The year is 2017 and we are finally seeing diverse representation of female bodies in art. This concept is dreamy, and fortunately it’s no longer just a dream! Maia Boakye is holding it down for us in Canada as a young, queer biracial artist and poet striving to connect with young women of colour through her words and illustrations. Maia’s work is colourful, energetic and whimsical, but its content is inherently political; her poems depict a woman expressing unapologetic self love and real fondness towards her body. Her art depicts the intimate moments that humans experience alone and together that draw a real strength in softness. We had a chat to Maia about her creative process and the vulnerability that comes with sharing poetry.
A lot of your work is autobiographical. What is the starting point for one of your illustrations?
My design process has evolved and is still continuing to evolve. In high school, I usually worked with acrylic paint and made large scale, abstract works. However, illustration is a bit different in that the medium is much less tactile. I like to make sketches and use a tablet but for the most part, my tools are simply my fingers on a trackpad. I would say that my starting point comes from the aesthetics of a piece. When I doodle or make a sketch I imagine the colours and shapes and as I start drawing my experience comes shows through that. My illustrations mainly of black women but it doesn’t entirely mean it’s autobiographical. I simply want to represent a spectrum of black and brown ladies who I don’t see all too often in illustration.
Yes! People of colour desperately need to be represented in art, especially young women of colour. I remember being younger and finding artists online and really savouring them. They made me feel understood and inspired. Which artists inspired you in this way?
I definitely agree with that. That’s why I want for young girls to see my art and feel like they can be a part of the community. I think I was almost inspired by the lack of representation. Although illustration is a very creative an usually non-realistic form of art, I noticed how many human features were depicted as “white” even if the skin was blue or green. I even catch myself reverting to that sometimes, straight hair is a lot easier to draw than curls. I don’t mean to make art political, but I think it’s impossible not to. Manjit Thapp is an artist I really look up to. She is an amazingly talented artist and illustrator who commonly draws women of colour.
I agree that it is radical and political to make self-representational work as a woman of colour today. Can you recall any particular moments or people that were integral to your empowerment as a woman of colour?
It sounds silly but a defining moment for me was actually in the tenth grade while getting my grade for a book for 5 short poems we had to write for english class. My teacher commented to not put aside my career plans but to continue writing poems. He believed I had potential, and I started to believe it too. My empowerment has come through art. Through poetry I have learned to love the aspects of myself that society has taught me to hate. In poetry, the those are poetic. Stretch marks, frizzy hair, gum on the bottom of a school desk. In the art world, it is the things that are left behind that are cherished.
Wow, that’s so powerful. In what form do you think your poetry is most powerful?
I’ve thought about it several times and I’m still stuck. I am more comfortable with putting my artwork online but my poems are still guarded quite close to me. I think at some point I’ll gather my favorite pieces and make a book or zine. I still like the idea of poems being tangible.
Yes, it takes such vulnerability sharing your writing, often because it’s made during really intimate moments with yourself. Where do you write?
Physically, I write anywhere. Some people prefer type or writing but there are times when I can feel the words about to burst and I just write with whatever’s near me. I collect all of my poems on a document on my computer, ones I’ve written by hand or otherwise.
I keep telling myself to back that file up. If something happened to my computer it would not be good…My favourite places to write are in bed or outside when it’s sunny. Warm places.
Where do you aspire to see your art? What kind of people would like to see it?
I recently went to an exhibition in New York at the New Museum called Pixel Forest by Pippilotti Rist. It was an amazing, immersive experience that really can’t be explained well unless you experience it. I think a big installation is probably my overarching goal. Perhaps when I’m older and have a firmer grasp of who I am as an artist. It sounds rather abstract but I want to create a beautiful space filled and weird language and colour. Right now, I aspire to put my artwork as editorial illustrations. I would love to one day be in the New Yorker, it’s one of my favourite publications. My desired audience would be young women of colour. I want girls to know that it’s okay to look like me, make art like me, write the things that I write. If I would have known even a few years ago that I would have people telling me that they read my poems multiple times just because it made them think a little bit about things they haven’t thought about before, then I would had a lot more confidence in myself and my work.
I can really see your work going into the installation realm! So you identify as a queer woman; does your queerness come into play at all in regards to your visual aesthetic or your audience?
I do, I don’t really like to label it because I believe that sexuality is fluid but it does have an impact on the way I see the world. I have many creative queer friends that thrive in their respective fields like photography and visual art and they inspire me because of how “open” their art is. I think that my visual aesthetic given my background opens me up to many opportunities to comment on aspects of society. My position almost gives me that creative license. As someone who has an intersectional persona that encompasses my sexuality, my gender, my mixed race and ethnicity, my international background, I have the ability to see things from so many different points of view. That consciousness opens up a while new world of creativity.
And what’s next on the agenda? Are there any projects you’re working towards at the moment or artists you wanna shout out?
I only hope that I can do some good in the world in some small way. I work on something every day. Project wise I am continuing a project called Conversations where I take short, overheard phrases, things people have said to me, or thoughts I have to myself and pair them with illustrations. It’s helping me see the beauty in language and in my environment, which helps in the wintertime. As for artists, my mom inspires me every day with her amazing textile designs and my wonderful girlfriend Julia takes such great photographs (vsco @juliaquintino). The people close to me inspire me to work hard and be the best version of myself I can be. I don’t know where I would be without them.