Malene Barnett. Photo: Alaric Campbell
Malene Barnett, activist, artist, and founder of the Brooklyn-based Black Artists + Designers Guild, is as innovative as she is resilient. Raised on the coast of Connecticut, Barnett discovered, as a child, her deep and abiding love for art.
As a former college student at the Fashion Institute of Technology, she focused on textile design and fashion illustration, working with the keen observation of an anthropologist to incorporate and honor traditional African design and culture in her work.
Fabric patterns designed by Barnett. Photo: Malene Barnett
After graduating from FIT, Barnett stayed in New York and started working as a textile designer for major retail stores, honing her skills in the industry and always incorporating inspirations from her extensive travels. In 2009, Barnett launched her own design company, Malene B, which designs heirloom, bespoke carpets. She also creates ceramics, textiles, vessels, and mixed media paintings.
Barnett hand-painting designs (this one "Adinkra") to be made into textiles during her time at FIT. Photo: Malene Barnett
In 2018, Barnett founded Black Artists + Designers Guild (BADG), a Brooklyn-based global non-profit collective built to support and spotlight independent Black artists.
We had the pleasure of sitting down, virtually, to speak with Barnett about her journey, perspective, and vision moving forward.
NEW YORK MAKERS: How have you been lately?
MALENE BARNETT: Truth be told, I have been extremely busy. But in good spirits. I haven’t been in the studio all week -- just one day [this week]. I’ve been trying to get there consecutive days but, with all of the requests that have been going on, it’s been very challenging. But I know that’s going to change soon.
Barnett In the studio + hand-painted bowls. Photo: Malene Barnett
NYM: In your usual life, how often are you in the studio?
MB: Four or five days a week.
NYM: I’d love to ask you about the Black Artists + Designers Guild and how you started that.
MB: I started [BADG] in 2018 as a directory to combat the lack of visibility of Black artists, designers, and makers, as well as Black culture, within the creative field relating to building and designing exteriors and interiors of space. Whether that space is a home, a business, or a hotel, there’s been a lack of visibility, support, and opportunity for Black artists, makers, and designers. I created this collective so we could work as a force in the industry and also to erase those excuses of ‘we can’t find any Black designers.’
BADG members left to right: Jomo Tariku, Sheila Bridges, Lisa Hunt, Rayman Boozer, Joy Moyler, Malene Barnett, and Leyden Lewis. Photograph featured in the April issue of Elle Decor Magazine and taken by Alaric Campbell
I started with the people I knew, gathering everyone together. I worked with what I knew and had, which was social media and the internet. We created a website. Once we launched, there was a big outpour, and the industry, as far as the media is concerned, started to rally around me and the mission of working towards creating an equitable creative culture. We started to have events, talks, participate in art fairs, and it was going really nicely. A nice, steady pace. We were in the beginning stages, trying to feel our way, and then, of course, COVID hit and that changed things. We took our meetings online. But then it gave us the opportunity to work on our own projects.
We decided to come up with a concept house, a virtual concept house that is really rewriting the narrative and creating a space to support the wellness of the Black family narrative. The architects that are members of BADG are designing the space. Interior designers and makers are collaborating to design the rooms. It’s a very collaborative project, and we’ve been interviewing Black families and collecting data so that we have a more well-rounded perspective of what family life is. We understand that it’s a multi-generational experience and that it’s not about the nuclear family that’s been traditionally defined as a husband, wife, two kids. We’re thinking about how it could be the grandmother with her niece or the gay couple with their in-laws. We’re going through all the different lifestyles, family make-ups, and really creating space that addresses all of it.
NYM: That’s beautiful. And what medium will that be in?
MB: That will be online. We’re using technology; high-end realistic renderings that are used in architectural firms. You’ll go to the website, and it will be a virtual experience. We want to create an experience so that people can feel, “oh this could be me.” We’re giving people the opportunity to dream. To show it can be possible.
NYM: What else can you tell us about your work?
MB: In regards to the BAD Guild, I’d like to share our mission. We have three initiatives that we’re working on: our mission fund, where we’re raising money so we can have a sustainable foundation to grow. We’re just under two years old as an organization, so that’s really important for us to build that. And then our concept house, the virtual experience, we’re also raising money for that. This concept house will continue to be an ongoing, internal project. Then we have our education fund, which will help to provide scholarships, grants, and residencies for three generations of creators.
BADG member Marie Burgos, a multi-award winning French designer based in NYC. Photo: BADG
NYM: Is the Guild currently accepting members?
MB: Yes, we are still accepting members. It’s on a rolling basis. If you go to the website all of our criteria is there. Everyone is an entrepreneur, so we all have our own businesses. We require three years in business and then a portfolio, website, things like that. But it’s all listed here.
BADG member Glenn Tunstull, painter, publisher, illustrator, educator, and author. Tunstull creates oil and watercolors in the Hudson River Valley, as well as Italy, France, Bali, Jamaica, Brazil, Austraila, U.K., and Martha's Vineyard. Photo: BADG
BADG member Sheila Bridges, an interior designer and author based in Harlem + Hudson, NY and Reykjavik, Iceland. Photo: BADG
We’re a global collective, based all over the world. Not just in the US. We focus on six disciplines -- textiles, fine art, furniture, lighting, interiors, architecture, throughout the Black diaspora. We’re based in the US, but also have members in the Caribbean and in Africa.
NYM: I know that you travel a lot. Do you have some places that you’ve really loved going?
MB: Yes. I love going to Jamaica; that’s where my father’s from. Senegal, Ghana, anywhere in the Caribbean. I need to get back to St. Lucia. I’m dying to get back to St. Vincent; that’s where my mother’s from. I have friends all over. India is another spot that I love to visit. I’ve been there multiple times. I’ve been to some of these places quite a few times. I always say that [I like to go] wherever there’s good food – I’m a vegetarian – a clay textile culture, [and] a crafts culture community where they believe in the arts, which all of these places I’ve mentioned do. When I go, I want to connect with the creatives. I want to experience the food. I want to experience life as a local. That’s how I approach my travel experiences wherever I go.
Barnett in Ghana as a young adult. Photo: Malene Barnett
Barnett in Ghana with 90 year-old pottery artist Nutunshi Agbagedi. Photo: Malene Barnett
NYM: When did you start doing ceramics?
MB: Ceramics is new. That’s only two years ago. I just added that to my practice. Primarily, I’d been focused on textiles and designing rugs, specifically, for the last 20+ years. I’ve been drawing and painting since I was 8 years old. I went to art school at SUNY Purchase, first for photography and painting; then, I transferred to FIT and continued my studies with Fashion Illustration; and, finally, I went into textile surface design. I have an Associates in Fashion Illustration and a Bachelor’s in Textile Surface Design.
The Work of Barnett. Photo: Malene Barnett
Once I graduated, my first job was designing African print fabrics that were distributed to fabric stores across the country. I eventually got a job as a rug designer at a rug manufacturer. And that’s how my career started in rugs, back in 1999.
NYM: What was Black representation like at FIT when you were there?
MB: In my class and in my department, I was the only one. And it hasn’t changed much. I visited FIT last year, and it was still that way. Especially in textiles, there aren’t a lot of Black students who pursue it.
NYM: Were you exploring traditional African textiles while in college?
MB: Oh, yes. It’s been the focus of my practice. Not just the textiles but culture, in general. And then, once I got into textiles, I started to take a deeper dive. It was really about exploring processes and materials. And then applying those processes and materials to my work.
NYM: In your travels you must be able to see a lot of that, up close.
MB: Yes. And that’s why I travel. Because I can read things in books, but I always want to see for myself, as well.