Smile Politely

Artist Stacey Robinson educates and inspires with Afrofuturism

Stacey Robinson, artist and Assistant Professor of Graphic Design at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign, has been ceaselessly creating art and conducting research this past year. Robinson specializes in Afrofuturism, “a movement in literature, music, art, etc. featuring futuristic or science fiction themes which incorporate elements of black history and culture.” In a recent interview with Smile Politely, Robinson describes his studies in design, inspirations for his artwork, his experience as a Nas Fellow at Harvard, and reflects on the recent BLACKMAU’s In the Sunshine mural unveiling in Urbana.

Photograph of artist Stacey Robinson

Photo provided by Stacey Robinson.

Born and raised in Albany, New York, Robinson was always painting and illustrating which prompted him to pursue advertising and design. To obtain real life experience, he sought out several internships when he moved to NYC in September of 1996. He held internships at Milestone Media Inc., Black Enterprise Magazine, and Acclaim comics. After completing these internships Robinson moved to North Carolina to start a family and school. Robinson was a non-traditional student, enrolling at Fayetteville Technical Community College at the age of 27 and working while taking classes. He graduated from Fayetteville State University with a Bachelor of Arts and later completed his Masters of Fine Art at the University at Buffalo.

Robinson’s first design job was at Paraglide, a military newspaper, for which he designed the layout, illustrated, wrote articles, took photos, and assisted with web design. Throughout these various jobs and internships, teaching was always the end goal for Robinson. He is very passionate about sharing his life experiences and helping others learn the ins and outs of the design industry. Robinson wants to aid those that “need information but have a desire” achieve their full potential.

Robinson works in a wide variety of mediums. His goal is to “push [his] art to be able to tell the best story possible.” He is highly experienced in digital software, such as Photoshop, Illustrator, as well as in motion graphics. Most frequently, Robinson creates art using Procreate on the iPad Pro using the Apple Pencil. Working digitally allows Robinson to work faster and provide a large quantity of work. Currently, Robinson is excited to experiment more with sound mixing and creating music.

Robinson discovered his own artistic style when he was around 21 years old. At this point in his life, he was working full time and drawing in his free time. He would play records routinely and let loose creatively. His style was based on African art and heavily inspired by African wood carvings. Robinson studied and absorbed African history. His art communicated the beauty of being Black. He was creating Afrofuturistic work before it became a widely-recognized movement.

Robinson’s artwork “celebrates Black history in a present time that speculates a possible Black future”. He tries to make the imagery in his work understandable to any viewer, even a child. He believes that the access of knowledge to this topic is extremely valuable. The 80-90s Black Arts Movement is influential to his work. It is a celebration of Blackness. Robinson’s creative process begins with an idea he has or photograph he encounters. Typically, upon seeing a photo, Robinson wants to put the subject matter into a different environment or context. Lately, Robinson has been drawing portraits of people that are framing his art practice: psychologists, artists, literary scholars. He is always reading, studying, making art or listening to music and analyzing the songs, as well as looking at how people are presenting their lives virtually and staying relevant as artists.

Image: John Coltrane was an Alien © Stacey Robinson, 2013

Image: John Coltrane was an Alien © Stacey Robinson, 2013
Image: Destination Saturn © Stacey Robinson 2015

Image: Destination Saturn © Stacey Robinson 2015

Robinson recently completed a yearlong Nas Fellowship at Harvard. The Fellowship Program started in 1975 as the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research. “The Institute has annually appointed scholars who conduct individual research for a period of one to two semesters in a wide variety of fields related to African and African American Studies” (Hutchins Center). During the 2019-2020 academic year, Robinson was working on Sankofatopia: Creating Black Utopia through Hip-Hop, Sankofa, and Black Speculative Art. Robinson describes the Fellowship as an incredible experience during which he got to network with a variety of talented and important individuals. Robinson became close friends with Bakari Kitwana, an Independent Artist and Scholar, who was working on The Hip-Hop and Presidential Election Digital Archive (Hutchins Center). Robinson and Kitwana collaborated on a variety of projects and events. They curated a series of town hall sessions that analyzed rap and politics. Furthermore, Robinson created branding work for Kitwana in the form of a flyer design for a fundraiser in the name of Tamir Rice.

Image: Tamir Rice Fundraiser Flyer with background digital illustration by Stacey Robinson.

