The Inspirations Of St. Louis Artist Eugenia Alexander
St. Louis-based visual artist Eugenia Alexander is a storyteller. However, it’s the language of saturated color, bold patterns and geometric lines that she uses, often unpacking her African heritage with paintings, quilts, textile designs and dye work that reference African and Native American textile designs. She also makes use of cosmic and Afrofuturist imagery, the closest thing to looking at both the past and future at the same time.
Read on for our conversation with Alexander about her foray into natural African indigo dyeing, how the current social climate affects her work and how she has been shaped by experience.
What kind of narratives are you interested in, and how do you translate them into a visual form?
I’m very inspired by Afrofuturism. For those that are not familiar with this genre, Afrofuturism is Black/Afro-Caribbean science fiction. I absolutely love science fiction. When I was a little girl, my father and I would watch Star Trek together and science fiction movies—it was our thing, and still is. It’s our time to bond. But once I got older I started to question, “Where are the Black people in these films and TV shows? Or, “Why are there only one or two Black people in these films, and even then they always end up dying?” I wanted to see a film or read a book where the black figure was the hero, the last one standing. It wasn’t until I found the genre of Afrofuturism that I found that—and so much more! As I read books like “Mothership: Tales of Afrofuturism and Beyond” by Bill Campbell and “Bloodchild” by Octavia E. Butler, I could see my artwork included in the narrative. I was inspired. I started listening to musicians like Sun Ra while painting, reading up on and researching visual artists like Jean-Michel Basquiat and Rammellzee. I’d look up what they liked to read and artists they liked, and their influences. I would say that this genre is definitely a big influence in my work.
You’re influenced by African and Native American textile patterns and designs. What draws you to those designs, and how do they inspire your work?
It’s a funny story about how I was drawn to Native American patterns. I was at the library in my hometown, where they always have a rack or two of books for 10 or 25 cents. I always look through, because you never know—you might just find a gem in there for 10 cents. I came across the book “Symbols of Native America.” I’ve always been intrigued and inspired by the oral and visual storytelling of Native Americans. But it wasn’t until I got this book and opened it that I was just in awe of what I was seeing. There were symbols that I was already painting, and I just couldn’t believe it. Of course I had made different meanings of my symbols, but it was just very spiritual for me to have found this book of native geometric language.
I’ve also always been intrigued and inspired by African Art. It’s a part of my history and culture and heritage. Growing up, I would visit my grandparents every summer. Their house is filled with African artwork, and my grandfather wears nothing but African textiles. Seeing my grandparents so proud of their culture inspired me, and it’s the reason why I’m so prideful of being Black and a descendant of Africa. I have my grandparents to thank for that. I do a lot of research about African countries and tribes simply because—well, we weren’t taught about our culture in schools, and unless you are a first-generation or an African native, we don’t really know our culture unless we do the research ourselves. But years ago, while I was going through my grandparents’ books of African countries and tribes, I came across a tribe called Ndebele, and I just drooled in awe over their artwork, which was on their houses. It’s gorgeous. I was definitely inspired by their intricate line work and bold colors.
What draws you to the celestial imagery of the sun and moons present in many of your paintings, and what meaning do those images hold for you?
I believe that energy plays a big role in our lives. We are made of energy, so it only makes sense that we give off energy and receive energy from other beings, people and the universe. I’m a firm believer that if you put out good energy you’ll receive that energy back in every area of your life, and vice versa.
Browsing through your Instagram account, it looks like you’ve been doing a lot of indigo dyeing lately. Is that something new for you?
I have an apprenticeship with a master textile artist, and I’m learning how to indigo dye and batik dye. I specifically wanted to learn how to indigo dye because I wanted to learn a traditional African art form. It wasn’t until I started my apprenticeship that I started to really research the history of indigo and its place during the Atlantic slave trade. It’s so much more special to me, knowing its history.
Does our current political and social climate impact your work?
Definitely. With what’s going on right now, I feel it’s a time for me and other Black creatives to keep creating and to keep that magic shining bright and to speak out through our art form.
What are you working on right now?
Right now, I’m working on a range of things. I’ve slowed down on painting and have gotten more into textile work. I’m working on a quilt series called “Who Am I.” It’s a collection of quilted faces of different African American people and figures with either a story of my own or stories that the viewer comes up with. I’m also starting a project researching and telling the story of Indigo and gold during the Atlantic Slave Trade through textile works. I also want to tell more of a story of my cultural history with an Afrofuturism twist to it—that’s where I see my work heading.
Photography courtesy of Eugenia Alexander.