The Art of Noize with Jamaal Barber
by D. Amari Jackson
Jamaal Barber never had a choice. Even if the Atlanta-based artist did, the answer would be the same.
“I think for me, personally, art is something I have to do,” acknowledges Barber, a gifted printmaker and painter. “It’s not, so much, whether anybody ever saw anything I’ve made, I know I have to express myself in this way. There’s something about the act of filtering the world and creating something, and it’s just a big part of who I am as an individual.”
Fortunately, others have seen the extraordinary art Barber has made. The full-time artist with an MFA in printmaking from Georgia State University has done exhibitions and commissions for companies across the nation. His colorful works have been included in local and national shows and festivals, and published with the New York Times, Penguin Random House, Twitter, Emory University, and Black Art in America. Barber also hosts the Studio Noize Podcast, a weekly online platform dialoguing with and celebrating Black artists.
Yet, despite such success and recognition, Barber reiterates the intimate nature of his particular creative process. “I know that I need art personally, just to regulate my own emotions,” he offers, noting “for me, all my work is super personal. If I’m going to sacrifice to do something, I’m going to sacrifice and do this artwork whether anybody likes it or not.”
“I just think something about the process of it is healing.”
For Barber, it always has been. Born in Virginia, and raised in Littleton, North Carolina, Barber relied upon art to navigate small town boredom and an underfunded school system. “My thing to do, after I finished my work, was to draw on the back of my tests. That’s kind of how I got along with drawing.” He credits his early love for comic books and illustrated children’s books as much-needed inspiration in this local setting. “In my town, at the height, there might’ve been 1300 people. There was not a lot going on there, and you were looking for a way to escape, a way to be creative, and to not be bored. So art was one of the main ways I expressed myself.”
Initially enrolling at East Carolina University for a business degree, Barber switched his major to art after taking it as an elective. After graduating, he followed his future wife to Atlanta where he eventually found a job as a graphic designer for a sign company. Eight years in, Barber was laid off. He converted this challenge into an opportunity.
“I was like, I’m gonna try this,” recalls Barber, who had just discovered his interest in printmaking. “So I bought all the printmaking equipment I needed and then just kind of did my thing. I thought, let me take my shot and if I’m going to fail, I’m gonna fail going forward on my own terms.” If need be, adds Barber, he could “always go back and get a job.”
However, after a few years of building his own career, Barber didn’t have to. And he’s been doing his own thing ever since, but not without some challenges of its own. Starting out, Barber remembers a lot of “trial and error” and spending a lot of time making things “nobody wanted. I had been out there for about a year and some change before I started making stuff that I felt good about. I went to a show, an art walk or something, and I got a good response, like a way better response than I did before.”
The good responses have continued and increased along with Barber’s forms of art. Today, the married father of two is an in-demand artist who runs and hosts his weekly podcast, Studio Noize, on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and other online platforms. With new episodes every Tuesday, Studio Noize connects listeners with Black artists creating the culture while highlighting the “techniques, practices, and inspirations of the very best in contemporary Black art.”
“You should be able to find this type of conversation, especially from a Black perspective,” promotes Barber, noting “I think it is super necessary. A lot of these podcasts center white artists and the white creative process, but that’s not what we do.” Barber elaborates on his own trips to the studios of various Black artists, both prominent and emerging, and how “we have long conversations, not just about art, but about their lives, you know what I’m saying? What they are doing, what brushes they are using, what they are watching on TV. You can understand a lot about an artist by going to their studio and just talking to them, getting to know them.”
Still, even with his variety of current endeavors and successes, Barber understands—and is quick to remind anyone who asks—that his artistic process remains deeply personal.
“When I started printmaking, I decided I’m gonna do what I feel like I need to,” stresses Barber. “And if nobody wants it, then nobody wants it, but I’m not going to try to chase trends or anything like that. I’m going to stay true to myself. So I started basing my work on Black people, the Black people I saw around Littleton, around North Carolina. And that became the focus of my work, unapologetically.”
Ultimately, for Barber, something so unapologetically creative, true, and personal is inherently healing.
“Sometimes I feel like there is a hole in my chest and the only way that I can ever fill it is by doing this artwork,” he insists.
“So I have to do it. It’s that kind of necessity for me.”
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AMARI JACKSON is a creator, author, TV/web/film producer, and award-winning journalist. He is author of the 2011 novel, The Savion Sequence; creator/writer/coproducer of the 2012-2014 web series The Book Look; writer/coproducer of the 2016 film Edge of the Pier; and current writer/coproducer of Listen Up! on HBCU GO/Roku TV. He is a former Chief of Staff for a NJ State Senator; a former VP of Communications & Development for the Jamestown Project at Harvard University; and a recipient of several writing fellowships including the George Washington Williams Fellowship from the Independent Press Association. An active ghost writer, song writer, martial artist, and journalist, his writings have appeared in a wide variety of national and regional publications.
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