Interview by Zaïré Talon Daniels
Kariem Farrakhan II grew up in Akron. He attended high school at Firestone Community Learning Center, where he was introduced to visual and performing arts which made a lasting impact on him.
Kariem would then enroll in the prestigious art school, Savannah College of Art and Design, where he majored in animation and sequential art. Unfortunately, due to hardships, Kariem would only attend one semester. Upon returning to Akron, he supplemented his training in painting under the instruction of Akron native Jack Cascioli. In a rigorous two-year apprenticeship, Kariem honed his skills in the many techniques of oil painting.
Currently, Kariem works to instill creativity as the art director for The Spirited Palette art event company. He expresses his own artistic platform as “The Indigo Kid.”
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
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Zaïré Daniels: Tell me about your new project.
Kariem Farrakhan: It’s called New Lanes: Portraits of the Black Identity. It’s all about exploring the concept of Blackness, and hopefully contributing to doing away with the idea of how Black somebody is, or ideas that can and cannot be considered Black. Being one of the people who a lot of times wasn’t really considered “Black” — Air quotes around “Black” — I really wanted to do something in order to encapsulate the idea that the Black experience isn’t just one experience. It isn’t about your accent. It’s not about what music you listen to, how you dance. It’s an encompassing sort of cultural identity.
I’m going to do 10 pieces. And each piece is going to be based on a conversation that I have with an individual… about “Who are you? What does Blackness mean to you? Why is that significant to you? Do you feel Black? What does Black feel like? What has your experience been?” Some people haven’t experienced overt racism. Some people have never been pulled over by the cops, but they still feel Black. Each piece is going to be based on that person’s experience. And altogether, they’re going to represent underrepresented ideas of Blackness in this country.
ZD: I grew up in a predominantly White school, and they used to call me Oreo and things like that. I had no defense for it until I started college. College was really the breakthrough point for me where I met other Black people that speak like me. I feel like the media capitalizes on Black culture a lot, and all they portray are negative stereotypes. This whole thing of color, it’s deeper than just the Black community; it’s deeper than just Black and White.
KF: Yeah, because it’s a human condition. You know, we’re almost like riding this historical wave – can’t do anything to stop it. We just wind up on the wave. I think that race and the history of race in the United States is the part of the American context that contributes to the conversation. And it’s depressing, when you think about it. It’s almost like, “Is this just human nature?”
What I want to do with this project isn’t just take random people off the street and represent them for no reason. If one of the people that I interview for the work that I create is a person who sold drugs or an ex-con, then the idea that that was a previous life has to be a major part of that story. You got to be doing something now that shows people how you overcame that. I want to do success stories that way we’re not just focused on everything that oppresses us, and this sort of woe-is-me story that Black people rightfully tell. We can also tell the stories of, “this is where I came from, this is where I am at now”. We have all these different versions of Blackness, and there’s no reason why we should be pushing certain experiences away. They all contribute to the conversation. Let’s listen.
ZD: When you talk about oppression, I recall a book called Black Skin, White Mask by Franz Fannon, which talks about the psychological effect that racism and slavery have had on Black people. I feel like now, with the protests going on this summer, White people are telling Blacks that they are oppressed, and I don’t know if that’s helpful. I wanted to know your take on that?
KF: I think that it’s double-sided, because your understanding of oppression has to come from your understanding of the history of Africans in America — and not just what you learn in school, because that’s not the whole story, because in those same history classes, you learn about these “Founding Fathers” who are glorified and then they tell you slavery was terrible, but the “Founding Fathers” were slave owners, too. And when they ratified the Constitution, they didn’t free the slaves. I think that it is important for us to understand the history of oppression, but to identify yourself as oppressed makes you think like you’re oppressed. And even if you know the history, you should try to not feel oppressed. That’s what I think.
ZD: How do you think that showing other sides of the Black experience fits into the American narrative?
KF: I think that when it comes to Black art in general, there’s this sort of — I don’t want to say it’s a pressure, but it’s almost like Black artists get cornered into making Black art. Like, if your art doesn’t have Black people in it, then you don’t have any value to the Black community. So if I’m just painting portraits or I’m just painting landscapes and I say that this is “Black art,” this is art by a Black person, then they’re like, oh, well, it doesn’t look like it. I’m looking for African motifs. I’m looking for Black figures.
ZD: Can you tell me about some of your influences and how you got into art?
KF: My very first influence was my dad, because when he saw that I was interested in art, he not only encouraged it, but he showed me what he knew. Like, he taught me two- and three-point perspective when I was eight years old. My family was always supportive. When it comes to artistic influences, comic books and cartoons like drawing superheroes, copying Dragonball Z characters, all that sort of thing.
I didn’t really start getting into fine art until I was in high school. As far as my favorite artists, one of the big ones is Pablo Picasso. For me, it’s because he was so fluid, he was so malleable. Lots of people think about Picasso and they think about his Cubist works, but they don’t realize that over the course of his entire life as an artist, he redefined himself so many times, and the vulnerability that he exuded in some of his pieces makes me jealous.
Jean-Michel Basquiat was another big one. I loved the way that he pulled attention towards certain things. A lot of the titles of my works, or while I’m writing, I like to use an “x” to replace certain letters in certain words that I want to pull attention to. And that’s kind of influenced by Basquiat. When somebody scribbles a word out, you almost want to look through it to see if you can find out what that word was.
Richard Schmidt is my favorite traditional painter. He does a lot of landscapes, a lot of portraits. And he’s one of the main people who I studied just trying to learn how to paint, just trying to develop my technical skills.
ZD: You’re primarily working in oils, then?
KF: I’m an oil painter primarily. I used to do painting events, like painting parties. And that was really fun. It was a really, really fun, really interesting and fulfilling way to make money as an artist without relying primarily on commissions. And it also helped me experiment with my acrylic painting.
Now I find myself making acrylic paintings and using the acrylic painting, since I can do it faster, as a compositional step to an oil painting. I’ve been working on wood for about a year and a half now, but it was introduced to me when I first learned how to oil paint. I’m experimenting with a 3D element that is very explorable when it comes to wood and then combining that with oil painting in order to create different visual effects.
ZD: Could you say a little bit about how this project relates to the protests that are going on this year?
KF: This project is about strengthening your identity. And that’s freedom. Everybody has their own way of expressing themselves and nobody should be allowed to tell you how to express yourself. So that relates to Blackness. Everybody has their own definition, has their own experiences that define their Blackness. And nobody should be allowed to tell you how to express that. This is you. This is who you are, who you’ve been.
See more of Kariem Farrakhan’s work at theindigokid.com, on Instagram at @indxgo_kf2 or on Facebook at facebook.com/indigokidart.
Zaïré Talon Daniels is a recent graduate of the University of Akron and an intern at The Devil Strip.