The Most Love: An interview with artist Amina Harper

The Most Love: An interview with artist Amina Harper

Published February 12th, 2020 by Gabby Coll

Queer, black, and femme characters find intimacy in this painter's wild world which, in her words, is much bigger than beige.

Local painter Amina Harper, known for her fantastically whimsical and intimate paintings, was born and raised in Minneapolis. She briefly attended art school in Portland before her grandmother’s illness brought her back home and has now established herself as a freelance artist in the Twin Cities. Recently I got to sit down with her, and in the spirit of love, we talked about intimacy, her process for creating fantastical creatures and environments, the queerness of color, and why connection is important. 

This interview has been edited for clarity and length. 

Gabby Coll: MPLSART profiled you in 2018 – what’s happened since then? 

Amina Harper: So much has changed. When I did that interview I wasn’t ready. I didn’t have a voice. I had just started working in acrylic paint (self-taught; I worked in watercolor before), and I didn’t have an identity as a painter in that medium yet. I was painting animals and fruits so I could teach myself those skills. 

Now that I basically have acrylic painting down and have the skills and tools and space to make it happen, I can really paint the things I want to paint and say the things I want to say.

What are those stories you want to tell? 

So many stories. Right now, I’m really into queer, black, and femme stories. You don’t see them often in the media, and because of this, I have the freedom to literally do whatever I want. They can be as fantastical, as romantic, and as exciting as I want them to be. I want people to look at the work and not be sure what’s happening all the time. I want to create something completely new that’s never existed before. 

All of my work is a little fantastical and always has been, so it’s not terribly outside of the box for me. The size and scale and composition are a little different than I’m used to. But I’m accustomed to building a piece from the ground up; I don’t take photographs of figures and repaint them, I just figure draw from the ground-up. I might pose a figure a little bit, and I work from reference photos. My phone has nothing but references pulled from the internet and real life; they’re weird and they don’t make any sense, but they make sense to me because I know why I have them. 

Amina Harper, Reflections Eternal, acrylic on canvas, 2020.

So are most of your paintings kind of an amalgam of your fantastical ideas, these stories you want to tell, your reference photos, and your real life too?

Yeah, kind of. There’s one painting I recently made of two women kissing. One of them is human, the other one looks like an alien of some sort. They’re sitting in front of a large table that’s filled with food. I wanted to take all of the Zodiac signs and turn them into meals, each sign as a different food item. The women are kissing, and it looks like they’re on a date. 

People have been getting really into Zodiacs lately, and compatibility, and my way of looking at it is that you really can have your pick of whomever. Your chart is just something you reference, but it really makes all of our options [in relationships] feel so vast. It was fun picking the meals, creating them and figuring out what food represented which sign. Sometimes other things like the utensils would represent the signs, like a spoon in the shape of a scorpion.

I’m curious about your process. I was looking on your Instagram, and you share many phases of your drawings which then turn into paintings. What compels you to do this in your practice? 

I love the behind-the-scenes stuff. I actually like seeing that more than the finished product. The final product is never going to change that much, whereas the behind the scenes is always a work in progress, it’s always alternating and moving to fit the vision. I am interested in how the process moves. 

It’s also a really intimate process to share. I think that’s what people like about my Instagram. I show you literally how I start from the transfer and step-by-step all the way to the final piece. You get to watch it and grow with it, and it feels like you’re participating in the piece. 

Another big thing about this process of my work is that I have a record of where I started, so if I have to protect or maintain a line while I’m in the process, I can go back to reference it. 

Top: Preliminary sketch the artist shared on Instagram. Bottom: A Pocket of Light, acrylic on canvas, 2019.

Your work is fantastical, humanistic, it’s about relationships…we also talked about food and Zodiacs. You say you have all these ideas of what to create; how do you select the subject matter for your next painting? 

My goal is intimacy. The more touch, the more eye contact, the more intense or romantic a piece is, the more interested I am in realizing it. I used to do solitary figures exclusively. Now I’m acknowledging that what I want in my life are relationships. I recently learned about the Seven Greek Loves and thought ‘wow, that is a very decolonized, queer way of looking at love and relationships.’ I liked the idea of not having to look for one type of person who is supposed to be the most important and who validates all of our everything all at once. We have to validate ourselves. A lover should not complete you. They should give you something extra. I want to create those types of ecosystems in my art.

