Behind the Cover: Identity Checks
Shantell Martin has been grappling with issues around identity in her work since she was a child living in East London in the 1980s and ‘90s. “When I think about this word, ‘identity,’ what comes to mind for me is this phrase that you’ll see in my work: ‘Who are you?’” she says. “For me as an artist, I’m using those questions of ‘Who are you?’ and ‘Are you, you?’ in this kind of bigger idea about identity as a mirror. So by putting that question in my work, I’m actually putting a mirror out there ... I hope that the answers that I find, or that you give, help me answer that internally, as well.”
For our February issue, we commissioned Martin to create a piece that comments on the subject of identity—hers and others’. On cold, clear January 26, 2018, at her studio in Jersey City, New Jersey, Martin spent a little over 30 minutes on the piece, which, like so many of her projects, makes use of her signature black ink on white. (To learn more about Martin’s process and life story, check out the video Monologue we created with her here.)
You don’t have time to plan. You don’t have time to hesitate. You don’t have time to be insecure, but most importantly, you don’t have time to be anyone else.
Drawing with an audience, Martin says, both challenges her internally and, externally, creates an opportunity for education. “I’m not a performer, but I’m someone who shares what I do, almost in a way that I’m [being] selfish: when you work live, when you work spontaneously, when you work intuitively, you don’t have time to think,” she explains. “You don’t have time to plan. You don’t have time to hesitate. You don’t have time to be insecure, but most importantly, you don’t have time to be anyone else. So there’s that one side of it, that selfish side of it: I want to use you as the audience, to put me in a vulnerable situation where I don’t have time to be anyone else but myself.” Being observed as she works also gives others insight into the artistic process, which, Martin says, is often hidden away until a finished piece “appears in the frame in a museum, or at a gathering.”
“For me, you lose a lot when you do that,” she says. “I wanna expose the process. I wanna show you everything I do, because I don’t think I lose any magic; what I do is gain that you now understand the practice and the process, and the hard work behind what I’m doing. I think the more we expose our work, the more we expose our practice as artists, the more we bring people into the conversation—and the more we inspire people to be artists themselves.”
The folks assembled at Martin’s studio that day had different interpretations of what Martin was trying to say with her piece. One observer was certain Martin was attempting to create something that looked a little bit like a map of the United States, with squiggly lines where the Great Lakes should be, faces reminiscent of Mount Rushmore, and the telltale appendages of Florida, Texas, and even Baja California. When asked, Martin would neither confirm nor deny the assertion. “I’ve done the drawing. I’ve done my job. I’m not gonna explain to you now what it is, and what it means, and why I did certain things, because for me, that is your job,” she says. “I love that I can create the work and feel accomplished within that, and then hand it off to you. Now the work is on your side.”