Ajuan Mance is a Professor of African American literature at Mills College. A lifelong artist and writer, she works in acrylic on paper and canvas, ink on paper and, for the 1001 Black Men project, ink on paper and digital collage. Ajuan’s comics and zines include The Ancestors’ Juneteenth, A Blues for Black Santa, the Gender Studies comic book series, and 1001 Black Men, featuring images from the online portrait series of the same name. Ajuan has participated in solo and group exhibitions from the Bay Area to Brooklyn. Both her scholarly writings and her art explore the relationship between race, gender, and representation. Ajuan is partly inspired by her teaching and research in U.S. Black literature and history. Her most recent scholarly book, Before Harlem: An Anthology of African-American Literature from the Long Nineteenth Century, was published in 2016. Her art has appeared in a number of publications and media sites, including The Women’s Review of Books, Cog Magazine, The San Francisco Chronicle, The New York Times, Buzzfeed.com, BET.com, SFGate.com, and KPIX.com. Her comics have appeared in the Alphabet and We’re Still Here anthologies, from Stacked Deck Press and the upcoming Drawing Power anthology, from Abrams Press.
Black Girls Create: What do you create?
In my work as a Professor in the English Department at Mills College, I describe myself as a literary historian of the Black nineteenth century. This means I teach and write about U.S. Black writers of the 1800s.
In my work as an artist, I create comics, paintings, drawings, and illustrations that use humor and lots of bright colors to explore the complexity of race and gender in the 21st century.
BGC: Why do you create?
In all honesty, I create because it’s what I’ve always done. Some of my earliest memories are memories of making art. I’ve often said that I’ve been an artist almost as long as I’ve been Black; and when you’ve been drawing and painting for that long, art simply becomes part of the way you experience and process your world. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration for me say that art helps me understand who I am.
BGC: Who is your audience?
There are two answers to this question. The first is that I create the art I want to see in the world, and I hope it resonates with other people. That said, while my art is really, truly for all audiences who find it compelling, I feel especially accountable to the people I depict in my work; and those are, for the most part, Black people and communities of color. In my comics and zines, I also depict the experiences of queer and trans folks of color, and I hope that these communities find my works relatable and reflective of some of their experiences.
BGC: Who or what inspired you to do what you do? Who or what continues to inspire you?
I take a lot of inspiration from people who are thriving in their art practice and who are creating work that I love. I try to learn from those who are doing some of the things I want to do. I am very much inspired by those artists who are doing interesting figurative work, as well as those who are using comics and other visual media to tell stories that center the experiences of people of color. Some living artists whose careers I actively follow are the visual artists Kerry James Marshall, Kara Walker, Iona Rozeal Brown, Paula Scher, and Mickalene Thomas. I am also very much inspired by the work of the comic creators John Jennings (co-creator of the graphic novel version of Octavia Butler’s Kindred), Thi Bui, Jimmie Robinson (some of whose work is set in the Bay Area), Spike Trotman, and Jillian Tamaki. I could list a whole lot more, but I’ll stop there.
By the same token I don’t know if I’d call it inspiration, but I was very much motivated as a developing artist by the support of my mom and dad. Even as an elementary and middle school student, my parents took my art as seriously as I did. I grew up in the New York area, and they took me to museums where I could study the work of others. They also took me to buy my supplies at the same stores where art school students shopped. All of this helped me to think of myself as a professional, even at a very young age.
BGC: What inspired you to become an English professor?
As an undergraduate, I was very much focused on earning an MFA and becoming a professor of creative writing. One day, though, one of my former advisors, Suzanne Woods, pulled me aside to discuss my plans for graduate school. She encouraged me to apply to PhD programs in English and to become a literature professor. She even told me where to apply. I changed course (away from the MFA), and I’ve never looked back.
BGC: Is there a connection between your work as a professor and your work as an artist?
There is a definite connection between my academic work and my art. Both forms of work revolve around the experiences of people of African descent. Also, in some ways, I use art as a research tool. I use art to explore issues and questions about Black life, Black history, and Black futures. My research in early African American literature and history has taught me a lot about the depth and breadth of Black creative experience (literature, art, and activism), and this directly feeds and informs my art. This knowledge of our long history of using creative work as a tool of resistance, celebration, and exploration has strengthened my sense of entitlement to a public voice.
BGC: How do you balance creating with the rest of your life?
I prioritize my art and illustration work, in order to make sure it doesn’t simply fall prey to the myriad other tasks demanding my attention. I think of the common financial advice that you should, “pay yourself first.” Prioritizing art is my way of doing that — of prioritizing the art practice that sustains me and helps me navigate my world.
BGC: You recently completed your 1001 Black Men Project. What inspired you to create this and how did you decide who to sketch?
The 1001 Black Men Project was inspired by my concern that even those Black-owned media outlets that seek to celebrate Black men seem to depict only the narrowest vision of what Black manhood and masculinity can be. I wanted to try my hand at creating a body of portraits of Black men that was truly representative of the full diversity of Black men’s experiences, aesthetics, classes, and identities. Initially, I started by drawing the men I noticed when I was out and about in the Bay Area. I drew the security guard at our local grocery store, the men I saw during my regular trips to the public library, the people seated near me during my annual trips to San Diego Comic Con. Then, around my 300th drawing, I started to use each century point (300 drawings, 400, 500, et cetera) as a check-in, to consider which constituencies I’d somehow left out, which groups of Black men seem to be over-represented, and why. Over time, I became more aware of my own biases and more intentional about depicting those Black male populations I’d somehow seemed to overlook.
BGC: Why is it important, as a Black woman, to create?
As Black women our lens on the present, the past, and the imagined future is critically important. Everyone benefits when a broader range of perspectives is represented, and the constellation of identities and experiences that shapes each of our lives as Black women gives every one of us a unique vision and creative imagination. In addition, art in any form — performing, visual, literary — can be a wonderfully sustaining and affirming practice, and Black women deserve to access every available avenue for affirmation, sustenance, and creativity.
BGC: Advice for young creators/ones just starting?
My advise for young creators is to commit yourself to your creative work. Do it every day, with little attention to what others might think. By the same token, pay attention to the work of others, learn from other artists, and allow their work to inspire you. Go to gallery shows, museums, and comic and zine fests. Be open to community and connection with other artists. Also, set goals and work toward them — a drawing each day, a finished comic, a collection of short stories, etc. Then celebrate with friends when you’ve reached that milestone. And celebrate yourself whenever you’ve created something new, something you like, or something that was hard for you.
BGC: Any future projects you’re working on?
I enjoy long-term projects that I can manage to sustain in 3-5 hours a day. I’m currently developing three projects. One is, Bay Area Heart and Soul: Black Artists in a Time of Change (with Filmmaker Pam Uzzell). I am creating a series of portraits of Bay Area Black artists (visual, performing, and literary), and I will be posting them on a website, in much the same way as I did with 1001 Black Men. The difference is that these portraits will also incorporate the words of the artists themselves. Pam Uzzell is creating short video interviews with roughly one in every 5 of the artists I’m drawing. Check All that Apply is a web-based comic strip about life as a Black nerd, and it’s inspired by events in my own life. I’ll be launching that project in early April. In addition, I’m working on a bi-monthly web comic about time travel. Stay tuned!