A close look at the marker drawings of Ben Biayenda reveals a wide range of direct references from African tribal art to French Post-Impressionism and current pop culture. The Paris-based art student's work celebrates black beauty in all of its diversity. His sensitive portraits depict black women in moments of intimacy, connection and self-care. His scenes are of beauty parlors and plant-filled bohemian apartments. In girl's dinner, three black women sit down together to share some sushi rolls. An African mask, a Matisse cut out, and a poster of Angela Davis hang on the wall behind them. One of the guests has vitiligo, perhaps an homage to Winnie Harlow, a Canadian model with the skin condition.
Biayenda started drawing black women two years ago, inspired, he says, by “black femininity, sisterhood, and little moments of beauty.” He is also inspired by black feminist conceptual artists like Adrian Piper and Michèle Magema to interrogate race, gender roles, Western beauty standards, and art itself through his work. Born in Namibia to French and Congolese parents, the artist grew up in France and was exposed to fine art at a young age. He grew to especially love French painters, from Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres to Henri Rousseau. “I was really fascinated by painting and I was going to museums in Paris. I really loved it, but there was some frustration to not see much black representation in famous paintings,” he recalls to The Creators Project over a Skype call. His response was to create his own version of art history through work that reflected his own standards of beauty, while drawing on the poses and atmosphere of the classic works he admired.
The details and references in his drawings are key to Biayenda's vision. It's possible to pick out subtle references to contemporary artists such as Mickalene Thomas and Judy Chicago. He says that his recent photo series Decolonize Olympia was directly inspired by Carrie Mae Weems' series Not Manet's Type. Like Thomas' glittery visions of black women, Biayenda's drawings are highly decorative, rich in color, pattern, and detail, but they aren't just decorative. His subjects are also very much alive. Though his women's faces are often composed or at rest, they glow with inner life and an individuality that is a big part of their beauty. They have different skin tones and body types. They have different senses of style and belong to different cultures and subcultures.
Much of his inspiration comes from women he knows, particularly the black French women around him, but sometimes his muses are more high profile. One particularly striking piece puts Solange Knowles and actress Amandla Stenberg in African neck pieces. It's about more than celebrity culture. He is putting black female role models, powerful women who inspire him, into art. “I always felt there is a lack of diversity and a lack of people who look like me, in art history, in magazines and media,” Biayenda explains, “Representation is really important.”