Aug 25 2020

#MeetTheArtists: Showing Art on Social Media

by Fion Tse

Illustration by UMAIMAH DAMAKKA. Image via the artist’s Twitter.

The Covid-19 pandemic has seen museums, galleries, and auction houses scramble to move artwork and communications online in an attempt to preserve viewership. However, a large art community, ranging from well-established illustrators to beginner and hobby artists, has long existed online on social media. 

In the notoriously impenetrable art world of white walls and velvet ropes, social media opens doors for independent artists to bypass institutional mediators like galleries or auction houses in order to reach an audience of their own. Social media artists upload works onto Twitter, Instagram, or Tumblr, much like a regular social media user would craft a Tweet or post. Unlike the square-cropped details of Picassos or Cézannes that institutions upload, however, the works posted onto social media are often not a copy that is better seen in person but the original work. In a similar vein, comments and replies allow artists to interact directly with their audience rather than through the mouthpiece of a PR team. Though they are far from artistic utopia, social media platforms allow freer expression and amplify disempowered voices, challenging norms and hierarchies.

Artists such as Umaimah Damakka, also known as ColouredBraids, and Christine Mari create self-representing art that reshapes narratives by turning the spotlight onto marginalized identities and stories, unsettling longstanding institutional and curatorial privileging of white, male, heterosexual voices and contexts. Umaimah, currently a student at the Savannah College of Art and Design in Atlanta, has over 27,000 followers on Twitter and Instagram; Christine Mari, a Japanese American artist on Instagram, is slated to release her self-produced, crowdfunded art book in early 2021.

Illustration by UMAIMAH DAMAKKA. Image via the artist’s Twitter.
Illustration by UMAIMAH DAMAKKA. Image via the artist’s Twitter.
Illustration “My Kickstarter is Now Live!” by CHRISTINE MARI. Image via the artist’s Instagram.
Illustration “My Kickstarter is Now Live!” by CHRISTINE MARI. Image via the artist’s Instagram.

Umaimah has a Twitter archive of “sapphic artworks” that feature women of color and fictional characters, like the cartoon Adventure Time’s Marceline and Princess Bubblegum, carefree and in love. Her work depicting the main characters of Rafiki (2018), a Kenyan romance film about two young women, was shared over 1,000 times, and a recent series introducing four original characters follows the storyline of three lesbians, all jilted by the same girl, who come together to form a punk band. Characterized by bright palettes and cartoon-like expressiveness, Umaimah’s art exists in a romantic world of simple, day-to-day queer love and intimacy, created by and for LGBTQ people of color (POC). While outwardly negative LGBTQ media representation has shrunk over the past decade, much of it, especially for POC, remains superficial—diverse LGBTQ POC identities are flattened to characterizations as sidekicks and comic relief, or as a vector for the growth of a white, cisgender, and heterosexual protagonist. Through her art, Umaimah, a Black lesbian, combats that by creating a space that foregrounds and celebrates LGBTQ POC experiences. 

On the other hand, Christine Mari focuses on the difficulties of living with mental illness. In a series of black-and-white panels, she says: “I experienced anxiety so paralyzing that I couldn’t move or sleep / Then I fell into a deep depression, and all I could do was sleep / In 2018 I experienced more sadness than I thought was humanly possible / Until I didn’t feel anything at all.” Her line illustrations and blocky letters convey a profound and unencumbered honesty. The weighty topics of ethnicity, mental health, family, and belonging make frequent appearances in her monochromatic panels, and are often buoyed by undercurrents of hope, love, and connection. In a comic about struggling to be strong despite still feeling like a child, Mari ends with an illustration of herself as a child leading adult Christine out of a dark room with the caption: “Maybe we’ve always been stronger than we think.” It’s her ability to simultaneously acknowledge and break down these huge, universal feelings that’s earned her thousands of fans, one of whom commented on a recent post: “These comics stir something in me. I remember reading them when I was truly not well in the past, and feeling comforted that I was not alone. I am quite well now, but I still feel comforted . . . because we are never alone.”

