When someone uses the phrase “pop art”, it tends to conjure immediate images of the famous works by artists like Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein and Peter Blake: bold primary colours, sensationalised comic strip style and the unique way of documenting pop culture. However, whilst considered to be an art movement that was groundbreaking in a number of ways, pop art remained invariably white, with white subjects dominating most of the works. One artist has been challenging this notion through his work which he refers to as “Afro-pop”. I caught up with Justice Dwight to talk about placing black beauty on canvas, dealing with sudden popularity, and how dropping out of school may have been the best thing for him.
“I feel like my work is just a social commentary on things that are going on, but I also want to represent black beauty on canvas as I feel like there’s lack of that, especially in the gallery scene”, says the 22-year old US-based artist. This is evident through the way in which he presents prominent pop culture figures such as Rihanna, Cardi B, FKA Twigs and Yara Shahidi with thick and clean line-work and bold hues. Alongside these celebrities, he also inserts blackness into everyday beloved children’s shows and characters such as Ash Ketchum from Pokemon and The Powerpuff Girls. However, what might be even more powerful is the way that Justice provides us with everyday black people, especially women. Some with headwraps, some with natural hair, all undeniably and unapologetically black. “I feel like people have been stealing from black culture for forever so l thought, well, let me just steal what’s theirs and make it ours. That was my main goal from the beginning and it has kind of spiraled into its own thing.”
What started off in his home in Richmond, Virginia has now spread far and wide with customers and fans of Justice’s work in different corners of the world including Amsterdam, Saudi Arabia and Mexico. “It’s humbling because you just really never know”, he comments. “I had no idea that people were into it like that and it makes me happy because it’s like wow, I must be really doing something.” The idea of never knowing really does ring true, considering that Justice had never planned to become an artist full-time. “I was in college for social work. It was very stressful; I hated the school, and I remember dropping out and thinking, ‘I don’t know how to do anything else.” He admits, “I’ve never done a 9-5 job, never been hired anywhere or applied to places so after dropping out of school, I was like, well, I know how to draw and just kind of kept at it”.
Keeping at it has led to Justice holding a number of pop up shops in Virginia as well as being featured on AFROPUNK though the freelance artist still aspires to do more including exhibits and shows in museums in New York or LA. However, throughout this journey, Justice remains determined to stay true to his art and stay committed to representing black beauty and strength, despite how easy it can be to become sidetracked or compare yourself to others in the art world. “We judge ourselves harshly. We look at what someone else is doing and think ‘I can’t do what they’re doing’ or ‘they’re better than me’ but in reality, you’re just being the best version of you. I think that’s the healthiest way to make it as an artist because when you believe in your work, other people will feel confident just from witnessing your confidence.”