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Interview: Deja Patterson

1. Could you introduce yourself? When did you first encounter art as a viewer and as a maker? When did you decide that you would like to pursue an education and career in the arts?

I’m Deja N. Patterson and I’m a New York City based painter, originally from Mississippi. I’ve been interested in the visual arts from an early age. However growing up, I wasn’t familiar with many people who had prosperous careers as artists. I was under the impression that art was only a pastime and not something that people pursued seriously. I started undergrad as an Art major at Tougaloo College. By my sophomore year I was worried I wouldn’t find a “real job”. Pressured by my peers, I enrolled in a pre-nursing program. Where I’m from, nursing is seen as a career path destined for success. I was miserable for almost 2 years taking science courses and eventually left the pre-nursing program. I completed my Bachelor of Art in Art in 2017. That same year I got a golden opportunity to move to NYC for a fellowship at The Louis Armstrong House Museum. I always wanted to earn an MFA. So after the fellowship was over in 2018, I enrolled in the MFA program at Queens College. I graduated in the spring of 2020.

2. What were some of your positive and negative experiences being a plus-sized woman of color that prompted you to paint about your body and your identity? Do you perceive a hierarchy in society that is reinforced by a triple-layered glass ceiling for a woman who is also a person of color and also embodies an unconventional standard of beauty? Did this hierarchy render you invisible at times, and how did you turn the situation around so that you could project body positivity in your art?

I once went to a TV show taping with a friend. Unbeknownst to me at the time, producers seat people based on their looks. I’ve noticed that “attractive” people are placed towards the front and within the camera’s view. The further back you’re seated, the “less attractive” the producers think you are. Now of course this is an unwritten rule, and upon entry they discreetly categorize everyone. After attending numerous show tapings I realized what they were doing. One producer sat me and my friend together in the front. However another producer moved me towards the back and insisted that my thin white friend stay towards the front. This traumatizing experience was one of the many times I was openly fat shamed. It caused me to use my platform to uplift other fat people, especially fat Black women. I do agree that being fat, Black and a woman is a triple layer cake and each part of my identity does present challenges. I do feel as there used to be a lack of representation in the media. But in the past few years with the body positivity movement, I’m seeing more and more representation which is good.

3. What is the nature of beauty in your view? Is there an objective standard of beauty, or is beauty in the eye of the beholder? Does beauty lie in the physical attributes of a person, the inner character of the person, or both? Where is the beauty of a person to be found? Does it exist not on a particular set of traits or conventions, but rather on a spectrum, allowing for a diverse range of opinions and perspectives?

Well I see beauty in myself, so I tend to gravitate towards people who look like me, Black people and women. I also see beauty in others who are complete opposite from myself. As cliché as it sounds I think beauty lies within, because after all, our bodies are only shells.

4. How did your quest to redefine beauty and project body positivity make you question the commonly accepted standards of beauty and the nature of truth in general? Is the prescription of beauty standards an arbitrary social construct, like money or even fame? But if the constructs are arbitrary, what is the trigger or the condition that allows this specific kind of beauty standard (which is dominated by western standards) to propagate in the first place?

I don’t think that I am redefining beauty. Because whether my body is accepted or not in society doesn’t change my own self reflection. I know that I’m beautiful whether I’m 300 pounds or 150 pounds. And I’m not trying to convince others of what I already know. I’ve always had high self-esteem and high confidence while being overweight my entire life. I think that women are critiqued in a way that they could never achieve “perfection”. I think that the standards are a result of deep rooted misogyny. We as women try to fix ourselves so that we are desirable to men. I think that misogyny is a problem in cultures worldwide.

Beauty is most definitely a social construct that is always evolving, always changing. Even in the past 20 years. Let’s jog our memories back to the early 2000s. Britney Spears who was barely over 100 pounds had a very desirable figure at that time. Fast forward to now, in the age of Instagram and altered bodies, they’d say she’s too thin. Nowadays, we see the influx of “Insta baddies” who are surgically enhanced with artificial curves and tucked in tummies. I’m not telling people what to do with their bodies and if they decide to modify themselves that’s their choice. I’m just saying that no matter what you do or how you look the standard of beauty will change. I’m using my platform to encourage others not to play into the unattainable standards.

5. How does your art successfully reverse the power relations of what is traditionally considered beautiful and what is not in the West (and in the East)? How important is it that artists such as yourself attack and break down the western and eastern obsession with slim bodies and light skin by showing that women who are plus-sized and colored are also beautiful beyond the limited “traditional” conception of beauty?

In all honesty I’m not super familiar with eastern culture enough to break it down and give a full analysis. LOL

6. What is the link between the standards of beauty and racism? Why do you think physical appearance matters so much to a racist person?

