On ‘We Are Here,’ Author Jasmin Hernandez Makes Black & Brown Artists the Star of the Show

Sri Rain Stewart Sri Rain Stewart is a native New Yorker living in…
 “[We Are Here] had to happen," Jasmin Hernandez said. "By 2018, I was seeing a lot of shifts in the culture. A lot of my artist friends that I respect so much were impacting mainstream pop culture." Photo Credit: Sunny Leerasanthanah

In the new book We Are Here, Author Jasmin Hernandez puts a spotlight on BIPOC and QTPOC artists from various disciplines who don’t always get the attention they deserve.

The art world can be intimidating. Not just for people who work in it themselves, but even for those who seek to view or purchase. The act of going to see art feels like one is being cultured, or sophisticated. For some people, it might feel like they don’t belong or aren’t valued. It especially feels that way when you’re not being represented. Debut author Jasmin Hernandez knows this. The native New Yorker and proud Afro-Dominican American grew up devouring art, becoming a regular visitor at museums and galleries. It inspired and influenced her from her writing to her style.

Hernandez noticed a problem, however. She kept learning about white men. “I wasn’t taught Kehinde Wiley and Mickalene Thomas,” Hernandez told me. “I had to discover these artists on my own in the real world out of school.”  Knowing that there are so many more artists out there who have talent and a point of view just as great if not greater, she wanted to learn more about them. She sought to discover more Black, indigenous, and other people of color (BIPOC), especially women, who were creating art. Additionally, she also wanted to see more art from queer, trans, and non-binary folx (QTPOC).

Art is powerful. It speaks to what’s happening in our society. It creates a world we want to see. It also reflects human emotions and experience. Hernandez saw a lack of Black and brown artists in major institutions, but she also began to see more emerge over the years. By 2012, she started a website called Gallery Gurls, where they discussed art from an honest, non-academic tone. Then her debut book, We Are Here: Visionaries of Color Transforming the Art World, released in February 2021, came into fruition.

 “This book had to happen,” Hernandez said. “By 2018, I was seeing a lot of shifts in the culture. A lot of my artist friends that I respect so much were impacting mainstream pop culture.” The book features interviews with BIPOC and QTPOC artists from various disciplines who are critically acclaimed or up and coming, curators, gallerists, and art entrepreneurs. It also includes a foreword by Swizz Beatz, a known art collector and artist advocate himself.

 Following the recent release of We Are Here, we caught up with Hernandez to discuss how she fell in love with art, merged it with her desire to be a writer, and the making of her book.

 Tell me about your journey into art. Can you share when you first fell in love with it?

 Jasmin Hernandez: I grew up in a single-parent home, so my Afro-Dominican mom was not bringing me to museums. My mom loved literature, and I inherited that gene of loving literature from her, so the house was filled with so many books like novels, historical fiction, and art books. There was like an encyclopedia of painting that I would pour over and look at all throughout being a kid and into being a tween. It would have Titian, Caravaggio, and Canaletto — obviously European old masters. It would go from old masters into modern, and then I learned about [Pablo] Picasso, [Edward] Ruscha, [Willem] de Kooning, and [Andy] Warhol.

 Then when I was 17, I went to the museum for the first time, and I went to the Met. The reason why I went to the Met was because I had a high school fashion teacher who encouraged me to see art in the city. She knew I loved fashion so much, but my world was really just in Queens. She was really the catalyst for me to start seeing art in the city. This was 1997, and I went to go see a Gianni Versace costume exhibit. I went to go see this exhibit and it was all of Versace’s incredible gowns — like the safety pin dress that Elizabeth Hurley wore [and] the Marilyn Monroe dress. I was floored. It was so beautiful. 

 I soaked up fashion magazines as well as a kid growing up. I loved reading Vibe, Elle, The Source, and Vogue, so I was reading a lot of hip-hop and fashion magazines.

 Were you attracted to making art, or being a voice of advocating for the arts?

 I was always going to write. I didn’t know how or when.

I graduated from Parsons [School of Design] and I worked in fashion. This passion for seeing art in museums just continued. Even though I worked in fashion as a fashion show producer, a photo editor at the NYT, New York Magazine, or working in the fashion closet at Vanity Fair, I still had one foot in art. I would go to weekly openings on Thursday nights in Chelsea. I wasn’t taught Kehinde Wiley and Mickalene Thomas. I had to discover these artists on my own in the real world out of school. I learned about those artists by going to Deitch Projects in Soho or going to the Brooklyn Museum, so that was like my self-education on contemporary art.

