Jun 14, 2023

Episode 110

Malene Djenaba Barnett

Malene Djenaba Barnett Multidisciplinary artist founder of BADG


Although Malene Djenaba Barnett‘s talents and interests are varied and wide-ranging—there’s textiles, ceramics, and paintings; founding and running the Black Artists + Designers Guild (BADG), and more—the common thread of her pursuits is a deep connection to her ancestors, whom she finds inspiration in and pays homage to in her work.

A lifelong learner, Barnett holds an MFA in ceramics from Philadelphia’s Tyler School of Art & Architecture; an undergraduate degree in fashion illustration and textile surface design from the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York; and has attended residences including Haystack, Watershed, and Anderson Ranch.

Now, as a Fulbright grantee, she is spending 2023 as the artist in residence at Edna Manley College in Kingston, Jamaica. No matter where Barnett’s attention lies at any particular moment, she takes care to not limit herself to a particular material or medium, instead working with what feels will tell the story best.


Stacy Shoemaker Rauen: Hi, I’m here with Malene Barnett. How are you? So good to see you.

Malene Djenaba Barnett: I’m good. Thanks for having me here. Good to see you too.

SSR: Thanks for doing this. So we always start at the beginning. Where did you grow up?

MB: I actually, I grew up in a small town in Norwalk, Connecticut. I grew up by the beach actually. Yeah, my mother still lives there after 49 years, and I really had a wonderful childhood living in the suburbs.

SSR: Amazing. Were you creative as a kid?

MB: I have been drawing ever since I was eight years old, probably before that, but I say eight years old because that’s when I knew it was formal because at that time, when I was in elementary school, we had a special program for the artistic children, and they called it artistically talented. And I got selected to be a part of this program. And we would draw and paint on a weekly basis in addition, of course, to all of our other classes. And so I had opportunities to really nurture my creativity at a early age. So yeah, I’ve always been creative.

SSR: That’s amazing. Did that continue on through high school, or was that just in elementary school?

MB: That program was just in elementary school. And then while I got into middle school, our art program started to get cut, but I did still continue. And I also played the violin and the piano. So my mother, she’s from a tiny island called St. Vincent in the Caribbean. And so when she came to the US, she studied classical piano. And I know one of the things that she exposed all of her children to was music and playing an instrument. So I studied piano for many years, and I studied the violin. And it wasn’t until high school when I decided, in 10th grade, I just said, Mommy, I don’t want to play the violin anymore. I want to go back to fine art. And that’s when I made the switch to go back to painting and drawing again.

SSR: Amazing. Were your siblings also creative and into the arts?

MB: They weren’t into the arts like me, but like all students, we all, you have a pottery class or painting. We all did it, but I was the one who really gravitated towards it.

SSR: Got it got it. Did you end up going to school for arts as well?

MB: Yeah, actually when it was time for college, it was funny, I was very set on applying for art school, but the art school had to have a volleyball team because I was very much into my sports at the time.

SSR: Very well-rounded child.

MB: Yeah, I was very much into my sports. I was playing softball and volleyball, and I was really good, MVP, all that stuff, captain. And so when it was time for art school, I was like, I needed a school that had a good art program and a volleyball team.

SSR: I love that.

MB: Wasn’t looking for the top volleyball team, but I just wanted to continue to play. And so yeah, I did enroll in SUNY Purchase in Purchase, New York first, and then I transferred to FIT.

SSR: Amazing. And did that just cement your love for art, or did that push you in a different way?

MB: Well, the experience at SUNY purchase, I was focused on painting and drawing, and I also had photography as part of my, one of the disciplines. But at the time, we’re talking 1990, there was no internet, no social media. It was a different time to be an artist. And I was really thinking about how can I make a living from this? And I thought, well, maybe I should transfer to Fashion Institute of Technology, FIT for short, and study fashion illustration, because I really love to draw. I love drawing figures, and I love clothing. I did enroll in the program, and it was interesting. I mean, I could draw, but my classmates, they could really draw. And that industry was dying down because photography was starting to take over. We’re talking, again, the early 90s. So then while I was at FIT, that’s when I discovered textile surface design as a major. Didn’t know anything about it before, but I was like, ooh, I get to draw, I get to paint and I have to make a product. And I applied, and then I graduated with my bachelor’s in surface textile surface design.

