Janathel Shaw Celebrates Black Lives

By Christina Sturdivant on February 18, 2015
Janathel Shaw with drawing from exhibit, “Unspoken Messages: The Art of Janathel Shaw,” on display at the Touchstone Gallery. (Photo courtesy of the artist).


Michael Brown. John Crawford. Tamir Rice. By now, at least one of these names is familiar to anyone who has watched the news over the last year.

You may not know their backgrounds, but you at least know that they were unarmed, African American young men who were slain at the hands of the police. You at least know–that along with others like Eric Garner and Trayvon Martin–they’ve sparked a series of multi-cultural protest from Los Angeles to the nation’s capital.

You at least know that in the wake of these tragic deaths, some people still believe that black lives matter. Janathel Shaw is one of those people.

A Washington, DC based artist, Shaw’s work is grounded in issues affecting African American life, particularly single parenting, spirituality, racism and racial pride.

Her new exhibit, Unspoken Messages: the Art of Janathel Shaw, is no different.

“I was really moved by what happened with the pattern of events of young men losing their lives recently and it inspired me to [create] a new body of work,” says Shaw.

Presented as a memorial to the deceased, the exhibit’s signature piece, Future Deferred, is a ceramic form of a black male, stately and dignified.

“I wanted to focus on work that showed them a little more human–to have people to start thinking of them in generic terms as human beings and children and to see them in that light; that they’re just individuals,” she says.

As a single mother, Shaw also wanted the collection to encapsulate the emotions of parents of color who send their children out into the world each day, with the possibility of facing discrimination, bigotry or worse.

As a child and even as an adult, she recalls having conversations with her son about race, society and politics. “I don’t know of any black parent who hasn’t and if they haven’t, they’re naive. We’re being put in a position where we have to bare it all–it’s just expected that we have to deal with these levels of indignities,” she says. “Many of our young men have no idea what they’re having to deal with, the burden of carrying themselves with dignity, always watching themselves, worrying about being perceived as beast of burden or potential predator. They have to live in that world and get by.”

The show is not meant to be a somber one, she says. It is meant to be meaningful. In all of its artistic beauty, it is also meant to ignite a serious conversation about race relations in America–a topic that is often whispered about behind closed doors.

Moreover, the exhibition is a personal representation of Shaw’s love affair with her craft. Primarily a sculptor, she loves the medium of clay–its texture, its moldability, its messiness–most of all, she appreciates the creative process.

“When I’m creating, I’m in my own world,” she says. “I can sit down and work on something for hours and try to solve something. It feeds me.”

Shaw’s appetite for art dates back to her earliest memories. She loved art in grade school. When she came home from school, she’d watch her Uncle Ray create. It’s all she did and all she wanted to do.

Her mother was an educator who exposed her to culture in DC at the Kennedy Center, galleries and museums. She was introduced to artists like Elizabeth Catlett, who became her inspiration along with Robert Arneson, Frida Kahlo and Augusta Savage.

She attended Duke Ellington School of the Arts, where many of her teachers inspired her as practicing artists themselves.

She went on to attend Prince George’s Community College where she received an associate degree in Art in 1987. This was followed by her Bachelor’s of Science in 1989 and Master’s of Fine Art in 1996 from George Washington University.

Throughout her career, she’s been cited in numerous publications including Studio Potter, The Washington Post, The Baltimore Sun, the Washington Times, The City Paper (Baltimore), The Washington Afro-American Newspaper, Ceramics Monthly and Ceramic Review. She has also won several sculpture and painting awards, as well as several grants to curate exhibitions and provide workshops for elementary and secondary schools.

When she’s not in her studio, Shaw is in a classroom full of teenagers. For about 18 years, she’s taught art and is currently employed in the DC public school system.

As an educator, she seeks to engage and captivate her youth, who are not students but detectives.

“I try to get them to really appreciate art in terms of the intent, the craftsmanship and the study,” she says. “I try to get them to start investigating art the same way they would any subject matter and to try to make it their own and try to discover it.”

Much like her work, she integrates social and political themes into her course as she pushes her students to find meaning.

“I think that is my role with the work that I do at this point,” she says. “It’s not simply working on a particular technique, but its much more than that. It’s trying to get them to tie art into the real world and seeing it as a cultural form of expression that is intrinsic to our culture. Long after many things die, we still have our art.”

Unspoken Messages: the Art of Janathel Shaw will be on view at Touchstone Gallery until March 1.  Details can be found HERE.