Colonial Swag Fashion: A Conversation between April Bey and María Elena Ortiz

An artist from the Bahamas, April Bey creates impactful and colorful works that address race, identity, feminism, and popular culture through a multidisciplinary approach. Inspired by Afrosurrealism and Afrofuturism, Bey’s artistic practice explores the complexities of American and Bahamian cultures through a decolonizing perspective. She uses references from pop culture deliberately, leveraging them to illustrate her own personal mythologies.   

April Bey. Me?!, 2019. Watercolor on canvas hand-sewn into reversible black and gold sequins. 52 x 72 inches. Image courtesy the artist 

María Elena Ortiz: How are you doing given the current context?  

April Bey: I am stressed out, tired all the time. I am annoying my dog too much. I am lonely, worried, hungry, and so inspired. 

MEO: I feel you. What are you currently working on? 

AB: I am working on a new museum installation related to my ongoing series Atlantica (2017–2020). This is a body of work in which I created a fictional planet in outer space called Atlantica—my home planet. Right now, I am creating a portal made of plants that grow on both Earth and Atlantica. If you cannot afford a spaceship, you can grow your own portal, and your skin stays moisturized longer on this route. If blessed, should be open to the public sometime in the spring of 2021.  

April Bey. Colonial Day Sale II (Blue/Green), 2020. Digitally printed and woven blanket with hand-sewn glitter fabric. 80 x 60 inches. Image courtesy the artist 

MEO: Thank you for sharing. I recently saw some of your work virtually at the Untitled Art Fair. Could you please tell me about your works there, specifically the two works entitled Colonial Swag (2020)?  

AB: You are referring to Colonial Swag (Ferengi Feminism) (2020) and Colonial Swag (Rules of Acquisition) (2020). These are from the Atlantica series and represent fictitious advertisements from the planet Atlantica for the fictional brand, Colonial Swag. Colonial Swag is a high fashion luxury brand on Atlantica that uses fully sustainable, ethically mined colonialism from Earth’s developing countries to create beautiful priceless pieces of fashion.  

April Bey. Colonial Day Sale I (Pink), 2020. Digitally printed woven blanket with hand-sewn glitter fabric. 80 x 60 inches. Image courtesy the artist 

MEO: How can you sustainably and ethically mine colonialism? Can you tell me more about Atlantica? 

AB: Atlantica was once a nameless planet and a detailed fabrication imparted to me by my Black father as a way to explain racism and colorism—why I looked different than my mother who was white, and why children at school made fun of my curly hair. He told me to stand up to them, asserting that we would always be different because we were extraterrestrials from another planet that observe and report on Earth. Later on, I came to call this planet Atlantica. 

MEO: I love that story. Your work feels very timely to me, and I appreciate that you have been working with Caribbean motifs, race, identity and Black female power for some time. Back in 2017 you made Comply (Borg Feminism). When I saw this painting, I immediately thought about the song Freedom by Beyoncé and Kendrick Lamar from 2016. Please talk a bit about this work and how it relates to our current social unrest.  

April Bey. COMPLY (Borg Feminism), 2017. Oil, acrylic, epoxy resin, and hand sewn Ghanaian Hitarget Chinese fabric. 24 x 30 inches. Image courtesy the artist 

AB: That piece has a sister piece that relates to Beyoncé’s sister, Solange. Both Beyoncé and Solange came out with albums that served as therapy for me in radically different ways. Beyoncé dropped Lemonade in April 2016 and Solange released A Seat at the Table in September of the same year. Beyoncé’s album gave me permission to be angry. With this piece I wanted to aggressively sew into wood but ended up coating the painting in resin first so it’s the first of its kind. It was a mess to figure out how to sew into this wooden resin-covered panel, but I was angry, so I did it. Then, Solange dropped A Seat at the Table which told me to calm down and be strategic. To pace myself and love myself. Both albums spoke to injustice, colonialism, white supremacy, and corruption, but both carried paths of resolve and resolution. Both albums reiterated how to rejuvenate and execute with rage and softness. How this all relates to what’s going on now speaks to the timelessness of racism and oppression in this country. These two paintings were part of this Afrofuturist narrative that I’ve been constructing, and act as instructional manuals on coping with racism and injustice while stuck on Earth—all without directly showing Black death and oppression. We have seen so much of both now that people are waking up, but there have always been people in our own communities who haven’t believed us. You can grow up—as I have—in a Black country and still have these inequalities. Where I grew up, there are parts of the island where only white people can live and be—you have to have a reason to be there in order to be allowed there.  