Illustration “never ask me for anything ever again” by EJ CHONG. Image via the artist’s Twitter.

Artists also use their platforms to share personal experiences and boost issues that matter to them, becoming part of a larger internet movement toward representation of non-mainstream voices and communities. Illustrator, comic artist, and graphic designer EJ Chong shares posts and links in support of Black Lives Matter (BLM), feminism in Korea, and saving the United States Postal Service, interspersed with humorous tweets and comics about their everyday life as a Korean American artist, as well as text conversations with friends and the occasional selfie. EJ Chong’s social media-slash-art platform provides a space for community and learning, far beyond what their art alone might be able to provide. 

Filipina artist Sai also extends her Twitter platform beyond art-sharing, choosing to promote other artists to build a robust art community on Twitter. While she also tweets about Filipinx and LGBTQ culture and politics, a scroll of her homepage reveals that the majority of her non-art posts are retweets of other artists’ work or their online stores and commissions. Many of her posts, both original and shared, are annotated with #artph, a hashtag created to increase visibility for the Filipinx art community on Twitter. Online art communities can be valuable resources for budding artists trying to find their footing, where people share career tips, art-school experiences, job openings, fundraisers, or other forms of mutual support and promotion.

Instagram-based artist duo Sacrée Frangine directly engage in activism by making banners for BLM. In their earth-toned, minimalist compositions of dark-skinned people overlaid with “Black Lives Matter,” the duo ties their representation of marginalized communities inextricably to a call for political action. One of their works, a pastel banner with the BLM hashtag stretched across the featureless faces of three women of color, has been widely used in online campaigns and inspired other BLM art. By allowing free use of their works, the two Frangines, as the artists call themselves, translate their creative practice to sociopolitical change.

Illustration by SACRÉE FRANGINE. Image via the artist’s Instagram.

While some artists thrive in an online space, it’s clear that social media was not designed for experiencing art. In the vast space of the internet, discovering new artists is like looking for plankton in the Pacific—they’re everywhere but hard to see. Algorithms, especially on Twitter and Instagram, run on the currency of views and engagement, thus disadvantaging newcomers and those with smaller followings in a vicious cycle that only amplifies heard voices. Information studies scholar Safiya Umoja Noble also uncovered links between algorithmic privileging and racial and gender-based discrimination, as explored in her 2018 book Algorithms of Oppression. It’s worth asking: when it’s so pervasive yet inconspicuous, is algorithmic privileging truly less of a problem than institutional privileging? Even when artists are seen and heard, the fast-paced nature of social-media consumption risks making art yet another thing for viewers to scroll past mindlessly, in contrast to the careful contemplation encouraged in museums and galleries. 

Social media is also changing the monetization of art. Unlike works showcased in galleries and auction houses, art shared on social media platforms is, by nature, shared for free with little expectation of monetary return (unless it is a paid collaboration). While an increasing number of artists do manage an online store or a Ko-fi (a platform where people can tip artists for their work), posting art on social media is by no means lucrative. More often than not, art is shared on social media as a pastime or as a way to build exposure and, hopefully, an audience base. With a secure audience online, artists are empowered to create outside of systemic boundaries, bypassing the challenges of managing a traditional brick-and-mortar shop or currying gallery representation or an institutional commission. The aim isn’t always money, though—as freelance artist PerciPeony tweeted, “Supporting an artist is free . . . Hyping us up [through likes, shares, and comments] makes us as happy as you commissioning us.” 

Despite its flaws and loopholes, social media undeniably hands the reins back to artists, inspiring a diverse array of content creators and removing the caveat of palatability that comes with institutional sponsorship. Especially in a pandemic with many hungry for connection, virtual art on social media nullifies the physical distance between art, artists, and viewers. With its accessibility and global reach, social media is gaining traction as an alternative art platform that recognizes and celebrates marginalized identities. 

Fion Tse is an editorial intern at ArtAsiaPacific.

To read more of ArtAsiaPacific’s articles, visit our Digital Library.