Faculty Member Wardell Milan in Conversation With Tiffany Smith

There’s something about the demeanor of Southern men that often seems a bit more at ease, gentler, open. Meeting Wardell Milan was a refreshing affirmation of the most positive attributes of the “Southern gentleman” archetype. He spoke to me about his background and practice, and our shared professional challenges and the intersection of our respective work. He offered insight on establishing a practice through his experience in several mediums, including painting, photography and printmaking. Following are some highlights from our chat.

Tiffany Smith:  Where are you from?

Wardell Milan: Knoxville, Tennessee. When I was asked “where you're from?,” it was that little cadence or something makes it feel like you're from somewhere in the South.


TS: Yeah, from the deep South. . .


I was born in Miami and raised in both Nassau, Bahamas, and my folks are from Jamaica and Trinidad. There is a mix of cultural influences in Miami; if anything that made me keep closer ties to the Caribbean community because that culture is very strong.

I wanted to lead with that question because it’s something I address in my work—that experience of being asked where you're from is loaded. Usually the follow up is going to be where are you really from?


WM: You can pretty much discern that after a few seconds, just in the tone of voice or tilt of the head. Depending on whom I'm talking to, I’ll say Knoxville and certain folks will be like, where? Then “Where are your people from?” People think, “Are you Dominican? . . .” “No. I'm not Puerto Rican . . .”

TS: I feel that when people don't know where to place you on the brown people scale they always say Dominican.


Tell me more about being from Knoxville.

WM: Knoxville is a medium size town and, looking back, I had a great childhood and early adulthood. Growing up in a mid size Southern City greatly aided my creativity. With the city providing a limited amount of cultural and civic diversity and stimulus, I developed a keen imagination, and the strong desire to a creator.  


TS: Your work doesn’t place your identity at the forefront. There's a lot of work by black artists that is unmistakably black and a lot of work that is not, it’s more abstract. As an artist who is representational and outwardly projects notions of identity, I'm compelled by an introverted standpoint.


WM: I've always made work that's a bit coded. I’ve used family members to make portraits, obstructing their identity in some way. For a while I really questioned abstraction and if I should be more representational of being a person of color. But I just wasn't interested in speaking about that in a very direct manner. I wanted to create narratives that were slightly autobiographical, and then about black culture, and then perhaps my mother, and also race cars! There were so many ideas I wanted to speak about, that I felt I couldn't really make work that was more about my blackness. I've questioned that, but I never felt the urge to make work that was about my culture in a pointed way. I'm a black artist but it isn't “black” art. Or is it?


TS: Why can't I just be an artist? Why do I have to be a black artist?  Not every artist makes the choice to address their identity in their work, but you should have that choice instead of being categorized as a black artist in a limiting sort of way.


WM: When I was saying that, I was thinking about writers and how often when they're writing about artists of color they say, “Tiffany Smith, black artist” or “Christine Kim, Korean artist.” It's never Sullivan Smith, white artist. There's never that classification.


TS: It can sometimes affect the way people interact with the work because they're searching for deeper references - it must be about politicizing the black body, for example. People get all hyped up on buzzwords.


WM: Maybe it's not about that at all - it's just your friend and she happens to be Asian or Indian. Somehow whenever the black or brown body is inserted it becomes political. It's the same if you think about a ballet. It could be Swan Lake but as soon as the lead dancer is black it's something else.


T:  Black Annie! Forget it.


WM: Anyone who's not a straight white man has to have a double consciousness. Thinking about W.E.B. Dubois’ ideas about double consciousness, you as a black woman have three consciousnesses—woman, black woman, and you. You're absorbing how you exist in space and in the world but you're also reaching out and trying to learn how to better maneuver. If a person doesn’t have these complexities in their consciousness then that person may not take the time to consider how, for example, a woman of color living in New York has to maneuver through life. There's a level of understanding that some people just may not have because they don't have to know. It’s about being aware of communities that aren’t so immediately you and yours.


