For artist Megan Gabrielle Harris, art is a way to depict Black women in a way they’re rarely portrayed; content, relaxed, free, and at peace. “All my life, I’ve watched the Black women closest to me, and so many of them share an expression of both mental and physical exhaustion”, the California native and soft life advocate tells HUNGER of her surreal landscapes that often posit Black women as divine, regal characters.
Harris has had a standout 2022; she sold out her New York duo show ahead of its opening and has since gone on to become one of the most-watched contemporary African-American artists to collectors, patrons and enthusiasts alike. Here, HUNGER’s Social Media Manager, Jamilah Rose-Roberts, catches up with the artist about her inspirations and process.
Jamilah Rose-Roberts: Seeing your work IRL, with the level of texture and detail, was amazing. Can you tell me more about the work featured in your recent exhibition? You have a style that often depicts Black women in such a regal and powerful way, against these vibrant backdrops — I see myself in your work. How would you describe yourself as an artist? How would you describe your paintings?
Megan Gabrielle Harris: It is so gratifying to hear that you see yourself in my work, that is the ultimate goal for me. To describe myself as an artist, I’d say my gentle and laid-back approach to life is reflected in my painting style, colour choices and the scenes surrounding my subjects. My paintings are imaginative and meant to express my dreams and visions, as well as a reinterpretation of places I’ve been or would like to go.
JRR: What significance does it have to you, as an artist and a black woman, to depict black women in your art? Are you communicating with an extension of yourself?
MGH: My work has been a mode of self-expression up to this point. People often ask me if the women in my paintings are depictions of myself, to which I say ‘yes’ and ‘no’. These women are just as many depictions of myself as they are intended to represent Black women in general. All of my life, I’ve watched and listened to the Black women closest to me, and so many of them share an expression of both mental and physical exhaustion. With those ideas in mind, I found myself constantly imagining these dreamscapes in which we are completely content and free of any outside responsibilities, simply doing what we wanted when we wanted, with an overwhelming sense of peace.
JRR: What does it mean to be an artist? And how did you get here?
MGH: To be an artist is to be a creator; as early as I can remember, I had a desire to create.
If you ask my mother, she saw very early on that I had a lot that I wanted to express. I was the child that ran around the house in costume, singing, dancing and drawing — so I guess you could say that it was always meant for me to arrive here. I had always wanted to be an artist for a living and had no other plan for my life until I began college. I didn’t have any close artist friends during that time, and although my father was a comparative example for me, he had a full-time job that provided security, and his art-making had taken a backseat to that. Unfortunately, my dreams of being an artist were dampened from that point up until I was about 27. By then, I had moved to NYC and was modelling full-time. Being surrounded by incredibly talented and culture-shifting creatives was inspiring and vital to me. Although during this time, it stewed up a lot of insecurities and self-doubt. I began to question myself. ‘Am I good enough? Does anyone feel anything from what I’ve made? Does my work matter?’
Eventually, I had no choice but to push past all of those feelings and shortly after, I received an opportunity to participate in a public art project. It was a huge deal for me, and I had a chance to make something that would live outside of my Harlem apartment and could be felt by others. Once that happened, everything changed. I knew that no matter how hard I tried to run from it, this is what I was meant to do with my life.
JRR: As you talk about your father, it’s lovely to learn that he, too, was an artist. How was it growing up with a family who also worked in the field? Is he a source of inspiration for you?
MGH: Growing up in a creative family has been a blessing. My parents always encouraged my brother and me to pursue our passions first, which I will forever be grateful for. I’ve watched my father work across many mediums and different themes, which taught me early on that making art was a limitless experience. My favourite works of his are his landscapes and escapism-style paintings. Those works specifically inspired my style. The differences between our work stem from our varying perspectives, his being that of a Black man born in the late 60s and raised in Los Angeles vs, mine, a millennial black woman living a bit of a nomadic lifestyle.
JRR: What are the differences between your early work and now? How have you been able to continue to develop?
MGH: As I’ve been developing my style over the past couple of years, I’ve let go of rigid concrete plans for each painting, and let ideas flow and come about organically. I was heavily influenced by fashion photography and my experiences as a model. So first, I made digital collages and worked from those, but more recently, I’ve taken it back to basics, doing rough sketches as my starting point and incorporating more natural elements into the work. The mood and compositions in my recent work stem mainly from the change in my environment and my decision to leave a chaotic metropolis for the quieter, slower-paced lifestyle I grew up in.
JRR: What do you hope your legacy will be?
MGH: I hope my legacy is that I’ve contributed something to this world that has, in some small way, shifted thoughts and feelings regarding seeing Black women dream, live peacefully and limitlessly.
JRR: What is next for you as an artist, and what can we expect in the future as far as a new series of works?
MGH: Next year, I would love to do my first residency abroad. From this, I would like to develop my painting style further, moving away from using mediums such as acrylic to oils and diving into mixed-media work and 3D mediums (focusing on low relief and traditional sculpting). As far as the nearer future, my next series is still in the early planning stages. Since I’m self-taught, I’m excited about the idea of going back to school to develop my skills further and attain new ones.
Megan Gabrielle Harris’s work is currently featured at the ‘AFRICA RISES IN FALL’ (Contemporary African Group Show) by Out of Africa Gallery. Curated by Raphael Dapaah. The show takes place from 9-16 October in the iconic area of Notting Hill at the Unit 1 Gallery.
The exhibition continues in Lagos, as Out of Africa Gallery presents at Art x Lagos 2022 from the 4th-6th November.