April Bey. Mighty Real, 2020. Digitally printed woven blanket with hand-sewn fabric. 80 x 60 inches. Image courtesy the artist 

MEO: You work in a variety of formats: prints, videos, installations, artist’s book, and painting. How do you “chose” what format or method you will take for each piece, and how does that multidisciplinarity impact your work?   

AB: Almost every Black woman I know works similarly. If they do have a singular practice, they can also build houses in their spare time and be great at it! The material and process are related to the meaning of the work. The prints that I make typically reference printed matter like books or magazines. Sometimes I print in CMYK to get nerdy with references to comic books and newspapers. Sometimes I choose disciplines to upset purists—I try to decolonize every space I enter as best as I can. When a graphic designer tells me I should not use a certain font, I blow that font up big enough to sit on a fourteen-foot wall to stress the point that I can—I am the author of the art. If I see a billboard in Ghana that I want to make into an appropriated ad from Atlantica, I’ll get the actual dimensions of the billboard and emulate it as a large canvas piece to reference the source material and its scale. Any regulations pertaining to my art tend to be justified under colonial concepts of how we define “art.” When I was learning to be an artist, I picked up any skill I could from anyone willing to teach me—though I often had to teach myself out of spite.  

MEO: Your work draws from a variety of references. For example, in the Atlantica series, you include familiar figures like Grace Jones, Nina Simone, and James Baldwin, along with other symbols from the Caribbean and Africa. How does drawing from all those references inform your work as an artist? 

April Bey. You Can Heal Yourself When You Take Your Time (Gold), 2019. Relief photopolymer plate print sewn into hand-drilled golden glittered resin on panel with golden metallic thread. 20 x 16 inches. Image courtesy the artist 

AB: I love fan art. I think it’s the purest, sweetest mode of creating visual art and showing love. I also like elevating what most devalue—again, ideas of decolonizing taste and prestige.  

I use iconic imagery to create characters and alternative histories. For example, there’s a series with Beyoncé superimposed over stock photographs of suffragettes in order to rewrite Earth’s history. In the new version, the women’s suffrage movement was really a large group of mostly Beyoncés, rather than a group of mostly white women fighting for women’s rights. James Baldwin is Atlantica’s current president and Grace Jones is vice president—though we only use Earth labels for fun.  

MEO: I am currently researching Surrealism and the Caribbean, thinking about the histories of this modern movement in the region, and how it has impacted contemporary artists in relationship to ideas of emancipation, resistance and aesthetic creation. How does the Afrosurreal figure into your practice? 

April Bey. My Fans Be My True Friends! (Colonial Criminalization of Homosexuality), 2020. Watercolor drawing on canvas, African Chinese knockoff wax fabric purchased from Nana in Accra, Ghana, West Africa, glitter, decoupage, and metallic thread with hand-sewn letters. 96 x 72 inches. Image courtesy the artist 

AB: To me, Afrosurrealism serves as a warped or distorted mirror—it shows you the present but a warped and distorted present, whether it is fantastic, joyous, tragic, or dark. The Bahamian filmmaker Kareem Mortimer’s film Cargo (2017), and I would argue even his earlier work Children of God (2010), have very surreal moments. He achieves this through both cinematography and patina but also by nesting concepts within concepts like migration and immigration, or hidden and unified identities. In my work, I place myself in the present while distorting my identity. I’m a Black, multiracial, multicultural, nomadic, queer femme that shifts and morphs every second. The malleability of surrealism allows for stories to be told over and over, and intersect with reality in my work.  

April Bey grew up in the Caribbean (New Providence, The Bahamas) and now resides and works as a visual artist and art educator in Los Angeles. Bey’s interdisciplinary artwork is an introspective and social critique of American and Bahamian culture, contemporary pop culture, feminism, generational theory, social media, Afrofuturism, Afrosurrealism, post-colonialism, and constructs of race within white supremacist systems. Bey is in the permanent collection of The California African American Museum, The National Art Gallery of The Bahamas and The Current, Baha Mar in Nassau, Bahamas. Bey has exhibited internationally in biennials NE7, NE8 and NE9 in The Bahamas, as well as in exhibitions in Italy, Spain and Accra Ghana, West Africa.