Ariel Dannielle’s self-portraits put everyday Black life on full display

"A Glittery Veil" by Ariel Dannielle. The Atlanta painter's first solo exhibition at the Georgia Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCAGA) opened on Nov. 21. The artist primarily uses self-portraits to reflect the interior lives of African American women who are millennials.
"A Glittery Veil" by Ariel Dannielle. The Atlanta painter's first solo exhibition at the Georgia Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCAGA) opened on Nov. 21. The artist primarily uses self-portraits to reflect the interior lives of African American women who are millennials.

Credit: Ariel Dannielle

Credit: Ariel Dannielle

Atlanta artist’s new show premieres at The Museum of Contemporary Art of Georgia.

There can be something affirming about walking into spaces and seeing people like you.

Your shoulders relax a bit. Your face softens. You might even feel a sense of possibility, if not welcome, walking into a room where you are not the only one. (That’s harder to do, or at least it should be harder to do, during this pandemic, but the idea holds.) For a lot of Black people, museums can be places where it’s hard to experience that feeling on two counts; in who makes up the bulk of visitors and in whose work is on the walls.

Ariel Dannielle, 29, grew up in metro Atlanta seeing other Black people day in and day out. But her art and art history lessons at the University of West Georgia almost never included Black creators. She doesn’t remember seeing the work of Black artists on museum visits as a kid.

This is why, in many ways, it’s fitting that her first solo show at the Museum of Contemporary Art of Georgia (MOCAGA), “It Started So Simple,” is a reflection of the world Dannielle inhabits. She is young. She is Black. She is doing ordinary things with her friends. Those are images worthy of representation yet all too often absent from the galleries of major and mid-sized museums and galleries. The show is the culmination of Dannielle’s fellowship at MOCAGA as part of the Working Artists Project, which is awarded annually to three up-and-coming and established metro Atlanta artists. Each fellow gets a solo exhibition at the end of their tenure. Dannielle’s show runs now through Jan. 16.

Here, Dannielle talks about representation, becoming an artist and the importance of sushi.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: Who were the artists that you connected with?

A: I grew up in the whole Tumblr-MySpace age, when I was just really intrigued by internet artists. I couldn’t even give you names at this point, but I was really inspired by the people I was seeing online who were doing really cool stuff. But the first artist who I remember who resonated with me was Frida (Kahlo). I went to the University of West Georgia and — like, no shade — but I really didn’t learn about Black artists at all while I was there. I connected with Frida, wholly, because she was a woman of color. She started me thinking like self-portraits can be a thing. Then we had a project where my professor wanted us to create a self-portrait, but do it in the style of Alice Neel. So, I did all this research on her (Neel). I looked at her work. I watched a documentary about her. I just fell in love with her work. That really made me get into portraits and acrylic painting.

Q: The artist Fahamu Pecou often talks about how he began as an artist: as a child sketching Saturday morning cartoons. When did you know your path would be through the visual arts?

A: From a young age, I would do the same thing. But for me, it was with comics and anime, specifically “Sailor Moon.” I was very obsessive. Elementary, middle school, I would make “Sailor Moon” sketchbooks where I would draw the characters and try to make it look as close to the real deal as possible. And then I also used to do it heavily with the Archie comic books that you used to be able to buy at the grocery store. I was just fascinated with the female characters: Betty and Veronica and Josie and the Pussycats. But I didn’t know I was going to pursue this as a career. A lot of artists are like, “I knew from day one I was going to be an artist.” That was definitely not the case for me. I didn’t realize it until I was in college that that’s what I wanted to do.

Artist Ariel Danielle, who is part of the graduating class of Working Artist Project fellows at the Museum of Contemporary Art of Georgia. Dannielle's first solo exhibition at MOCAGA opened this month.
Artist Ariel Danielle, who is part of the graduating class of Working Artist Project fellows at the Museum of Contemporary Art of Georgia. Dannielle's first solo exhibition at MOCAGA opened this month.

Credit: Dierra Font

Credit: Dierra Font

Q: Can you talk about the first museum or gallery experience you ever had and what that meant to you?

A: Being born and raised in Georgia, my first experience like really seeing art was at the High Museum in Atlanta. I don’t really think I really went to galleries before. Going to the High, I didn’t even know that I wanted to be (an artist) fully back then. I was just purely enjoying any type of art, the abstract art, the sculptures, the installation pieces, just all of it. But now looking back, I’m like it would have been nice to have seen some Black figures. Imagine what impact that would have had on me back then when I was like a teenager.

Q: In your artist’s statement, you say that in some ways you look at your work as an act of resistance against racism. But is it exhausting creating in a space where racism is a factor, if not directly in the work you create, but in how it affects your life?

A: That’s such a good question you asked me right now because I have been questioning myself on that exact question. When I wrote that artist statement, I was in a very angry place, because George Floyd was happening, and the Black Lives Matter movement was happening. But it is how I felt and still feel. I want to create work that makes people feel good. I want to be that artist who’s not only just creating work that’s based around racism and trauma. I’m trying to show Black joy. Black joy is a way of thriving. So, it is a lot to unpack. Because even if you say, “I just wanted to paint portraits. I’m just a Black artist who wants to paint portraits, and I don’t want them to mean anything,” they’re going to mean something because they’re Black artists painting Black figures. It’s a lot. I’m still battling with that. But I do think any artist, no matter your race, should be able to paint or create what you want to create. But I think it is hard as a Black artist because history will show that Black art very much was surrounded by and about revolution and progression and resistance.

"Juneteenth" by painter Ariel Dannielle. Contributed.
"Juneteenth" by painter Ariel Dannielle. Contributed.

Credit: Ariel Dannielle

Credit: Ariel Dannielle

Q: Your work is very much centered on what it means to be a young, Black American woman at this moment. So please talk about the piece, “A Glittery Veil,” where you are looking in a mirror, putting on makeup thinking about the image you see reflected.

A: That painting is just an example of being in the moment of getting ready for a night out. It’s really just that simple.

Q: What about the one, “I Dream of Crimson Nights,” where you’re eating sushi in a red restaurant?

A: All the meanings are very simple. That’s why I’m hoping a lot of people can feel connected. That’s really just showing me doing one of my favorite things to do when I go out is go get sushi. That’s my favorite food. I guess it’s something a little bit different because I haven’t seen a painting of a Black girl eating sushi at a restaurant.

"I Dream of Crimson Nights" by Ariel Dannielle. Contributed.
"I Dream of Crimson Nights" by Ariel Dannielle. Contributed.

Credit: Ariel Dannielle

Credit: Ariel Dannielle

Q: So, in some ways, we circle back to where we began. What needs to happen, so that (a Black) artist can just be, that nothing else be put on it, other than this act of creation? Are you already doing that?

A: I think that artists before me have made it where I can create a painting of me doing my makeup that’s not super overtly political or anything like that. I think I’m lucky, and hopefully, as time goes on, more generations after me will be able to just be. I don’t know if we’re quite there yet. But I think that times are definitely changing. Carrie Mae Weems has said before that she thinks her work has helped artists like me to be able to do something that’s more mundane. Each generation, we’re paving the way for the next one. So, I think her generation of Black women artists is making it so I can create something that’s more mundane, but I’m still able to show at a museum. I seriously doubt that 40 years ago, a painting like mine would be seen as something that matters.

EXHIBIT

Ariel Dannielle: It Started So Simple

11 a.m.-5 p.m. Through Jan. 16, 2021.

75 Bennett St. NW, Atlanta. 404-367-8700, mocaga.org.

In Other News