TS: Your work allows for different reactions—it puts you on the precipice of being enticed, and at the same time being repelled because you don't want to perpetuate certain stereotypes. Particularly the “Smooth Girl” collages.


WM: I'm interested in the idea of dualism or “twoness.” I want people to be simultaneously repelled and attracted. Most people believe the tulips are really beautiful and inviting.  Which I believe they are, but what inspires me about these flowers is their history, specifically the 17th century financial collapse of the tulip trade, now popularly termed Tulip Mania.


TS: The botanical illustrations make me think about classifications—comparing how we classify people and plants and how they are represented visually. That process of creating an impression of the thing that’s not actually what it looks like.


WM:  I began making collages that developed into a body of work titled Smooth Girls after walking with my friend Isolde Brielmaier through Harlem and looking at the magazines displayed on the newsstands. The magazines tilted Smooth Girl, XXL, The Source were in prominent locations. Isolde said, “Hank [Willis Thomas] should do something with those images.” “Why would you suggest Hank? I replied. And we both laughed. As we continued walking I looking at some of the women walking through the Harlem neighborhood, we witnessed how the images illustrated in these soft porn magazines, were being re-interrupted and/or reflected on the streets. To us—these women—they didn't seem to be disrespecting themselves or asking for unwanted sexual attention, these women seemed empowered.


TS: Was it a conscious choice to just use brown women or did you ever think of using other women?

WM: For the Smooth Girls body of work, just brown women.

TS: I want to talk about coming out of a graduate program and that first post-grad year.

WM: There's no prescription. When I graduated, Leslie Hewitt and I got a large studio space in Long Island City that was relatively inexpensive. There's nothing like that in New York anymore. One thing about working in New York as a creative is there is never really a lull in momentum.


TS: That's exactly why I came here—that momentum and drive. I went to SCAD and I didn't want to move back to Miami. I knew I was going to have a difficult time staying motivated.

WM: We want to be a part of that constant kinetic energy. How does that affect the work, hopefully in a good way?


TS: It's funny. My references to tropical locations have developed since I've been away from it.  That notion of longing comes up. I didn't think I would be here this long—I thought I could last three years; I'm going on nine. It's hard to think about pulling away, but I always dream about going somewhere else.

What was your experience of residencies like Skowhegan and the Studio Museum?

WM: Skowhegan was okay—nine weeks is too long to be on a farm. When I was there, I was with William Cordova. Whenever Cordova and I and the other brown artist went to town we would get unwanted attention. Skowhegan residences would ask “Are you from Africa?” “Jamaica?” But during that time I had a breakthrough in the studio, which led me to create the dioramas and the work I continued to make.

At the Studio Museum residency I was working with Christine Kim, Thelma Golden and Naomi Beckwith. These women are amazingly smart. Also working with Titus Kaphar and Demetrius Oliver, the other two artists in residence, was a nurturing experience—full of affirmation and encouragement. I encourage artists to apply for residencies even if you don’t feel a hundred percent ready for the opportunity. It's good for certain eyes to see the work.


TS: Applying to residencies definitely helped me be prepared to discuss my work.

WM: I applied three times to the Studio Museum. The process of learning how to put together a strong grant or A.I.R application can be long and difficult. It can take a while to get the language right and describe, in a smart way, the visual content. New York is a lot different from when I finished school. When I first moved here (before attending Grad school) I live in a studio located in Bed-Stuy, worked at Zara, had an internship at Blackbook magazine and would make small drawings and paintings in the evening.


TS: I have personal challenges in networking. I'm socially awkward especially around people that I admire. I have to push myself to speak to people to build connections.

WM:  I know a lot of artists who believe they’re socially awkward and become intimidated by those they admire. If I’m at a social gathering and begin feeling uneasy or timid I tap into the performer in me–pulling out and display a more self-assured Wardell.