Shani Richards is “not interested in making pretty objects.”
A low-lit basement studio on West Market Street is where the 41-year-old metalsmith artist works — brainstorming ideas for future projects, reading the work of bell hooks and creating art that challenges viewers.
Her work, which actively dismantles racism, sexism and colonialism, is meant to make you uncomfortable.
“I’ve been working through this white gaze in my work for years,” she says. “I’m making work to challenge the viewer to see the world for what it is. And as a Black artist, I push that narrative because the root of this country is slavery. When you’re making art under such horrible circumstances, you’re rebelling, you’re fighting back, you’re resisting.”
Growing up in Akron, Richards didn’t always know she wanted to be an artist. In fact, she describes her entry into the art world as haphazard and almost by mistake. Even at the Myers School of Art, where she graduated in 2006, Richards has always felt that she’s not a “traditional artist.”
When most people think about art, she argues they think of a serene painting on a wall. In contrast, she sees her work as inherently political and rooted in resistance.
One of her pieces, Bulletproof?, features a hoodie made of aluminum cans and jump rings. The piece is inspired by the murder of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, a Black teenager murdered in Florida while walking through the streets of his neighborhood wearing a hoodie.
“[A hoodie] is an attempt at protection. It’s a battleground to be a teenager, especially a Black teenager,” she says.
After graduating from the Myers School of Art, Richards moved to New York City for six years. In those years, she dabbled in a few art forms: Fashion, photography and music.
Richards describes her time in art school and after as “lost.” She was making art that resisted the status quo and confronted an art world that often felt elitist and unwelcoming to Black artists. Meanwhile, she was also trying to survive in a very expensive city.
“I’m never lost in my work. I know what I’m doing. I feel lost in being a human being and what I’m going to do to survive and live and make money in this racist system.
“This is why I love metalsmithing and I get caught in the theory of it,” she adds. “When you think about plundering and slavery and collecting, the things that are collected that are in museums, who decides that? Rich people, for the most part. A certain class of people that identify as white. And this is why I had my crisis after grad school — because I didn’t want to and I still don’t want to be a part of the system, but that’s unrealistic. I have to survive.”
Richards moved back to Akron in 2013. This is when her political activism and art took shape. She plunged herself into community projects and helped advocate for Issue 1, which sought to make charges of drug possession and use misdemeanors rather than felonies in 2018. Ultimately, the issue failed, but Richards says she regained her “power as an artist.”
Richards was also an art fellow with the League of Creative Interventionists, which awards stipends to artists doing community-based art projects. The fellowship has given her the time and space she needs for her work to continue thriving. Right now, she’s a fellow through Akron Soul Train.
Though she says she’d “be a fool” not to miss New York City, Richards says Akron has been more conducive to her artistic process.
“NYC… it’s distracting,” Richards says. “The reason why I like Akron is the reason I ran away from it in the past. It’s really easy to seclude yourself and hide if you want to, which I’ve done for years. I like that it’s affordable.”
In the future, Richards wants to return to the “lovely bubble” that is academia and teach at the college level.
“I want to argue with old white men,” she laughs.
Keep up with Richards by visiting her website at shani-richards.com.
Suffrage: Inequality. Persistence. Justice (Ends January 22)
Location: Emily Davis Gallery at the University of Akron.
Description: “Suffrage: Inequality. Persistence. Justice. honors the women who fought and continue to fight to protect and defend women’s right to vote.”
United(End January 31)
Location: Akron Soul Train.
Description: “In order to move forward Americans need to stop dancing around the conversation on race relations. We need to finally discuss with one another in order to try to reconcile with the complexities of our multicultural world and to stop being blind to the caste system that rules our society. United is an exhibition of pendents of racial slurs, ethnic slurs, sexual orientation and gender pronouns.”
Crossroads: (June 2021-September 2021)
Location: The Sculpture Center in Cleveland, Ohio.
Description: The Sculpture Center is collaborating with nationally-renown, LA-based multi-
disciplinary artist Nancy Baker Cahill as well as Robin Robinson and prominent Cleveland-area artists to create and place twelve powerful works of art in augmented reality coupled with twelve sites of political, cultural, or historical significance. I am one of the 12 artists of color participating in this project.
Noor Hindi is The Devil Strip’s equity and inclusion reporter. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.