Published on December 12, 2018

Designer and entrepreneur Malene Barnett is a master of many mediums: She’s developed a successful career over the past 20-some years as a multidisciplinary artist working largely with ceramics, paintings, and textiles. But it’s not just her visual work that’s captured the attention of her followers and the design world at large. It’s her voice.

A few months ago, while attending a design industry panel, she took notice that the panel did not include a single black expert. A few weeks later, a different panel did the same. Barnett wrote about both instances on her Instagram and received masses of comments, affirming her idea to start her own project that would fight the design world’s race problem. Soon, the Black Artists and Designers Guild was formed.

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Courtesy of Keita Turner

“We live in a society with systemic racism—this is not a problem that is new,” Barnett says. “If you look at all the comments I received [on Instagram], you’ll see that I’m not the only one thinking about this so that definitely confirmed to me that I had support.”

At the end of November, Barnett launched her passion project, and already, the Guild has over 60 members. By mid-2019, she expects the roster to be filled with over 200 black designers and artists of all different backgrounds, and not just in the United States, but globally. This roster, Barnett hopes, will not just act as a resource for black creators and experts to get additional opportunities, but she hopes it will also be used as a tool for media, developers, designers, and more to find black talent. Excuses for a lack of diversity are simply unacceptable.

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Courtesy of Nina B Design

“It’s time that we speak the truth about what has happened and what continues to happen,” Barnett says. “Look to the educated. Find out how you can make a change. If you sit back and say, ‘Of course it shouldn’t be that way,’ but then you sit back and do nothing, you’re just agreeing with the system.”

The lack of representation of black artists and designers has done a disservice to the design world as a whole and has crafted false narratives around contemporary design styles and techniques. A key issue, according to Barnett, is the lack of attribution for inspiration, as well as the stereotyping and generalization of designs made by black creators.

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Courtesy of Right Meets Left Interior Design

“When you look at modern design, it started in Africa. The Europeans went there for inspiration and took from the art we were creating back in the day and they stylized it as their own. Then, they get the recognition that they created modern design,” she says. “It’s about re-educating people about what’s real and what’s not.”

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Courtesy of Nile Johnson

By going through this re-education, the flow of ideas and inspiration will only broaden. That is, after all, the result of fostering a diverse range of voices and talents. Diversity is something that should be celebrated, and that means for those who benefit from white privilege, it’s crucial to a take a critical look at how their actions may uphold systemic racism and work to dismantle it.

“[For instance,] Scandinavian design is constantly celebrated, but we need to push other styles,” Barnett says. “Africa is a huge continent, and African people are quite diverse. Because of the Diaspora, our culture and styles have influenced different parts of the world. Yet our way of living is put in a separate category, as things like ‘ethnic’ and ‘primitive’—these terms that we’d never use when talking about ourselves or our work. They are placed upon us.”

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Courtesy of Erika Ward

When Barnett speaks about the benefits she hopes that the Black Artists and Designers Guild will provide for its members, her excitement and passion are palpable. The amount of diversity in the design world has barely increased since she was a student over 20 years ago, and she hopes that this effort to create a community for black artists and designers will help them to gain exposure, opportunities, and a feeling that no achievement is out of reach.

Black artists and designers of the African diaspora, specializing in fine art, textiles, ceramics, furniture, interior design, or architecture, may apply to become a member of the Guild on its website. For professionals, there is an annual fee of $50, and for students, there is a reduced fee of $25.

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Courtesy of Linda Allen

The lack of diversity, especially as it pertains to black artists, is not a new problem in the design world, but Barnett hopes that her efforts to use her own voice as a force for change will encourage others to do as they can to actively fight systemic racism. By giving them a platform for increased opportunities, she hopes that current and emerging black leaders in design will become all the more empowered to impact and shape their industry—and also that they’ll help to forge a path for future black designers.

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Photography by Aaron Bengochea

“Our message to any black artist or designer is that I believe in you and you believe in you. I want them to understand that I do understand the struggle and the challenge and I believe that when we come together in numbers, we can definitely make a change,” Barnett says. “As a community, we can create the path for the next generation—I don’t want the young girls and guys in school, thinking about becoming an artist or designer, to think this career path isn’t a viable option for them. I know what that was like in school, and it shouldn’t be that way. We’re on a mission to change that for everyone.”

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