Orejen Collection Black Artists + Designers Guild BADG S. Harris

Part of the Orejen Collection by BADG for S. Harris; photo by Toni Li

SSR: Very cool. What was your first job or role out of college?

MB: Well, it’s interesting because while I was in school, I freelanced a lot because I had to still make money and support myself in different ways. But my first full-time job out a school was working for a textile company. It was called Afritex, and I was designing African print textile. So it was like a dream job for me because all of my work had centered around my heritage, culture, the black experience, and looking at different patterns and how pattern creates language and has symbolism. And so I was hired as their in-house designer. In addition, I did marketing for them, which was interesting because that’s how I learned how to market a product. There was the Yellow Pages still, and I was going through the Yellow Pages, calling up fabric companies to sell the fabric. And then I was also designing the collection.

SSR: That’s so funny. My mom still uses the Yellow Pages to this day. I make fun of her all the time.

MB: I didn’t even know they still exist.

SSR: Yeah, I didn’t either until I saw it show up at my mom’s house. So that’s just so funny. How things have changed, how you have to market yourself versus how you used to have to market yourself.

So how does your identity now influence your work and vice versa, your heritage, I know that’s still very important to you. And how have you learned to really identify that as an artist or create that identity as an artist?

MB: Well, identity has been, it’s been a lifelong learning process for me. And I would not just say for me, but I think I could speak in general as being a person of the Black diaspora, identity is something that we’re constantly identifying in a way and creating a language around it because of our experience. The fragmented histories of the community is part of the reason why identity is still not defined in one. And the thing is that it really can’t be defined as one solid thing because I’m constantly looking at history, looking at am experience and piecing things together to create new narratives. And then as of recent more, I’ve been really touching into my heritage from the Caribbean diaspora lens. My mother’s from St. Vincent, as I said earlier, and my father’s from Jamaica. And I haven’t had a much experience prior to my taking my time these past few years. I just graduated from Tyler School of Art. I just finished grad school. I have a MFA in ceramics now. And I really focus those, the two years while I was studying there, on really identifying and unearthing the stories of the Caribbean diaspora and the Caribbean and what that means, and how did that whole region come about? Because it was a made up space, and it was a space where Black people were forced to create a kinship to lands that were not of their origin. And so through these experiences and through the history, I’ve been really re-imagining what identity is for me. And I use a lot of identifiers such as pattern and surface decoration, looking at handmade processes, focused on pottery-making techniques and just looking at more of an ancestral way of making in my practice and how that informs identity. And those become the signifiers of who I am and just of the Black experience.

SSR: And what is your process and research like for that and to really kind of dig deep and look at that history?

MB: Well, I think it’s a combination of, one, talking to people, because our history is very oral. A lot of information for certain, especially certain practices when we talk about making practices, it’s not written down because these are traditions that were passed down from generation to generation. So while I’m currently in Jamaica right now on a Fulbright, and I am researching the ceramic culture of Jamaica, interviewing artists, understanding about how they were making, who they learned from and how this material continued to inform who we are as a community, and the objects that are made and how that brings community together because a lot of the objects are functional. So I start to look there, and then in addition, I’ll look in the archives, look at different periods of time of, again, thinking about Jamaica, Jamaica’s a country that was created, and when you understand the history of how Africans were forced to come here, I’m looking at the beginning when that happened, and then looking at how was the culture intact prior to enslavement and the whole colonial period, and what did we carry with us through that mental passage? And those are some of the ways that I start to reimagine the experience and then take the information that I discover and then I create work from it so I could have deeper conversations around the Black experience and culture with the communities.

SSR: And I love how you do it. You do it through ceramics, fine art, textiles, I mean, all different mediums. Is there one you love, or do you love just having that variability that you could create in so many different facets?

MB: I purposely work in different mediums because I don’t want to be identified based on one thing. And I think that is a very Western way of looking at art, by really honing in on one specific thing. I look to materials that are going to speak to what I want to say. So if clay is going to speak to what I’m trying to say, then I’ll work in clay. If I need to add another material with clay, then I bring it in, if it’s fabric. So it just depends on what I’m trying to say, and that’s how I allow those materials to express those feelings.

SSR: And your fine art, it’s a lot of faces and people and color. And tell us a little bit about what you like to create with that medium.

MB: Well, again, I look at everything as the art, as I don’t look at a separation between fine art and, say ceramics. I think, again, these are terms that have been, I should say, forced upon us as an artist, specifically in the Western world, because I look at the work as a making. I’m making art, and so there’s no separation.

