Ariel Dannielle’s self-portraits put everyday Black life on full display

Rosalind Bentley, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, November 24, 2020

There can be something affirming about walking into spaces and seeing people like you.


Ariel Dannielle, 29, grew up in metro Atlanta seeing other Black people day in and day out. But her art and art history lessons at the University of West Georgia almost never included Black creators. She doesn’t remember seeing the work of Black artists on museum visits as a kid. This is why, in many ways, it’s fitting that her first solo show at the Museum of Contemporary Art of Georgia (MOCAGA), “It Started So Simple,” is a reflection of the world Dannielle inhabits. She is young. She is Black. She is doing ordinary things with her friends. Those are images worthy of representation yet all too often absent from the galleries of major and mid-sized museums and galleries. The show is the culmination of Dannielle’s fellowship at MOCAGA as part of the Working Artists Project, which is awarded annually to three up-and-coming and established metro Atlanta artists. Each fellow gets a solo exhibition at the end of their tenure. Dannielle’s show runs now through Jan. 16.


Here, Dannielle talks about representation, becoming an artist and the importance of sushi.

A: I grew up in the whole Tumblr-MySpace age, when I was just really intrigued by internet artists. I couldn’t even give you names at this point, but I was really inspired by the people I was seeing online who were doing really cool stuff. But the first artist who I remember who resonated with me was Frida (Kahlo). I went to the University of West Georgia and — like, no shade — but I really didn’t learn about Black artists at all while I was there. I connected with Frida, wholly, because she was a woman of color. She started me thinking like self-portraits can be a thing. Then we had a project where my professor wanted us to create a self-portrait, but do it in the style of Alice Neel. So, I did all this research on her (Neel). I looked at her work. I watched a documentary about her. I just fell in love with her work. That really made me get into portraits and acrylic painting.

Q: The artist Fahamu Pecou often talks about how he began as an artist: as a child sketching Saturday morning cartoons. When did you know your path would be through the visual arts?


A: From a young age, I would do the same thing. But for me, it was with comics and anime, specifically “Sailor Moon.” I was very obsessive. Elementary, middle school, I would make “Sailor Moon” sketchbooks where I would draw the characters and try to make it look as close to the real deal as possible. And then I also used to do it heavily with the Archie comic books that you used to be able to buy at the grocery store. I was just fascinated with the female characters: Betty and Veronica and Josie and the Pussycats. But I didn’t know I was going to pursue this as a career. A lot of artists are like, “I knew from day one I was going to be an artist.” That was definitely not the case for me. I didn’t realize it until I was in college that that’s what I wanted to do.


Q: Can you talk about the first museum or gallery experience you ever had and what that meant to you?


A: Being born and raised in Georgia, my first experience like really seeing art was at the High Museum in Atlanta. I don’t really think I really went to galleries before. Going to the High, I didn’t even know that I wanted to be (an artist) fully back then. I was just purely enjoying any type of art, the abstract art, the sculptures, the installation pieces, just all of it. But now looking back, I’m like it would have been nice to have seen some Black figures. Imagine what impact that would have had on me back then when I was like a teenager.


Q: In your artist’s statement, you say that in some ways you look at your work as an act of resistance against racism. But is it exhausting creating in a space where racism is a factor, if not directly in the work you create, but in how it affects your life?


A: That’s such a good question you asked me right now because I have been questioning myself on that exact question. When I wrote that artist statement, I was in a very angry place, because George Floyd was happening, and the Black Lives Matter movement was happening. But it is how I felt and still feel. I want to create work that makes people feel good. I want to be that artist who’s not only just creating work that’s based around racism and trauma. I’m trying to show Black joy. Black joy is a way of thriving. So, it is a lot to unpack. Because even if you say, “I just wanted to paint portraits. I’m just a Black artist who wants to paint portraits, and I don’t want them to mean anything,” they’re going to mean something because they’re Black artists painting Black figures. It’s a lot. I’m still battling with that. But I do think any artist, no matter your race, should be able to paint or create what you want to create. But I think it is hard as a Black artist because history will show that Black art very much was surrounded by and about revolution and progression and resistance.