By Grace Antino
Brina Jefferies, born in Akron, Ohio, is a freelance artist and producer in New York City. Over 2020, she created the four-part series, An Ode to Black Women, which centers on the women in her life that inspire her. I sat down with Brina on a cold morning in January 2021 to discuss her pastel painting series, being a young Black female artist in the city and her techniques for achieving mental wellness, among other topics. Brina is an eloquent speaker and intellectual, her energy tells me that she is sure of herself and confident in her voice. She describes herself as humble, overwhelmed and hopeful.
G: How have you experienced being an artist and intellectual as a young Black female in New York City?
B: [Laughs] It is God damn hard. New York is a mecca of artists, specifically in the states. The city is special, because I think people are more authentic here, and true to themselves. But it is incredibly hard when it feels like almost everyone around you is an artist. The competition is intense. Also, most of us are more than just one type of artist. It isn’t just “Oh, I paint,” and that is the totality of it. I also write and the people around me are also in fashion or theatre which has an influence. Sometimes it's really hard to balance all of it while being yourself. But I have come to know, with time, that it is okay to work in different mediums and not feel like you have to identity as just one type of creative. I think people always want to put you in one box and trap you in there. But I think most recently, and thankfully, it has been almost encouraged to be more than one. I believe writing is the foundation for everything and I like to write and then produce with art, also simultaneously. Once I came to the realization that I could be more than just one thing, I began blossoming more and more and getting out of this mold that I have to be just a painter or just a writer.
G: I definitely relate to this very much in my own life and creative path. I was so drawn to moving here because there were so many artists and I was eager to be surrounded by them. It is great for inspiration but sometimes it’s hard to manage what am I interested in, who am I going to be, what is my creative eye and not just fall into what everyone else likes around me. Competition is also always difficult to come to terms with.
B: It is so easy to compare yourself and where you’re at and your success and really want success to mean to you. I think we all have different ideas of success too. Also, what age you are really impacts where you are as an artist. One of my painting teachers told me that I’m at the very beginning of my art career and I might not even be well known until I’m in my 50s. [Laughs] It is really learning to take things slow.
G: I recently read a book called The Black Notebooks by Toi Derricotte. Toi is a poet and writer and the book is an inner journey of her place in the world as a Black artist. She discusses a lot how once publishers or readers found out she was Black her work became that of a “Black writer” instead of just a “writer,” and took on a new meaning, somehow more political; marketed differently and now in a separate category from her white counterparts. Do you feel like this concept resonates with you at all in terms of any of your work?
B: It is really difficult because unfortunately it feels like you can only gain success as a Black artist if you are the best artist. You are naturally going to be represented as something. But on the other hand, I try my hardest to only draw people of color or women or marginalized groups. It is hard going back and forth between wanting to draw people who are never in the media or writing about people who are never seen, but not wanting to be labeled only as a “Black artist”. Unfortunately, especially today, I’m not going to get out of that box. But if we (young artists) are pioneering the change, maybe in 20 or so years, it will be that I am just an artist. But it’s more than just race. Even something as simple as the fact that there are approximately 50% women and 50% men in the world and whatever you identify as between that spectrum as well. People still look and say - oh that's a female artist, that’s a non-binary artist, that’s a queer artist. It is only if you are a cis, white man that you are just an artist. So unfortunately we are all in some way shape or form in those boxes. Personally, I have come to embrace it rather than pushing it away. It makes me special.
G: This past summer America dealt with a civil uprising in the fight against racism after the murder of George Floyd by a police officer, one of many killings of people of color by the authority that is meant to protect its citizens. Coupled with the pandemic, it was an extremely intense and emotional time. How have your creative outlets assisted you in coping with these occurrences of deep rooted systemic racism? Has your artwork or overall life direction changed since the start of the pandemic and through the traumas of last summer?
B: Absolutely. I have come full circle and wanted to be a writer once again or be in journalism. I feel like the voices of marginalized groups, especially, need to be heard. After writing my thesis on the Yemen Saudi Arabian conflict, I got to a point in my research where I really started understanding just how little marginalized voices are heard. That unfortunately came to my attention because of the protests. I started writing more and wanted to write every day, whether that's poetry, whether that's in my journal or whether that is essays. Personal nonfiction is my favorite genre. It is crazy how we find direction out of pain. After the protests and so many exhausting conversations within that time and knowing my sister is one year younger than Breanna Taylor; there were so many emotional breakdowns. But it has made me want to choose a career that makes me feel like I am contributing to the change. And continue making art. Even if one person reads your essay or two people read your poem, at least someone heard your voice.
G: I’ve been working with ROW as a content creator, and feel very motivated by my work. As I am a white woman, do you have any advice for me on how to respectfully and properly be an ally to women of color? Do you have any general comments on the allyship between white and black folx, and what you would like to see more non-POC doing in order to really inflict change?
B: A major trend among people of color that I have talked to regarding white women is complacency. It isn't that you’re in this New York environment and you’re fighting in the streets as much as the work that is being done at home. My huge issue with white friends is that on social media they say something but if everyone in your circle is already liberal and diverse, well then you’re just speaking to each other, you’re just having a conversation. Are you talking to your parents? Are you talking to your aunts and uncles? Are you talking to your grandparents? Even if they aren’t racist, which sometimes isn’t the case, are they encouraging diversity? Are they saying little jabs? Are they overly protective of maintaining an all white crowd? Do they cross the street when they see a Black person? It is those conversations that need to be had. It is in jobs, it's in careers but it is also in families. We need to work at the top so it can trickle down to the bottom.