And I use figures purposely. A lot of the recent work is of my family because I’m really re-imagining what Black archives could look like. When you have a limited amount of images in your archive, how can you expand on the information that you have in multiple ways? You’ll see a lot of repetition in the images because I was working with four generations in my family who were makers. But again, in that repetition creates new narratives. And that’s why I’m thinking when you’ll see some of the work, you may see the same image. And my grandmother, my maternal grandmother, is the focal person in the work because she was the one who migrated first to the US from St. Vincent and then eventually brought her children, and my mother was the oldest.

SSR: And you mentioned you’re spending a lot of time in Jamaica for this Fulbright. Tell us more about it and what inspired you to go and be part of this?

MB: Well, it started because while I was in grad school, when I was doing my research around the Caribbean and thinking about the makers of the region, and I look at the makers as the ones who really kept the community together. And then I was like, well, where’s the information about the ceramic histories of the region? Clay is such a material that was so important, especially during the enslavement period because the women were allowed to make these pots. And these pots were called Yabba pots. And they would go dig the clay. They would hand build the pots, and these pots were used to serve food or storage. And the planters allowed them to make it because that meant that they didn’t have to buy it. And so I looked at that moment that the women had to make these pots as a moment of when they felt some form of liberation and had some agency. Even though they were still under bondage, it was a moment for them, as I’ve coined it called, grounded and free.

So what I’ve done is I’ve looked at those moments and then expanded upon it within my work I’ve developed. And so then when I would share this information with the community, and I’d say, oh, I’m doing research on ceramic artists or potters in the Caribbean, I would get questioned, oh, there are actually potters or ceramic artists in the Caribbean? And I’m like, of course, clay is everywhere. There’s a ceramic history and culture around in every country. But what has happened is that we tend to focus on particular regions, particularly say the Western world and the European ceramics, Asian ceramics and the history of the ceramic culture in this region has been left out. And so then my work has been really focused on how do we create an inclusive ceramic culture? And so by doing this work, I’m really bringing light to not only to the region, but the artists who have been making for 50 plus years, and now they’re starting to feel seen. And so that’s how this work started. And my proposal was really focused on that. And then in addition, while I’m gathering this information, I’m working on a new body of work to continue to expand on the narrative and continue to bring more awareness around the importance of the tool of clay, because I look at clay as a tool for liberation, linking it back to the women during the enslavement period, as well as the colonial period and how important that these pots have been in our lives. And they continue to provide some sort of refuge and agency to where we are today.

BADG Pottery Barn Black Joy Collection

BADG partnered with Pottery Barn to develop the Black Joy Collection; photo by Kelly Marshall

SSR: Amazing. How long is the program? Or how long will you be there?

MB: I’m here for 10 months, actually. Yeah. So it sounds like a long time, but it really isn’t because when you’re doing research, certain things take longer than others. So I really need the time, and actually probably I need more time to be honest.

SSR: See how much you can do. But sounds amazing. It must be so fulfilling to be able to not only expand your work, but do this research at the same time.

MB: Yeah. And being here is home to me. And so thinking about expanding on the ideas of home and understanding the beauty, as being a part of the Black diaspora, I always say to people that home is not centered to one space because we were forced to develop a kinship to different lands. So my home is, yes, it’s in Norwalk, Connecticut, it’s in Brooklyn, New York, and it’s also in Kingston, Jamaica. And I have other homes too.

SSR: Pretty good ones. Okay, so in 2018, you also formed BADG, the Black Artist and Designers Guild. What was the catalyst that inspired you to start that group?

MB: Well, it’s interesting when we think about the catalyst was an event that happened. What’s New, What’s Next. It was an industry event that always takes place. And there wasn’t a single Black artist, designer or anybody associated with the industry on the panel.

And so I was at the point in my career where I had been working in the industry for 20 years at the time, probably 20 plus to be honest. And I was always the only Black designer when it came to rug design because I really focused on rugs and textiles at the time. And that idea that in 2018 that we’re still dealing with this, as far as when I say dealing with this, this lack of equity, this lack of visibility when it comes to the contribution and presence of Black designers and artists. And so I’ve met many over my course of my career all over the world, throughout the diaspora, not just in the US. And I’ve formed many relationships with Black artists and designers and said, hey, it’s time for us to come together and create our own collective that really centered us and centered what we need.

