How to understand Black art across the diaspora

Jaleel Campbell


   A Conversation with: Jaleel Campbell

Jaleel Campbell is a digital illustrator based in Syracuse, New York. His illustrations center on formulating a unique, Black visual language emphasized by a vivid colour palette, heavy textures and line work. In this interview, Jaleel dicusses the importance of art history in guiding his creativity, the Black Arts Movement, and other media he explores.

Jaleel is currently raising money for his art fund. View more of Jaleel’s work on his website.

How are you?

I’m charged up. I just started this illustration in honor of this year’s Juneteenth celebration called “Homecoming”. This may be the beginning of a new series. I look forward to watching it develop as I go.

In my illustration, the two figures represent the descendants of former enslaved Africans who came back to their familial grounds they grew up on. [They came] to honor and acknowledge those who died before they were given a chance to see freedom. It highlights that sad history but also shows how far they’ve come and gives viewers a sense of hope for the futures of black folks everywhere.

Tell me more about your background. 

I was born and raised in Syracuse. Syracuse? I love it. I missed my friends and family when I went away for grad school. The art scene for black folks here has been lacking for some time. There was a black artist by the name of Michael Moody whose mural work inspired me early on. He was a muralist, a painter, and from what I’ve been told by a family friend and local artist, the late Denise Cole, he had been active in the Syracuse art scene since the 70s. He died in 2016, and I’m still tight I never got the chance to meet him and thank him for his artistry. One of his murals, found on the corner of Westcott and S. Beech Street, has been my favorite forever. The Westcott community is this bohemian paradise located on the east side of town. That shit reminds me of the villages in Lord of the Rings. So dope. His mural stuck with me. His figures were simple but beautiful. Michael was a very well-known artist in Syracuse and left an imprint in the community. I want to pick up that torch and continue to run with it, not just in Syracuse but globally with my artwork. I have had so many opportunities that I would have never thought I would be eligible for. During my years in high school, my preferred medium was acrylic paint. I would create these portraits of Black people with these big 18 x 24 canvas panels. I would walk through the halls of Nottingham high school watching and waiting for the looks and applause from my peers. I lived for that moment. There were a select few KKKarens who felt my artwork wasn’t all that. I felt a type of way not going to lie. It wasn’t until I made my transition to digital illustrating that I began to find my footing. Look at me now! Look at the growth.

I have been an artist for as long as I can remember, but there was something about digital art that stuck with me. Leading up to the summer before my senior year of high school, I didn’t have any knowledge of the programs. It wasn’t until Summer College at Syracuse University did I discover the possibilities for me, digitally. From there, I took off. I just started creating. I set out to create something everyday. My work is constantly evolving as I continue to grow as an artist and community builder. It has been a fun ride. I’m shocked every time something big happens - but I am in it for the long haul.

Why illustration specifically?

I don’t know, but it did. I’m not gonna hold you, I’m well-versed in a lot of different things. But illustration is the bulk of my practice. I always loved drawing. I wasn’t the best however, I did it and it brought me joy and peace. My middle school years were extremely turbulent. I was dealing with a lot of problems at my house. Art was my outlet. I would lock myself in my room and would begin drawing fashion illustrations. I wanted to be a fashion designer back then. I would watch Project Runaway and come up with clothing designs to perfect my craft. Overtime, it switched to painting which then turned into me doing digital work. From the moment I began, I thought “oh so now I can do anything. You’re telling me that I can paint something, take a picture, send it to my computer to then remake on my computer? Okay, let me try this and then try that.” And I’m still doing that. Every time I finish a picture, I am surprised and excited. “Who could have that I could do that?” There are no limits to the possibilities of digital work. Folks always downplay the value of computer art. I will never understand that. In my case, the same amount of time or more goes into these illustrations. I know there are a lot of people with illustrations styles that aren’t as complex and that’s dope too, but in my case I take my time creating. I should not have to fight or prove that my illustrations are worthy. I used to, four or five years ago. Either you’re going to buy it or not. I’m going to create for me regardless.

What is your process of critiquing and building upon previous work?

