When Brooklyn-based artist Malene Barnett attended a prominent industry event two years ago created to celebrate the voices of forward-thinking artists and designers, she couldn’t help but notice the lack of diversity. Barnett recalls not seeing one Black artist, designer or moderator included in any of the discussions taking place at the conference. Determined to change the narrative and create a space where innovators of color in the art and design industries could be seen and heard, she launched Black Artists + Designers Guild (BADG); a digital collective that highlights the work of Black artists, makers and designers across the diaspora.
The lack of racial representation that Barnett witnessed at the design event is reflective of the state of diversity in art and design. Research shows that less than three percent of museum acquisitions over the past decade have been of work by African American artists. The design industry isn’t exempt when it comes to racial disparities. Studies show that African Americans account for less than two percent of the design community. The racial gaps prompted Barnett to develop solutions to the barriers faced by Black artists and designers. “It is ridiculous how our voices aren’t being heard, nor is our talent being recognized,” she told NewsOne. “I went to Instagram and put out an honest and truthful post calling out the organizers of the event and the industry at-large. It resonated with many people in the art and design community. We don’t believe you when you say you can’t find us. We’re here. You’re not doing the work to look for us.”
In 2018 Barnett—a Norwalk, Connecticut native whose journey in the fine arts started when she was in high school—began laying the foundation for BADG. She cultivated a digital directory of Black creators that she connected with from around the globe. BADG—a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization—focuses on supporting independent Black artists and designers and creating inclusive spaces within the industry. “I’ve always had this vision of bringing together Black artists, designers and makers throughout the diaspora,” she said. “At BADG we want to work towards changing the narrative from all perspectives. Black culture as a whole is constantly used in art and the interior design trade but it is not being recognized or credited. We want to take that ownership. We want to recognize the talent amongst us.” Since its inception, the organization has amassed a directory of nearly 80 creators and has hosted several impactful events surrounding Black innovation in the industry.
For Barnett—a multidisciplinary artist—the organization’s mission to reclaim the narratives that are embedded in the fabric of Black history has been a common thread throughout her entire career. “As a Black artist I don’t have the luxury of doing work that isn’t socially conscious,” says Barnett. “Because of our history, because of our experiences, because of the erasure of our experiences, it’s part of my duty as an artist to share the stories and use art as a tool to document history to push people to have conversations.” She says she focuses on using patterns as a language to communicate the experiences of Black women throughout the diaspora and incorporates ancestral techniques into her work. Through her artistry—whether it be a sculpture, textile or other forms—she hopes that individuals will grasp an understanding of Black history and culture on a deeper level.
When it comes to diversity in art and design, she believes the responsibility lies on the institutions to evoke change. She says some of the things they should focus on are the racial and socioeconomic barriers surrounding education in the arts and how to develop pathways for Black youth.
As far as what’s on the horizon for the nonprofit, the organization will continue to take its impact beyond the digital scope and host more in-person events including BADG Talks, BADG Power Dinners and BADG Design Week. BADG members will also embark on a journey to Dakar, Senegal in June so that Black artists and designers will have the opportunity to experience the region’s culture. As far as her advice for emerging Black creators in the industry, she says the keys to success and longevity are to truly believe in the work that you create and to continually find ways to evolve.
Barnett hopes to use BADG as an outlet to educate, empower, connect and inspire. “We want our members to feel confident in their work and their businesses and continue to have those opportunities to practice the work they’re so passionate about,” she said. “We want them to see the connection between what our ancestors have created for us in order for us to continue practicing what we’re doing.”