The future of art is black
Esther Ajayi, a DePaul senior specializing in animation, runs around the room showing off her sketchbooks full of black doodles and figures, pulling more art from under the bed to expose layers of charcoal sketches and oil paintings. hidden oil. There are acrylic paintings on canvas, denim jackets with handmade cartoon drawings, and digital art with the words “Black Lives Matter” displayed proudly on its walls.
Ajayi has been creating art since she was a child with her parents’ continuous support for her creativity. Although her major is in animation, she also does traditional and digital art as well as clothing designs.
“Both of my parents are extremely creative, my dad would doodle with me and encourage me to draw all the time,” Ajayi said.
Besides creating, Ajayi also sells his art. Before the pandemic hit, she contributed to the Black Artists Spotlight and was grateful for opportunities to help exhibit her art.
“DePaul has been extremely supportive in 2019,” Ajayi said. “Black Artists Collective held an exhibition and I submitted one of my denim jackets for the art exhibition. It was an amazing experience and I got to meet so many black artists because of it and work and model with them.
DePaul has a rich history in the art, and this year has deepened that tradition. From theater to music to digital comics, DePaul students have found different ways to express their creativity and channel their art into a future of self-expression and discovery. In a school with just 39% of students of color — the highest number ever — it’s crucial to shed light on a common problem in most predominantly white schools; the issue of inclusion of creative black students.
DePaul enrolled 2,072 African American students, or about 9.2% of the student population for the 2021-2022 school year, according to Data USA. Even with that number, DePaul’s racial and ethnic demographics are considered above average, ranking 600 out of 3,790 universities in the United States.
DePaul senior Michelle Manson studies viola performance and psychology and hopes to use these skills in teaching and performing in the future. Manson has been a part of DePaul’s music school for four years, and while she values her experience, being one of the few black musicians in the music school comes with a lot of pressure.
“DePaul is a very white school and it feels like you have to rep all the time, which means I have to be all the time,” Manson said. “Which is so tiring. It’s exhausting to be turned on all the time. And if you’re not connected, people stop paying attention to you.
Growing up, Manson had the support of her parents as they were also musicians and wanted her to succeed. Throughout her childhood, there were several occasions when Manson felt she had not been recognized when other students had.
“When I was a kid, my parents always told me that you have to be the best to stand out,” Manson said. “It’s always a feeling that I have subconsciously.”
What Manson cannot receive in the halls of DePaul’s School of Music, she finds within the Chicago music community.
“Black people hire black people, so it’s very communal,” Manson said. “We all really know each other [well] and get hired for the same concert. I sort of have a double life. Going from being a black musician at DePaul to just being a musician like everyone else in the black music community.
As Manson finds connections outside of DePaul, other DePaul students have become an important part of helping connect black students and advance their careers. Lazarus Howell, a DePaul junior majoring in comedy arts, is keen to get involved in several groups to help fellow students find community.
“I’m a comedy consultant and writer for a show called ‘Black Boy Joy,’ which a DePaul alum helped me connect with,” Howell said. “I’m also president of Black Artists Today, Pickle Jar Comedy Collective and play in a band.”
Howell stresses the importance for black students to try as many things as possible. He also says it’s important to grow the black community in DePaul.
“For comedy arts, there are only three black people,” Howell said. “I think sometimes black people don’t realize what they can do. Sometimes those majors aren’t accessible to most black people, in terms of the things they can do. And that’s why we don’t have that many, but you know, we can change that just by being and excelling and showing black people that it’s an option.
DePaul has a Black Cultural Center where students can find groups related to their majors. Within the cultural center, some of the specific programs are Better Black Business Series, Black Girls Break Bread X DePaul, Sankofa Black Student Formation Program, and Black Artist Spotlight. DePaul also has student organizations like Black Student Union and Black Artists of Today and more.
Ajayi started creating her own characters in high school to help her with her mental health.
“Qua is a combination of my two best friends at the time, I doodle it instead of hurting myself,” Ajayi said. “He’s a really defined character in my life that I continue to implement in my works.”
Through art, she was able to find her passion and show it to others. This was just the start of Ajayi sharing his creations with the world.
“In high school, I was selling shirts with my character Qua,” Ajayi said. “A lot of people bought it, which made me really happy to know that something that is close to my heart has an impact on someone else.”
In 2020, Ajayi started selling more of his art, which is also displayed on his instagram @saintbunni. One of his most popular pieces was a drawing of a black woman with the words “Black Lives Matter” displayed across the top.
“The whole movement has exemplified black voices and created space for so many black artists,” Ajayi said. “Since then it feels like the movement is shrinking, you don’t see them in the news and you have to actively search.”
Ajayi worries about the future of the Black Lives Matter movement after last year’s setback. She said it’s been hard to find other black artists recently.
“It seemed like we were taking the right steps and now there is not so much turmoil,” Ajayi said. “Chicago has a big space for black artists, but for a while I saw nothing but a surplus of white creators.”
Within the DePaul community, Ajayi hopes she will return to where she was before with her black community and supporting artists of color.
“If you’re going to have such a mainstream arts program — in Chicago, no less — there should be more diversity and more accessibility for people to see it,” Ajayi said.
The Future of Art creates spaces for diversity and opens up opportunities for black and brown artists. Manson thinks the best way for DePaul students to help is to support local artists and be intentional with other people.
“Support black musicians, support black artists and black creators because they don’t have enough clout,” Manson said. “I think a lot of people don’t realize that we are multi-faceted people and will always be here.”