“Innocent Until Black,” by UNT CVAD student Kendra Brown, featured in Sechrest Gallery’s “Across Borders” exhibition

Before coming to UNT’s College of Visual Art and Design (CVAD), Kendra Brown received her associate’s degree in business and worked at an agency managing pharmaceutical programs for three years in Newburgh, Indiana. However, she decided that it was time to pursue her love for creativity and the arts. Kendra says, “I decided to come back for art specifically because it was my heart. I knew I wouldn’t be happy in the long run without doing art.” Her passion and dedication have certainly paid off.

First featured in the UNT Union, Kendra’s artwork “Innocent Until Black” is moving to North Carolina for the Sechrest Gallery’s new exhibition titled “Across Borders: Contemporary Artists Explore Migration and Displacement.” This exhibition, open from January 25 until February 26, highlights works that spark discussion about migration and displacement, cultural identities, social justice, and more.

Kendra originally made the piece last fall for the class ASTU 3030: Computer Applications in the Visual Arts, taught by Professor Ruth West, who is also the Director of xREZ Art + Science Lab. The class offers students the opportunity to explore various digital processes used in art making.  For Kendra, it was the first time she had any experience with digital tools, and ended up working with Adobe Illustrator and a laser cutter at CVAD’s Fab Lab to make the evocative piece.

Even though she took the class online because of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, Kendra says that “caring was interwoven” in ASTU 3030. “Ruth went above and beyond to let us know that she cared about our mental wellbeing, our emotional state, and you could tell that she wanted us to learn and succeed but also be better.”

From January 11 to January 24, “Innocent Until Black” was also shown in the UNT Union art exhibition titled “Susurration.”

Read Kendra’s artist statement and learn more about her journey as an artist and student below:

“Innocent Until Black” by Kendra Brown, full canvas view
“Innocent Until Black” by Kendra Brown, close up of portraits on back
“Innocent Until Black” by Kendra Brown, close up of text in hair

Artist statement

“In the words of Nina Simone, “an artist’s duty, as far as I’m concerned, is to reflect the times.” I made this piece to counteract the demonization of black men. I am an African American woman who fears for the safety of my African American brothers, friends, nephews and uncles and I want to respond to the social injustice that is being called out today. The systematic racism that millions of protesters are marching to end. I used a figure of a baby in conjunction with the portraits of five well-publicized, slain black men; Trayvon Martin, Philando Castile, Mike Brown, Jr., Alton Sterling and George Floyd to show that black men are unjustly viewed as guilty.

Each man pictured were not committing crimes, but lives were unjustly taken because they were perceived guilty by either uniformed Police officers or white supremist zealots. The message is that all men are perceived innocent until proven guilty except in the case of black men. There is a lot of symbolism in this piece. I used wood to signify the painful treatment black men endured through slavery being hung on trees. I burned the images on the back of the baby to remember that black men were also branded like property. By using these symbols, I hope to raise awareness that the same abhorrent disregard for human life still exists today with the often-unprosecuted killing of innocent black men.

The name of the piece is displayed in the hair of my piece because the natural texture of African American hair is still regarded as unkept or unclean. I included the word guilty in the eyebrow of the child to signify wearing the perception of being guilty just by the color of his skin. I wanted the baby to be life sized, so the wood figure is 21 inches tall and is mounted on a 24 X 30-inch canvas. The baby is mounted toward the left bottom corner of a white canvas and has an expression of wonder while looking out to the right. This signifies that the baby is looking out into the future we will create. I hope my piece helps inspire us to create that better future all black men deserve.”

Kendra’s journey back to art

“I really want to use every bit of creativity that I have to help the human condition… I want every person to realize the beauty, power, and influence that every human life has and use those elements to make someone else’s life better. 

-Kendra Brown

When she decided to come back to school to get an art degree, Kendra went to Texas to meet with a friend of a friend who studied art at a local university and asked “What would you do differently if you could go back?” She answered that she would go to CVAD. Soon, Kendra followed this advice by visiting CVAD and fell in love with the programs.

Some time before that meeting, Kendra had started applying to jobs in Texas, including putting in an application with UNT Dallas to work as the project manager for a grant program. At the time, she had never heard of the UNT system.

Everything came together perfectly when Kendra was sent an offer for the job at UNT Dallas and decided that CVAD was the place for her. “I was definitely meant to be here… I love what I do and I love our school.”

When asked how CVAD has helped her grow as an artist, Kendra explains that CVAD offers a higher level of learning experiences, equipment, and facilities than at other colleges. “I recommend all students who actually want to have art as a career to come to CVAD because I really do feel we are getting a quality education and we’re able to learn and practice on industry-grade materials.”

As for her inspirations, Kendra is mostly inspired by musicians that she looks up to. She comes from a family that loves music and especially appreciates artists who “love other people and who use their gift to actually help better the human race, to help the human fight.” Her favorites include Prince, Bob Marley, Steel Pulse, Bono, and Tears for Fears.

She also recently discovered textile artist, Bisa Butler, who creates unique portraits in quilts using vibrant colors and patterns. Kendra’s grandmother made quilts using cloths from family clothing and other items and she appreciates that Butler is continuing this craft and taking it to a new level with new technology.

To keep up with Kendra Brown and her incredible work, follow her on the platforms below:

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