And the inspiration, unfortunately, has been my life. This is not an issue where we’re dealing with all the isms from racism to sexism to everything around all systemic institutions, I should say, that have continued to negate our presence. I felt that at this point in my life that I could create something that really uplifted the community. And with the point of working as a collective, because again, the Western way of thinking of things, but is about individualism and BADG is about a collective and taking action towards what it is that we need and how we want to move. So yeah, because that’s how it started.

SSR: And what are some of the initiatives or things you’ve done that you’re most proud of with BADG?

MB: Well, yeah, BADG has been, it’s interesting, we’re going to be celebrating five years this year, which is-

SSR: Congrats.

MB: … a milestone for us. Yes. And we have three main initiatives that we focus on. One is our BADG Lab, which is a space where we create projects that are focused on what we need as a community. Well, our first project was our Obsidian, which was a virtual concept house, really focusing on the Black family and what home and space could be and feel like, and we could imagine how we create these safe spaces for the community.

Then we also have our BADG Education, which is where we provide space to expand our creative practice through residencies and grants. And we just finished our second program, our grant program, which is called the Creative Futures Grant, which we will be announcing the winners soon. So we’re really excited about that. But this grant is really about, we’re giving out $10,000 to three individuals to really help to expand and build, whether it’s an exhibition, some type of programming, art object that expands on the Black archives. So the work had to be focused on something that would attribute to the Black diaspora experience.

And then we also have BADG Lifestyle. This is where we partner with different companies and to build on collections, products, experiences around the concept of BLACK JOY. And so those are our three main initiatives in addition to all the other public programming, all kinds of events that we put on. And our main event, big fundraiser is BADG of Honor, and that’s where we really highlight and illuminate Black creatives, visionaries who have come before us, and we have a big event at the end of the year to celebrate that.

SSR: Amazing. That’s a great name too. BADG of honor. I love it. And where do you see BADG headed? I know you’re celebrating five years, but where do you want to see it grow?

MB: Well, I think it’s more about, I want to see the individuals in the group grow together as a collective is what’s happening and have stronger ties amongst each other and exchange, growing, because all of the members of BADG are, they’re entrepreneurs. So everyone has either an art practice, a design practice, some type of creative practice. So I would hope that I continue to see the group flourish in whatever those opportunities that they are interested in.

And in addition, I would love for us to continue to build on our programs by having another Obsidian 2.0, which is something that we are working on to have the community to support these ideas. In addition, to build on our grant program, we want to continue to support the Black artists and designers who have these ideas that may not necessarily have the funding. So we want to continue to grow that. And we want to continue to partner with companies, organizations who really believe in our mission and want to build on creating more product collection so more of the community can experience what the BLACK JOY is for us, and we’re able to exercise our creativity in the way that we choose.

Kravet chair collaboration Black Artists + Designers Guild BADG

Four makers from BADG collaborated with Kravet to transform a classic chair into their own innovative vision

SSR: Yeah, that’s great. I mean, you guys have done a lot of different initiatives like product collaborations, murals, installations. You’ve done a couple different things, correct?

MB: Oh yeah, many. I think it’s so many different things I can’t keep up.

SSR: Which is great. Is there one that you really think epitomized or was a proud moment for BADG in terms of what it represented for the group?

MB: I can’t say. It’s hard to really say like one one. But I will say this, I do believe our Obsidian project, which is our legacy project, if we look back at BADG and think about the mark that we have left during this particular time, by far, Obsidian has impacted. When we look at the reach it’s impacted, it was like over 6 million or billion people because it was online. And we really realize the influence and power that we have with our work when there’s no gatekeeper saying that we can’t do this. This was a project where 23 of our members, and we also included two younger people on this project, where we had a space, and we got to do whatever we want with it, and then focus on what does Black life look to us? What does Black home and family look to us?

And it was very inclusive, and we got to have conversations. We had to do research, and we used technology to expand on this idea. And that really freed us up. Some of the members, the ideas that we created during that time have now become realities. So I would say Obsidian has been an instrumental project for us for the growth of our creativity and also for our self-esteem. It was a game changer for many of us, especially because it was during Covid. It during the murders of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, and the country was in an uprising around Black Lives Matter, and we had an opportunity to add our voice to it through this lens of design and creativity and culture. And it still continues to pay back and give back, not only to the members, but to the community. And that’s really what BADG is about, is creating these spaces so we can continue to have dialogue, continue to dream and continue to imagine what’s possible and make it happen on our own terms.

