do stand on their shoulders, yet I feel ultimately their work was made for the white gaze, and mine is not. And that goes into the colours, the titles, the symbolism, the drink selection or the food selection in everything.
I want to talk about your latest exhibition, i said what i said—tell me a bit about the exhibition and the creative process behind it?
Jewel: Something I always say about my work, is that it is an extension of me talking shit. When I paint I am talking shit, and I’m sure you can tell. I think you’d also understand it more when you look at the titles, but I never go into details about them. The people that get ‘em, they get ‘em. I think the people who’ve heard those phrases before, understand them. In that same way, it triggered a lot of familiarity and memories with the people who understand it. That said, I want the attitude or the tones of the brushwork to also reflect those titles or simply the story behind the painting. Besides that, with these paintings, and my work in general, I do like to load a lot of other things into the work. I’m a person who deals with a lot of emotional and mental health things, so I want people to be hooked off of that, and then it forces them to engage with the work. Though, I want my people to be drawn and connected to it first, and whatever comes after it is great.
Reading the exhibition brief, it mentions the nature of your work being somewhat chaotic in its presentation. You’ve almost mentioned the fury and frustration that’s present in the underpinnings of what your work is trying to reflect. How would you describe your approach to manifesting that chaos in your work’s visual rendering?
Jewel: I think personally I am chaotic …a chaotic good to precise[laughs]. The concept of the work always comes first, which is the thoughts, the emotions, and the intimate ideas, and a lot of the time that comes from a place of chaos because my mind is always really running. I think I also go through so much shit that doesn’t necessarily align with who I present to be, and I think it’s something common with the black community, especially black women. So, I want to invite them into this bright space, and at the same time, there is so much else there—within the paintings—like what is she eating? What’s on the table? What is she reaching for? Though, I don’t want the answers to be concrete because it allows each person have their own narrative of the work. I think having different takes also goes to the dimensionality of who we are as people. I know certainly my work has a lot of brightness and it’s like Black Joy, but it’s not just who we are. It’s not only trauma or only joy, it’s not only black or white, which is another reason I don’t paint with black anymore.
You’ve previously spoken about the heavy influence of music in your work, and I’m curious, what were the sounds circulating in your mind while creating and curating the works for this exhibition?
Jewel: I feel like if I could give the show a theme song, it would be Rainbow Cadillac by Baby Tate. At the end there’s an adlib, “Look, I don’t, I don’t think you bitches get it, okay (they don’t) / You can’t outdo the doer, okay? (At all) / You can’t outshine the shiner, baby.” I think that’s definitely for sure what it was, and the whole song as a whole too. Also, on like a non-rap level, I love FKA Twigs, so Caprisongs was definitely playing. Even though she’s not a super hard act, she still talks her shit. I think there are levels of that in the work too, cause being a black woman too, it’s not always this knuck if you buck act, and I wasn’t raised like that. And then always got BbyMutha in rotation, and finally, classic Nicki.
Last question for you, looking through your website prior to our meeting, you labelled last year as the year of redefinition—what do you feel the title of this year is for you? And why?
Jewel: My goodness, that’s a good one! Really good one. Thus far, I think this definitely gonna be the year of fruition. I think there are a lot of things that I’ve wanted to do, or thought about doing, which was like curating, mixing the music with the art, and now it’s something bigger or something new. This year I feel so many things I thought about having are starting to fall in place. It’s definitely giving things that I imagined.