Atlanta artist Jamaal Barber joins art-infused MTV reality show

Jamaal Barber will be competing on “The Exhibit: Finding the Next Great Artist.” (Photo courtesy of Paramount)

Credit: Paramount

Credit: Paramount

Jamaal Barber will be competing on “The Exhibit: Finding the Next Great Artist.” (Photo courtesy of Paramount)

Who will be the next great artist? It could be Atlanta’s own Jamaal Barber.

Barber is one of the artists competing on a new MTV reality show called “The Exhibit: Becoming the Next Great Artist.” The show, which premiered on March 3, follows seven diverse artists as they compete for a cash prize of $100,000 and an exhibit at the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington D.C.

Barber moved to Atlanta in 2004, and holds an MFA in printmaking from Georgia State University. His works have been shown all over the country, and he works as a visiting lecturer at Georgia State’s Ernest G. Welch School of Art and Design.

Rough Draft Atlanta caught up with Barber ahead of the premiere. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

You were born in Richmond. Can you talk about why you decided to move to Atlanta?

Jamaal Barber: I was born in Richmond, but I grew up in Littleton, North Carolina, a small town. I went and did college at East Carolina. I met my wife at college and when she moved to Atlanta, I kind of just chased her down here. So you know, two kids later [laughs] – I think it worked out for me. So that’s how I ended up here.

When I visited her one time, I really got attracted to the art community around here. There wasn’t a big art community back in North Carolina where I was from – it was kind of really small, rural south. So coming here, and being able to connect to so many people that are doing the thing that I wanted to do, I really loved that. I really got attracted to that and really locked in. I got into the community with shows, and connected with people. All of my friends are artists now. It’s a whole vibe down here.

What was it specifically about the art community in Atlanta that drew you in?

Barber: I think it was the fact that they had one. [Laughs] Back home in Littleton, North Carolina … nobody really does art the way that I envisioned myself doing art. You know, looking up to people like Romare Bearden and other artists – Jacob Lawrence, people that you read in history books, and never thinking you’d ever touch somebody that actually does it. So when I came here, there were so many people. Even on the low level that we were on at the time, doing shows at coffee shops, and trying to put together group shows, and all this good stuff – you know, that kind of ethic, being like-minded people, it’s a big thing. And now, I feel like we’ve all grown up together here in Atlanta. You know, we know each other’s kids and all that kind of stuff. We make work, we do shows, we collaborate – it’s a whole big art family down here.

Can you tell me a little bit about your art? What themes you usually explore, what medium you use?

Barber: I consider myself a printmaker, first and foremost. So that’s just using woodcuts or screen prints – something that produces multiple images and that allows me to do a lot of layering and add that kind of stuff to my work.

As far as content, I explore Black identity. My work has transitioned, but I talk a lot about issues that have happened before, like Philando Castile, the Freddie Gray riots, police brutality – issues just being Black, and how I feel about it. And countering those negative stereotypes and narratives to talk more about Black pride – why I like being Black, what do I love about seeing Black people and Black families together, and stuff like that.

If you follow my work, you’ll see me go from a young man, to a father, and to now after COVID, where I lost a few people close to me, I’ve started to add color in, and be more spiritual with my work now. Art is really about me and being able to express my feelings, and I think you’ll see that I’m gonna show too. I make a lot of work where I might have a plan, but then I feel something that day, and the plan’s got to change. I’ve got to make what’s on my heart all the time.

How did you learn about the show?

Barber: They called me, and somehow I got cast – and I’m still trying to figure out how they found me. If I knew how they found me, I’d definitely want to do it again, whatever it is! [Laughs]

So you have no idea how they found you?

Barber: I don’t. It’s one of those things, as an artist always trying to make a living, I’ve got my hands in a lot of different baskets. So I teach at Georgia State [University], I have a podcast “Studio Noize,” where I interview Black artists. I do shows, I produce work, I collaborate with people – I do a lot of stuff!

I do it because you don’t know what the one thing is. You don’t know what the magic power is. So you have to do all these things and cast a wide net and hope something hits. And when it hits, it’s kind of like, well what did I do? [Laughs] I mean, I just did a TED Talk at Wake Forest University last week. You don’t know. You just do a lot of stuff and hope somebody catches what you’re doing out there.

Well clearly they caught wind of you. Had you ever done TV or anything like this before?

Barber: No, people like me don’t go on TV! I make prints in my basement, I know what I do [Laughs].

What was the experience of filming like?

Barber: I watch a lot of reality TV shows, and so it’s amazing to get to see how they make the soup, if that makes sense? Seeing how they get the shots, how they do interviews, just being out there.

Part of it is, we are making art – like, truly. We’re not faking it. People are really zoned in and doing what they do. So once you actually get some paints, or some brushes, or whatever in your hand and you start working, you really start to lose track of all the stuff that’s happening. You get to do the thing that you were meant to do, so I appreciated that part of it.

Were you actually making entire art pieces while they were filming? I assume that takes a pretty long time.

Barber: Yeah, it does. It’s just condensed, you know? They give you challenges and stuff, and you just have to follow the time. Normally, with me if I’m producing a solo show, you get six months, and a whole idea of the space – so you plan it out and you’re working off of it. But obviously they can’t do that for TV. It’s quite different, so it makes it a little bit more intense, but in a good way.

Is there anything you can share with us about the show?

Barber: It’s seven artists … and we’re all together in one studio space making art. And we are really in there making art. It was something to be able to watch, to look over and see people like Frank [Buffalo Hyde] painting, see Jennifer Warren painting, see Baseera Khan, who is a fantastic artist – she’s doing all kinds of crazy stuff with what she’s doing. We were really in there making it.

You get to really see – when artists are like me, and I’m in my basement by myself, this is what I do. You get a window into that, for however brief a period, for however semi-artificial, because it’s an intense timeline, and all that kind of stuff, and cameras – but the spirit of everything was actually in there, and we were actually in there creating. It was a great thing to be a part of.

Did you know any of the other artists before filming? How did that bond form over the course of the production?

Barber: I didn’t know anybody that came in. But it was kind of like, when you meet other artists, we understand each other. Anybody that’s ever sat down and actually tried to paint something – if you’ve actually done it, and then wanted to do it again, I feel like we can understand each other.

I’m a community guy anyway. I at Atlanta Printmakers Studio, which is a community print shop down here. You never know who’s going to come in. They’re printing whatever they’re printing – wedding invitations, or posters, or some fine art things. I’m used to, and I love, that connection that you have with all these different mediums, all these different people, all different reasons for making. And there are really some fantastic artists on the show. I think people are really going to be delighted, surprised, to see exactly what they managed to come up with in the time. It’s going to be great for people to see.

Credit: Rough Draft Atlanta

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Credit: Rough Draft Atlanta


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