When 2012 rolled around, I already had my blog, but I wanted to write about art more specifically. So then I started Gallery Gurls. It was myself and a woman named Ann Samuels. She eventually bowed out, and then I just continued shaping the site on my own.

What made you decide to write a book, particularly this one?

By 2018, I was seeing a lot of shifts in the culture. A lot of my artist friends that I respect so much were impacting mainstream pop culture. You would be watching Insecure and Issa [Rae] and the girls would be at CAAM, the California African American Museum, and they would be seeing a Derrick Adams exhibition. Or I’d turn on Hulu, February of 2019 during Black History month, and Derrick Adams would be the art for like a Black vertical for Black content. I was just like, “wow.” Someone like Derrick Adams is infiltrating or just impacting the mainstream. Also, a lot of the artists that I featured on Gallery Gurls were also in the book. They were getting magazine covers, being featured in Paper, getting profiles. Many of them were my friends, so it was very obvious to me that this moment needed to be documented and celebrated and by a Black person. If we don’t document it, then we were never here. And we are here.

Devan Shimoyama in front of two vibrant works in progress in his Pittsburgh studio, located on the Carnegie Mellon University campus.
Photo Credit: Sunny Leerasanthanah © 2021 Jasmin Hernandez

 Swizz Beatz is known to advocate for emerging artists, particularly artists of color. How did you get him to open your book with a foreword?

 We have not met yet. I follow him on social media. I am a native New Yorker, so I’ve always been a fan of his music and of his career. I also know that he has a foot in many worlds. He’s in music, he works on TV, and then he’s also in the art space advocating for Black and brown artists. He has the Dean Collection, he’s worked on No Commission, and he’s on the board of the Gordon Parks Foundation, so he was an ideal choice for the foreword. I really shot my shot and just hoped that it worked out. I wanted an open, real genuine voice who advocates for Black and brown artists. He was the perfect choice. A lot of the folks in the book know him, and he knows them. He collects their work. Through a few people in the book, they put me in touch with his team, and the book was presented to him. He loved the lineup.

 What are your thoughts about critics putting down the acronym BIPOC, and why did you feel that you should use it to describe the artists that you featured in your book?

The book was supposed to come out in October 2020, and, obviously, because of the pandemic it got pushed to February. So that was a blessing. I was able to go in and make the book stronger. BIPOC was a term mostly used on high woke Twitter for the past three or four years. That was not being used in the mainstream vernacular in 2019. Then it became mainstream in the summer of 2020 with the uprisings. When new identity markers are introduced into the lexicon and into the vernacular, I always do the research, ask myself how I feel about it, ask myself if I feel included in it, and do I want to use this term? POC is very broad, and Black people are lumped in. But we know that Black people — we operate very differently than non-Black POC. So, I love the term BIPOC. For me, it feels right. It feels inclusive; it is prioritizing Black and Indigenous folks separate from POC. Those are very clear distinctions and markers. I’m very appreciative for that, and I use BIWOC [Black Indigenous Women of Color]. 

 Who are some of your favorite artists, and are any of them in the book?

I love Tourmaline, Toyin Ojih Odutola, Hiba Schahbaz, María Berrío, and Ayana Evans (who’s on the cover, and she’s the first spread). I also love art workers. It was important for me to honor artists, Black and brown of all identities because obviously there’s cis-hetero people, but also you have queer, trans, and non-binary people as well. But I also wanted to include art workers.

We Are Here: Visionaries of Color Transforming the Art World includes a foreword by Swizz Beatz, a known art collector and artist advocate himself. Cover Courtesy of Abrams

Do you think the art world is really improving?

This is a very loud, irreversible conversation. We are not going back, specifically with what happened last year with how vocal we were about race.

The art world is also going to see how much they can profit. They’re not going to let it [praising and purchasing art by BIPOC] be a trend. It will become permanent. What I want to see is more Black gallery directors, gallery owners, and museum directors, which is happening because we’re seeing Naomi Beckwith at the Guggenheim, and before that Ashley James became the first Black curator at the Guggenheim. There just needs to be more of us. There needs to be more Black and brown folks independently building our own spaces, building our own table, helping each other, working collectively, but we also need to be in the mainstream established art world, which is already a billion-dollar market.

We can skip gatekeepers because of social media. If I didn’t have a website, I don’t know where I would be. I probably wouldn’t have a book. I’ve been able to speak my truth unapologetically and write whatever I want in whatever language [and] whatever tone.

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Sri Rain Stewart is a native New Yorker living in New York City. She writes mostly about fashion, but also has a love for music, culture, TV, and film. In her free time, she writes poetry.

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