Malene Djenaba Barnett’s talent for drawing was evident from the time she was young. When her elementary school in Norwalk, Connecticut began a program for artistic children, she was one asked to join. “I had opportunities to nurture my creativity at an early age,” she says, nodding to the fact that she also played the violin and piano.
She credits her creative drive to her mother, who studied classical piano when she arrived in the U.S. from Saint Vincent in the Caribbean. She instilled that passion for music—and the arts in general—in her children. Yet, it was drawing that always fascinated Barnett. She enrolled at the State University of New York at Purchase where she focused on painting and drawing, eventually transferring to the Fashion Institute of Technology in Manhattan to study fashion illustration. While there, she pivoted yet again, discovering textile surface design, which she majored in. Her first job out a school was designing African prints for textile company Afritex Ventures. “It was a dream job for me because my work had centered around my heritage, culture, and the Black experience.”
Understanding her identity via the lens of the Black diaspora is a theme throughout Barnett’s work and one she continues to explore as a Fulbright grantee. (She has temporarily relocated from Brooklyn, New York to be the artist in residence at Edna Manley College in Kingston, Jamaica.) “I don’t want to be identified based on one thing,” she says. “That is a very Western way of looking at art. I look to materials that are going to speak to what I want to say.”
Five years ago, Barnett launched the Black Artists + Designers Guild (BADG) in response to the What’s New, What’s Next industry event, where there wasn’t a Black artist or designer on any of the panels. “It was 2018, and we were still dealing with this lack of equity—this lack of visibility,” she says. She called on her network of Black creators to form a collective. “I felt I could create something that uplifted the community,” she says.
Since its launch, BADG’s initiatives have expanded to include the BADG Lab, which creates community-focused projects like Obsidian, a virtual concept house focusing on the Black family; BADG Education, with a goal to increase exposure for Black artists and designers through grants, residencies, and public programs; BADG Lifestyle, where “we partner with companies to build collections around the concept of Black joy,” she says; and BADG of Honor, the yearly fundraiser that celebrates Black visionaries, both past and present.
“My ancestors continue to inspire me,” Barnett points out. “I didn’t get here by myself, and I’m not going to move forward by myself. I want to carry as many Black [people as possible] with me to enjoy this experience.”
This article originally appeared in HD’s July 2023 issue.