SSR: Well, can’t wait to see 2.0 if that is in the works.

MB: Yes, yes.

SSR: And how’s the membership grown? Have you seen more people want to be a part of it? Has that been something that’s been eyeopening or just a great kind of benefit from starting it and seeing all the people come together and want to be part of this membership?

MB:  Yeah. I mean, we started with 30 people. I remember we started with just 30 people. Now we’re over 100. And it continues to grow. And we’re happy and excited to see when more people are interested in joining the collective. So yeah, it has grown. It has grown. And I think what’s very special, I think, about the group is that we’re not so focused on numbers of like, oh, we need to have 500 members. There’s a lot of organizations out there like that they want X amount of numbers. That’s not what we’re interested in because we need the action. And it’s not about the numbers. The small group that we have, we’ve made so much impact that it may look like we have 500 members. And that’s when you really see what’s really important, is when you’re doing the work, that’s really what is important when you have a collective and how we get things done. Yeah. So to answer your question, yes, we’ve grown, but we grow in so many different ways. And it’s not about the numbers of members.

SSR: Right. Quality, not quantity.

MB:  That’s right.

SSR: So tell us some, I know you’re doing the Fulbright. You’re working on another collection. What else do you want to create? I mean, as you say, you’ve done rug, textile, ceramics. What else do you see you working on in the future? Is there something still on your kind of bucket list that you want to do?

MB: Well, yeah, I actually just revealed a ceramic art installation project that was in my Brooklyn townhouse. I worked with one of the BADG members, Leyden Lewis Design Studio, to reimagine my space. And part of that work was to create this installation, which is more of the work and the direction of the work that I’m working on now. I want to create more. It’s called the Legacy Wall. And again, the Legacy Wall started with Obsidian. I was thinking about how do we create spaces where we reimagine what the Black diaspora could be? And this particular one that I did in my house are all fragments of ceramic pieces that I hand pressed. I made the clay, hand pressed each piece, glazed each piece, fired them multiple times, and then it was installed as this really, it grounds the space, the living room. It’s in the living room, and it’s a sculptural piece.

And so the idea is that I intentionally cut each piece so there are fragments to, again, to reference the fragments of our histories. And that being a part of the Black diaspora, that we have the ability to put these pieces together and create new experiences.

And so I want to build on these concepts and that create more legacy walls or spaces that celebrate the Black diaspora in different ways globally. So the work that I’m doing now here in Jamaica is that I’m working on concepts around memorials, spaces of healing and dedication to the Caribbean, the Caribbean diaspora, Black women makers. So that is what I’m focused on now. And it could be in clay. It could be in steel. It could be glass. So it’s all about the idea and concept of this celebration. And then the materials would, they will eventually appear, and I’ll figure those out after.

SSR: Do they kind of speak to yourself? How do you pick that material? Does it just, once you have your…

MB: Well, it depends on the concept, right now, because I’m really thinking about this memorial sculpture for Black women makers around clay, so there’s clay involved in it, but then I need other materials because if it’s going to be outside like steel or something else that can withstand weather and different temperatures. Because again, if you want to create a monument that’s going to stand, the materials are important on what could withstand the environment, people, if people are going to interact with it, those type of things.

SSR: Yeah. Got it. Okay. Well, that’s amazing.

MB: Yeah. And sorry, just to add though, Stacy, that these works that I’m working on are, they could live in different spaces. It could be a hospitality space. It could be a residential space. It could be a commercial of other sorts. It could just be a park, a public space in that way. And so it’s not central or specific just to one area.

SSR: For sure. And when you say you’re firing the clay and making it all, do you have a studio? Or does your Brooklyn home have its own art studio? Or do you have a studio? Talk to me a little bit about-

MB: Sure. In Brooklyn, no, I don’t have a studio at home. I have to go outside and get a studio. But while I’m here in Jamaica, I do have a studio. So because I am at Edna Manley College of School of Visual and Performing Arts, which is the only art school in the Caribbean, and so there is a whole ceramics department. And so yeah, I have access here.

SSR: That’s awesome. I can just see you in the studio doing all the things.

MB: Yeah. And I’m using the local clay, which is a red clay. And this is the same clay that was used for hundreds of years. So it’s very significant being able to use the same clay that some of the notable ceramic artists like Malu used. And for me, again, it’s building on that legacy.