I am trying to push the envelope and am avoiding presenting the same picture or ideas over and over again. Especially watching others online and on social media, they have their niche and know their audiences so well. However, I see a lot of recycling of the same things over and over again. I wasn’t really illustrating last year unfortunately. I move out of feeling and at the time I was not feeling it. With this Juneteenth piece, I am allowing myself the room to begin illustrating again and when I look at it, I feel it. The feeling must be there in order for me to create to my full potential.

My work has evolved into its own stylized form, something I credit to years of hard work and determination. While I was taking a break myself - there were many contemporary artists whose work continued to inspire me. From the likes of Christopher Clark, Delita Martin, Daredollz, Dave Mcclinton, to the photography of the amazing myesha evon. Their work is so strong and I often wonder about their processes and how they do the things they do.

In my eyes, my art fathers are Jacob Lawrence, Aaron Douglas, Pablo Picasso and a hint of Erte. There is something about their work that is so unique and feels like my own. I love that their work combines simplicity with complexity. I like to play around with that in my work. Flat, yet dimensional. It should make you question “how did he do this?” and you have to work in order to figure it out.

What are your favorite works by them?

Les Demoiselles’ d’Avignon by Pablo Picasso with the five women. With their poses, I feel the women in my illustrations have that same confidence in them. They exude so much sensuality. There is an image by Jacob Lawrence from his The Migration series of black folks at a terminal on their way up north. His work is so simple and busy and I love that. I am not trying to make something look identical. I often wonder how I can present my interpretation of classic in a contemporary way. Referencing makes all the difference and allows you to put your self in conversation with the greats.I think these two artists portray that perfectly. [Picasso’s] line work is crazy. For me, adding multiple lines and textures takes [my work] to this new level. I think the work I’m doing now includes some of the most complex pieces I’ve ever worked on. Something about being asked to submit for Cosmopolitan’s Juneteenth pushed me to test something new out and I’m grateful for that.

It’s interesting that you mentioned Pablo Picasso as an inspiration. I can see that inspiration in your work, especially Picasso’s Aficionado.

It’s crazy because I know he drew influence from African masks during that period of his life. He stole it. That’s messed up that once again we see in history that black culture has always been taken and then flipped and reversed.

He, like Frida Kahlo, Georgia O’Keefe and Andy Warhol were the artists who were mostly spoken about in my art classes during my youth. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve been researching and learning about other well known Black artists that are so often left out of the arts curriculum found in the public school system.

How did the Black Arts Movement inform your work when you were learning more about Black artists?

It’s so vital. With the Black Arts Movement, black people began embracing and loving who they were unapologetically. Seeing themselves represented in the mainstream like never before was affirming. With my artwork, my intention is to show these proud depictions of black life that are similar to what the Black Arts Movement meant to the culture at that time. With the AfriCobra artists, like Nelson Stevens, his work is intoxicating and provides this sense of cool that black folks naturally possess. Colors that vibrate and are Psychedelic in nature. These artists being as Black as they were helped shape the communities in which they inhabited. It wasn’t until an artist talk with Napoleon Jones Henderson that I found out their collective began in barbershops, just like my own. I did that without knowing that history. That shows how black artists have always made it a priority to create gathering spaces that are made specifically for us, by us. Don’t have access to a gallery? Cool, I’ll set up at the shop. I’ll have the show and I’ll have my community there. And it’ll be fly. No matter what, we have BEEN making the most with the little that we do have. I really salute those artists who came before us. Faith Ringgold, I love her work. Varnette P. Honeywood is another. Her legacy is cemented. Her work has been on so many TV shows back in the day. So, while you may not have owned her work, you recognize it and you may have seen it on TV. Leroy Campbell is Gullah, and is from South Carolina. His paintings are in my eyes an evolution of what Jacob Lawrence was doing. I had the chance to meet him at this Jazz festival. He was saying how he met Jacob Lawrence and was able to converse with him early on in his career. Here I was talking to him in the same fashion he was talking to Jacob Lawrence. This is one of my heroes I’m having a conversation with. I’m thinking about that legacy, their legacies. That long term impact. When I’m not here anymore, these images will still live on. So, I'm focused on putting out work that will still resonate and make them feel. I don’t think that we feel as much as we should. My mission is to make Black people feel seen and know they are so fly. I cannot stress that enough.