Black women are often the subject in my work and I think that our bodies and skin are beautiful. For centuries Black women have been subjected to European beauty standards. In the American south during the age of slavery, light skinned Black women and dark skin Black women were ultimately divided. White slave owners created a division between Blacks, with the notion that, the closer you are to whiteness the better you were. With whiteness being the pinnacle of course. Light skinned women were given certain privileges such as doing house work versus working in the fields with the dark skinned women. And of course the lighter women were perceived as prettier. The thinner your nose was and the finer your hair was, the prettier you were. Some of these standards bleed into the 21st century. There’s an ongoing comparison of skin complexions within the Black community that really needs to die! The European beauty standards inflicted on Black people can trigger self-hatred. And I’m not here for it!

7. How do you use visual metaphors to assert power and beauty at the same time? What is the magic behind the painting that shows you eating a cereal of “little racist bastards?” How did you conceive of this visual metaphor?

As an artist in my mid-20s I think it’s safe to say that I am heavily influenced by hip-hop culture. The concept for that painting was based off of the lyrics from a Kanye West song called, “Jesus Walks”.

The lyrics are as follows:

“I walk through the valley of the Chi where death is

Top floor the view alone will leave you breathless *gasps*

Try to catch it *gasps* it's kinda hard

Getting choked by detectives, yeah, yeah, now check the method

They be askin' us questions, harass and arrest us

Sayin' "We eat pieces of shit like you for breakfast"

Huh? Y'all eat pieces of shit?

What's the basis?

We ain't going nowhere but got suits and cases”

I thought it would be interesting to put a spin on the lyrics. In society white police officers often serve as authoritative figures. So, in the painting I made myself the larger figure to play on power dynamics. It was quite satisfying to reduce the police officers to almost nothingness. So in my head while painting this piece, I imagined a conversation with a racist officer saying, “No we (Black people) eat pieces of shit like you for breakfast!”

This painting was created in the summer of 2020, amidst the uprisings following the murder of George Floyd. I also felt as if this was my way of coping as a Black person amidst the protests and violence. While also saying FTP!

8. Is engaging in the topic of beauty ultimately self-defeating or self-empowering? How does your art critique the society’s obsession with beauty which in the end reduces a woman’s value to her physical appearance, yet at the same time engage in the dialogue to shape the perception of beauty so that the society is more accepting of different body sizes and skin color? Where do you see the balance?

I think that engaging in the topic is most definitely self empowering. When I first moved to New York City I didn’t know many other plus sized people. However, when I began posting my work online to Instagram, I was able to network and virtually meet other people who looked like myself. It was like a sense of community that I didn’t have prior to making art about my experiences as a fat person.

Through this virtual network I feel empowered through the representation on my timeline. I feel as if women aren’t allowed to be sexual creatures. Especially fat women. And I’m challenging the perception. Also as a woman I don’t feel as if I have been reduced to my physical appearance. I’m much more than a plush body and big boobs.

9. What is a healthy kind of conception and consumption of beauty? The western society (in particular, America) is consumerist, capitalist, and competitive, based on the logic of domination that allows the “winner” to take all from the “loser” by the virtue of being the “winner.” How would such a society change course to a more healthy mode of consumption and engagement with beauty?

I think that society should focus on greater tasks at hand. With the problems going on in the world, I really think that someone’s physical attributes should be an afterthought. As a player in the body positivity movement I see myself trying to get people to accept themselves and not to play into unrealistic standards.

10. Is beauty actually fully attainable, or is it similar to the concept of justice, which is not attainable but always in the process of being attained? Can someone who proclaims to be or is proclaimed to be beautiful become ugly by the nature of his or her arrogance or superficiality of the claim? What makes being humble and authentic an important part of being beautiful? How does a person’s character influence his or her beauty and vice versa?

Like I said earlier, beauty is never fully attainable. I once saw a meme that said, “We are all ugly to someone”. I don’t think anyone likes an arrogant person, myself included. One thing that I’ve learned in life is that no matter how high you are, you can always come down. I think the incomparable losses we have witnessed during the COVID 19 pandemic has shown us all that. Humility is important, and my grandmother used to say “You know where you’ve been, but you don’t know where you're going." In the wise words of Kendrick Lamar, “Be Humble. Sit down.”

11. What is your goal as an artist? What are your next steps? Where do you see yourself in 10 or 20 years?

A major goal of mine is to widely distribute my works to people who can appreciate them. A professor in undergrad once told me that paintings live up to their fullest potential when they are on display. If I were to keep all of my works, they’d probably be stored in a closet. I’d love to see people enjoy the works as much as I do and continue to enjoy them when I’m long gone. I understand that ultimately the art world is a business. But I’d like to see people who couldn’t normally afford fine art receive my works as well. Regardless of their financial status I think that they deserve to own them as well. So in 10-20 years I’d like to be at a place where I didn’t have to worry about supporting myself with art sales. I’d want to be able to produce work for everyone regardless of their ability to pay. I don’t do art in the hopes of financial gain or notoriety. I do it because it’s something I love!

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Very grateful to see more artists of color here. Also looking at issues of body positivity is a huge step in art practices and dialogues :). Thanks for sharing this lovely interview.

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