SSR: Yeah. Do you like it quiet? Do you like music? What’s your process?

MB: Well, while I’m working, I like listening to podcasts.

SSR: Oh, there you go. Keeps you motivated. Love it.:

MB: That’s right.

SSR: Is there one you’re loving right now?

MB: Oh, I mean, I go between politics and creative entrepreneurship, but a podcast like Code Switch, and I’ll give a shout out to some Cerebral Women, and there’s a few that I’ll go back. And I do listen to this one too, so I’ll look forward to listening to this episode.

SSR: Yes. Love it. Love it. Have you had any mentors along the way? It’s always an interesting question, but I always like asking it. Has there been somebody that’s kind of, because I mean, you do so many different things, so you’ve kind of carved out your own journey or niche, if you will. But has there been anyone that’s kind of helped you get to where you are today?

MB: I tell everybody this. Nobody is successful on their own. Nobody. I’ve had plenty of mentors, plenty from going back to high school, my art teacher, who I’m still connected to this day, to different coaches I’ve had over the years. When I decided that in 2017 I wanted to take a sabbatical from my business, I worked with a brand consultant, Jasmine Takanikos, and she’s become a really great mentor to me too. She was the one that told me, Malene, you’re an artist. You need to go back to painting. And this is when I was designing rugs for so long. And that conversation has brought me to this point. It’s changed the trajectory of my career, my studio practice, and my life. So I continue to build on these relationships of the mentors and the people who continue to encourage and carry me. And they’ve changed over time, but I still have a significant amount of mentors in my life. And very appreciative and grateful for all that they have contributed to my wellbeing and my growth.

SSR: And I know a lot of this is based on heritage and history, but how do you stay inspired outside of what you’re working on or what you’re looking at, but how do you stay inspired and find new ideas? I’m just curious.

MB: Well, I’ll tell you this. My ancestors, they always, they continue to inspire me, especially in times when it’s challenging. I always think I have access to a lot more than they did, so I should have no excuse on moving forward.

So when I think about moments of struggle or challenges or when I complain about something, I go, I take that moment and say, you know what, if Harriet could do it, so can I. If Angela could do it, so can I. If Malu could do it, so can I. I could run it, if Augusta could do it, so could I. If Edmonia could do it, so could I. And so that’s the constant reminder that I didn’t get here by myself, and I’m not going to move forward by myself. And so that’s what keeps me inspired.

And knowing that I’m in midpoint of my life right now. And then they’re thinking about, okay, how do I want to spend the rest of my life not knowing when that day will come, but I know it will. But then I think about, you know what, let me create as much joy and beauty around being the Black woman that I am and carry as many Black women and men with me to enjoy this experience. That’s what keeps me inspired, knowing that I have the ability to do that.

malene barnett badg of honor

Barnett speaks at the BADG of Honor awards ceremony and fundraiser

SSR: Beautiful. I love that. So tell us something about yourself that most people might not know.

MB: Well, like I said earlier, you didn’t know I was into my sport.

SSR: No.

MB: But I like to play. I don’t like to watch. I like to be the person on the court or get down and dirty, even though I don’t play, I’m not involved in groups sports like I used to because now it’s just working out. And working out is a part of my life. But I’m trying to think if there’s something else that most people don’t know. I think people… I’m a very social person, but I also like to spend time at home by myself. I really do enjoy my own company, but also I enjoy the company of others, but I don’t think people probably think that I am, and that I go out a lot, which I really don’t anymore, not like I used to. But so I’m very social, and I like to have a good time. And I love a good party, I think, but I also like to have my downtime too.

SSR: Balance is key.

MB: Yes. And I’m a Libra, so that’s part of my world.

SSR: So am I.

MB: Oh really?

SSR: Yes, yes. So I’m like a true Libra.

MB: Yes.

SSR: When’s your birthday?

MB: September 27th.

SSR: I’m the 30th. Three days away.

MB: Ah, okay. Very close. See?

SSR: Yes. Yeah. Love it. So looking back, do you think you… I mean, it’s kind of silly. Hindsight is always 20/20, but looking back, did you ever think you’d end up where you are today?