I love that you mentioned the importance of lineage. Especially during this Black Liberation Movement.

Yes, I love the way in which history allows us the opportunity to “meet” our favorite artists by referencing or adding subtle nods to their groundbreaking works. I believe that we are experiencing our own renaissance happening right in front of us. A time where due to social media, so many black artists are getting put on and are depicting blackness in all of its complexity in such a meaningful way.

A lot of your inspirations come from people who were a part of the Harlem Renaissance, Spiral, The Black Arts Movements.

For me, the one that most closely relates is the Feel that Funk project. That is us creating a space to fully be ourselves and exactly who we are. People from all walks of life are given a chance to act. I gave them prompts, themes and they create their outfits. The first video was 70s influenced, so it included flared jeans, afros, and dashikis. I loved seeing people show up, carefully crafted their looks. I was sitting in the director’s chair when we shot our first scene. I was sitting there and people re-enacted something like soul train. It was beautiful, it was fun. I went in it with no expectations at all. From that, I got so much. The video ended up going on tour with the internet. I never in a million years thought it would be possible. I was just creating something for me and wanted to bring my illustrations to life. I reached out to people to see if they wanted to make it happen. When I execute something, I want to execute it perfectly. That showed me that I’m not just an illustrator. There are so many different aspects to my artistry that were untapped before that. I’m trying many different things. Even music right now. I’m trying out different things and see where it leads me.

On the subject on being more than an illustrator, could you speak more about your doll line?

As a child, I loved playing with dolls. My father, an army veteran and overall mans man did not play that. I would hide in secrecy, finding a safe space to go play with these dolls. It wasn’t until later that I realized living in secrecy would make up a majority of my life up until recent. In middle school, I remember looking at old photo albums and finding pictures of me playing with dolls. Filled with embarrassment and shame, I ended up cutting them up. A few years ago, I began doing the mental work needed in order to heal my childhood traumas. That was when I decided to make my own doll. I spent time trying to develop the perfect pattern,relying heavily on my computer skills to fine tune each pattern piece. I ended up perfecting these dolls. I see the Jalethal dolls as collectors items. Each one of a kind,the dolls pose with an unbothered expression on their faces-they truly add a new sense of cool to the cloth doll genre.

I know you hold doll making workshops.

With the doll making workshops, I intend on building a gathering place where people can feel seen and heard, allowing them to relax, refresh, and release their daily struggles. This workshop has gone through two iterations so far. Each better than the last. Seeing people no matter what age or gender showing up and showing interest in creating a doll was such a beautiful feeling. So many conversations and perspectives are shared during the workshops that is a form of therapy in a sense. The simple act of sewing together and engaging with each other and listening to each other’s stories, whatever it might be made such a difference. We became a small community in this space. I can’t wait for this pandemic to cease so I can continue do more of those workshops.

What did doll making mean for those in attendance?

I remember one of the women saying how when she was a child, her mother made sure that all of her dolls were black. It was important to her mother that from early on she was surrounded by these images that reflected who she was. Her mother made the dolls for her. While she doesn’t have them anymore, she signed up for the workshop because it made her think of that. Cloth dolls especially have so much personality. I met this doll artist in the Bronx, Tanya Montague. She has an extensive doll collection and the way she presented them in her house was such a vibe. I saw her home as an art gallery in my eyes. That was such a beautiful day speaking with her and another doll-maker named Ingrid Humphrey whose work was just as stunning. I am so thankful for the opportunity to speak to these experienced crafters and the chance to put all of our works in conversation with one another. I had no clue that there were so many doll makers doing work like my own in this day and age. We are preserving a rich history.

Moving forward, what other media are you interested in?

Im currently working on a collaborative project between myself and my group, KJ and Lolo and up and coming rapper named Z-MONEY GANG. This project, titled smooth vibrations vol.1 is our love letter to Black people throughout the diaspora. Heavily inspired by house music pioneers, we are about to set the scene ablaze, if you will. I’m not talking about EDM, but true house music. We’re really excited about this new music. I also want to work on short films that are not like the Feel that Funk project. I want to turn some personal writings I have tucked away into screenplays or long-form formats. I have a lot of interests that change like the seasons and look forward to marking each one off of my to-do list.

Fallen Ones


July 1, 2020