We live in a very lonely time. Work makes us lonely. But it’s also how we frame relationships. We work toward the ideal of something that doesn’t really exist: the perfect job, the perfect house, the perfect partner who wants to have the perfect family with us, and who wants to be with us forever until we both die. That’s kind of insane. That’s a lot to expect from one person and why so many relationships fall apart. 

I firmly believe in using social media to create real-world relationships. The goal is to build a foundation that we take into the real world. It’s hard, we all do it, we all alienate ourselves. But we also do need those connective relationships and people. The art changes to reflect that –letting new people in. Right now it just all looks kind of sexual [laughs]. Not everything, some stuff that doesn’t, some stuff is just sweet. 

Tell me about that line between erotica and intimacy; the nuance of those kinds of relationships. You’ve talked about queerness too; I’m curious about what you’re interested in exploring in your work.

I love intimacy. I love seeing it, experiencing it, and I enjoy portraying it. Hands are my favorite thing to draw. They’re one of the most intimate tools we have. In my paintings with multiple figures, everyone is touching. It’s joyous touch, it’s consensual touch. 

I think that people are afraid of stuff like this, scared because they want it so badly. It involves vulnerability and courage. It involves setting yourself up to be rejected and we all want to be powerful in our relationships. That might be a Western thing, but it’s very exhausting. We all feel like we want to be powerful but what we really want is to be loved. And we feel like we have to manipulate or fight our way through it somehow. 

This plays into the alienation (from ourselves, each other). It’s frustrating. Being in relationships with people where you feel like you aren’t valid. Black women experience this. It took me so long…outside of my family, growing up, I never felt seen, or beautiful, or valid or important to anyone. Once I got outside into the world, I was invisible, or so visible that I was objectified. It taught me that this was my only value. 

White supremacy has a way of disconnecting you from yourself and from your community. It disconnected me from other black women and queer and femme people. Everything around me told me that this body, and everyone else who inhabits one that is similar to it, are undesirable and unworthy. That if I want to be desirable and worthy, I have to attach myself to the bodies of people that are. I am moving my way towards getting over that. Thank god. 

It’s painful to be disconnected from yourself and from your tribe in that way. I think painting black women for me has become a way of connecting. Those women are me. They’re also other women and other queers and other femme people like me.

Tell me more about how you’re working through that in your work.

I just needed to see people who looked like me being valued and validated. The sad part is, the reason they’re always mythological creatures is because I can’t see other humans doing it. The reason why this werewolf is here is because humans don’t love black women, but this werewolf does. 

Basically, I’ve created a world where the people who are the least loved get the most love in the most magical and fantastical ways. I will create a love that is the most magical, the most powerful, the most intense, the most romantic and wind-sweeping, wave-crashing, epic love that I can think of. Because if I see it and can show it, then maybe that will change something. 

Amina Harper, Euphoria, acrylic on canvas, 2019.

That’s what I was going to ask; is this you creating this world as a vision for the future? Or is it a survival tactic? Or both? 

Probably all of it. I like the idea of creating worlds that no one has ever seen before and that people don’t get to see often. That opens the world up a little bit more to these ideas and these stories.

I’ve had people who flat out don’t understand the work. I can’t do anything about that, but it’s made me more cautious about who does understand, and that those people are valuable. They are valuable because they understand that experience. That’s who I make the work for besides myself. 

I’m curious about your writing; tell me about the relationship between writing and art-making. 

I incorporate the two. Before I paint anything, I write down what the piece is, what all the characters are going to look like, where they’re going to be in relation to each other. Writing happens the whole way through. If I have an idea in my head and it’s something I’ve never seen before, I’ll write about why it needs to exist, or why I want it to exist. To give it that extra tangibility, that validity; it’s real, it matters because I want to make it real. 

Anything else you want us to know? 

I feel like people are afraid to ask me weird questions. I think there’s not enough weird, intimate art in this state, specifically. I think people want to see it; they crave it. But it’s not normalized.

Color is super important to me. It’s extremely queer: color, rhinestones, flowers, glistening water that’s the color of sapphires… people are freaked out by that. They think it’s tacky or gaudy or campy. To me, those are the queerest things you can be. Show out. Show people the world is bigger than beige. Be as grand as you possibly want or dare to be. Inspire other people to do the same. I think everyone wants to do that, but the world says no because white supremacy shames all of those things: color, queerness, drama, beauty, romance, desire. But all of this is what makes us intrinsically human. 

To see more of Harper's work, visit the artist's website or follow her on Instagram.

Banner image: The Acquiescence of April (detail), acrylic on canvas, 2019.

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