MB: Well, it’s funny. I always knew I’d be a creative, an artist. I didn’t know terms and titles. I just knew that I liked to create and make things. But I’ve been doing that all my life. So I think my experience is different from many. I didn’t go into different careers. I’ve always been in the arts all my life. And so I studied it. I’ve worked in it. I haven’t steered into anything else that is to be central to who I am as a creative. So art, this is my life. And so when people are like, oh, maybe you should try… And I’m like, it just doesn’t fit me. And maybe that will change down the road.

I always think about second life, what would I be? And I come up with the idea that I would be a makeup artist, but that’s still creative to me. It’s still creative. It may be in a different industry, but that’s still, because I look at makeup artistry, it’s part of painting and developing. So it’s always been this creative path for me. And I feel that whatever I do, it’s going to have some sort of artistic, creative element to it. I just can’t fight that because that’s who I am. I’m an artist. I’m a maker.

SSR: Love it. I feel like you’d be a really good makeup artist though, too.

MB: Oh, yeah. I’ve done my thing. It was back in the day. Yeah. I mean, it’s fun. It really is fun. But then I wonder if I made it my career, would I still enjoy it? You know how some things, it’s like, some things are just better left, just do that as the hobby when you want to. It doesn’t necessarily have to be the career.

SSR: Yeah. And I feel like for you too, and correct me if I’m wrong, but you do so many different things and mediums. Not every day is the same, or not every year is the same.

MB: No.

SSR: You’re always evolving. You’re always changing. So I feel like there’s something in that that’s kept you also going the way, moving forward.

MB: Yeah. Yeah. Agreed. Agreed. Yeah.

SSR: I’m looking at, so also on the idea of looking back, is there a piece of advice you would give your younger self, something you wish you knew then that now?

MB:  I know, it’s like you always… I think it’s… I’m trying to think, Stacy, what would I give? What advice would I give myself? Because I really appreciate every milestone that has happened. Yeah. Did I need to buy that thing? Yeah. Did I need to make that decision? But then it’s like all those decisions have led to where I am now. And it’s like if I had made different decisions, I would be a different person. And so I think the advice really is just certain things when it came to like, yeah, should I have taken on that project? It’s really hard, Stacy, to say, you know what, Malene, you should have done because… But if I say that now, I wouldn’t be who I am now. And I do even the challenging parts of my life. It’s part of my experience. I’m not going to take it away.

Do I want to go through some of those challenges again? No. But that’s where the lessons come. I’ve learned those lessons, so now I do better. And so it’s just a matter of, I think I’ve stayed focused on the work that I’ve been doing, and I think the lesson, I think one of the things maybe now talking this out, that even though you stay focused on what it is that you want, the support may not come as fast as you want it. And it takes time, and especially when you’re in environments where your work is not accepted on a wide basis, and there’s a constant explaining. And I think one of the advice I was now thinking about I would say build your work around the community that wants it. You don’t have to focus on where you are, that there’s a whole world out there. So build your tribe, wherever that is. And that’s what I had to get to this point to realize that more and more because if somebody wants to support you, they will. It shouldn’t be a fight.

SSR: No, true. Yeah. And has there been a challenge that has kind of stuck with you, that’s pushed you through? Because I feel like you learn from challenges and mistakes more than others. So is there something that, a time or a thing or a incident that has kind of helped you or has stuck with you?

MB: I can’t isolate to any particular incident, or I would just say that the only thing you control is yourself. People are going to react how they’re going to react. As I said, people are going to support you if they want to. If they’re not, they’re not. You can’t force anyone.

But one thing you could do, and this is what I remind myself, is I could change how I react to that. That’s it. And so it’s learning to be okay with those moments, which can be challenging at times. And that everybody is not going to support you either. And that’s okay too.

And then the other thing is people are always going to have something to say. And I think if they’re not talking about you, that means you’re not doing anything big enough. So bring on the chatter. It’s because people talked about, and I’ll run down my answers, people talked about Augusta Savage. They talked about Harriet. They talked about Sojourner. I could run down all the names. They weren’t supported in their time, but they still were doing the work. And that’s what brings me back to center and gets me grounded again to move forward.

SSR: We usually always end this podcast with the title of the podcast, what has been your greatest lesson learned along the way, but I feel like maybe that was it.

MB: Yes, that was my lesson. Exactly.

SSR: So that’s perfect. I love it. You ended it perfectly for us. Well, Malene, it’s been such a pleasure to chat with you this last 45 minutes or so. Thank you so much for taking the time, and good luck in Jamaica. Can’t wait to see what you create.