Image: Tamir Rice Fundraiser Flyer with background digital illustration by Stacey Robinson.

The Fellowship at Harvard changed Robinson’s life in an amazing way. Robinson interacted with Henry Louis “Skip” Gates, an American literary critic, teacher, historian, filmmaker and public intellectual who serves as the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and Director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University, as well as with Dr. Cornel West, a prominent and provocative democratic intellectual who is also Professor of the Practice of Public Philosophy at Harvard. The Fellowship also brought upon future opportunities for Robinson. He has an upcoming gallery show at Harvard. It was scheduled for Spring 2021 but due to COVID-19 has been pushed back to 2022.

While the pandemic interrupted Robinson’s fellowship, it provided time to work on both artwork and self-care. Robinson is currently working on his dream project, an animation project that combines performance, sound, spoken word, and hip-hop. It also covers his genealogy that he has researched while at Harvard. The timeline to complete this project is approximately two years. Robinson has been focusing on improving his health these past few months. He has started going on daily walks, consuming healthier food and drink, such as homemade juices, and increasing relaxation rituals, such as long baths while listening to audio books. Robinson says that to create his best work he must take care of himself physically and mentally, something that took often gets overlooked in the life of a busy artist.

A current project that Robinson just completed, in collaboration with Kamau Grantham, is In the Sunshine is a collage that has been recreated as a large-scale image on glass and installed on the front windows of the Cunningham Township Supervisor’s Office. This mural was unveiled on July 3rd, 2020 by Cunningham Township and the Urbana Arts & Culture Program. Robinson has collaborated with Grantham in the past and this artistic duo goes by the name BLACKMAU.

Image: In the Sunshine mural by BLACKMAU - Kamau Grantham and Stacey Robinson. Photo from Facebook.

Image: In the Sunshine mural by BLACKMAU – Kamau Grantham and Stacey Robinson. Photo from Facebook.

BLACKMAU began collaborating when Grantham showed Robinson his collage works. Robinson states that Grantham’s works are “so opulent with such an inspirational narrative [he] wants to converse with them aesthetically.” According to Robinson, In the Sunshine is the imagining of “Black kids swimming on the surface of the sun, splashing in liquid gold as the cosmos him/herself adds blessings.” The background is New York City “in a cosmos far away from ‘Barbecue Beckys’, ‘Central Park Karens’, and overzealous police, etc.” Robinson is grateful for all the hard work that made the unveiling a successful and wonderful event.

UNADJUSTEDNOWRAW © BLACKMAU - Kamau Grantham and Stacey Robinson, 2019

UNADJUSTEDNOWRAW © BLACKMAU – Kamau Grantham and Stacey Robinson, 2019

Robinson offers insightful advice for other artists that want to speak their truths and challenge their viewers. He encourages them to start immediately “even though you might be uncomfortable and uneasy trying something new.”Robinson states that everybody is scared and that now during the quarantine is the time to put yourself out there and try new things. As artists, we must find ways to remain relevant while isolating.

Having found online artwork displays to be helpful with remaining relevant, Robinson co-organized Curating the End of the World, a “two-part exhibition that brings together an international cadre of artists whose work responds to the COVID-19 pandemic, anti-black violence, climate change, poor governance, trans-humanism, and an accelerating, technologically driven economic system on the verge of collapse” (New York Live Arts). This exhibition, curated by the Black Speculative Arts Movement, Tiffany E. Barber, and Robinson, evokes conversation about social, political, and environmental current events.

Image: Revelations 16:1 © Stacey Robinson 2020 for the BSAM virtual exhibition Curating the End of the World.

Image: Revelations 16:1 © Stacey Robinson 2020 for the BSAM virtual exhibition Curating the End of the World.

Due to the pandemic and stay at home orders people are forced to pay attention to social media and the news. Robinson expresses that right now people are not able to ignore the media. Due to this, people have become more aware about racism and Black Lives Matter allies. Even large scale companies are enforcing change in their management, policies, and branding. This has increased the commission requests Robinson has been receiving. He is currently working 16 hour days and is proud of his role in initiating change and making a more equitable world through his artwork.

Image: Juneteenth © Stacey Robinson 2020

To see more of Stacey Robinson’s artwork, you can check out @staceyarobinson on Instagram.

To see his work in person, visit Avionics, where his work is currently on display.

All photos courtesy of Stacey Robinson.

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