- 03 Jun 20
‘Art can lift our spirits but it can also drain us’.
Charlot Kristensen’s illustrations have no problem standing out from the crowd. From the array of bright colours and striking line-work to the social justice themes and representation of black women; her talent is about more than just a pretty picture.
Kristensen grew up in a mixed family - with a Danish father and Zimbabwean mother, which she says has given her a broader understanding of the world. Nevertheless, her identity formation has been a struggle - growing up in one of Denmark’s small towns can be a lonely experience for a black woman. Her Irish journey began when she moved to Belfast at the age of 15 to study for a Diploma in Art and Design, with her family later moving to Dublin.
A major part of why Kristensen focuses on empowering and showcasing black people in her art is because of how frustratingly tough it was to find herself in the whitewashed media she consumed during her childhood.
Charlot began as a self-taught artist, picking up the pencil at nine years of age and never putting it down again. Her eclectic portfolio reflects a celebration of black culture as well as environmental inequality.
Drawing women of varying ethnicities into her work is a core part of the artist’s creative process, as Charlot has her own unique understanding of the empowerment of seeing figures like yourself reflected back to you in the art world.
The coronavirus has undoubtedly highlighted the stark healthcare injustices facing BAME communities, with these patients disproportionately affected by the virus. Her future work may well examine these consequences.
“It’s something that has definitely been in the back of my mind since the pandemic started. Black and brown communities have often been neglected by the health system even prior to this. There’s a lot of us who don’t have access to healthcare and there’s also a culture of not taking black and brown people’s health seriously,” Charlot says. “I’ve already seen examples of this in the US, and I do worry a lot about my own family, who both live in the UK and Zimbabwe. It’s true that these issues are not discussed as much as they should, which is also one of the reasons why I felt compelled to create illustrations about the Direct Provision system. I feel that art can really open up a discussion about people’s struggles.”
The pandemic is only likely to increase the struggles of minority communities, and creatives are among those in the most unstable financial situations. With the unemployment rate set to hit a staggering 22%, the focus has turned towards the Irish Government and its response to artists losing their entire way of life.
“I’ve definitely seen a decrease in commissioned work compared to last year,” Charlot says. “If it wasn’t for the second income of my part-time job I would definitely be struggling, as a few potential projects were dropped due to the current situation.”
The Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht announced a number of new schemes in response to the impact of the crisis on artists, which was largely met with criticism from groups like the National Campaign for the Arts (NCFA).
“Despite these schemes, I don’t think Ireland has the best support for the art community," Charlot says. "Our market spaces have suffered massively, with most of them closing down and a lot of important public spaces are being replaced by hotels and corporate buildings. The Arts Council don’t seem to have a huge budget either and it’s been difficult to get support for events such as Dublin Comic Arts Festival (DCAF)."
"There’s a lot relying on communities to donate or fund events themselves but I fear that it won’t be sustainable in the long run. I would love to see the government take artists more seriously and realise the huge impact we have on the country,” Charlot adds. “The Government recently introduced a social benefit scheme for working artists - while this have been a great change, it has actually been difficult to access. Every person I dealt with in the office didn’t seem to either know about it or gave me incorrect information. I ended up looking for a part time job to help myself financially.
"Another difficult aspect is that Ireland - especially Dublin - is very expensive to live in as an artist," Charlot adds. "You have to take a lot of commissioned work up in order to pay rent. Once the pandemic is over, a lot of people will be out of a job. We already see a lot of artists moving to Berlin because of the great art support you get there. I can imagine a lot more people will consider it after this has passed.”
More and more people are looking to the creative world as a way to escape the current dire situation; with podcasts, music, film, tv shows, books, photography and painting booming as lockdown activities. Without this world, the loss would take a huge toll on mental health. Charlot knows as well as anyone how undervalued the artistic community can be, with talent often taken for granted to the detriment of their wellbeing.
“Art is a very personal thing; it can lift our spirits but it can also drain us. A lot of my artist friends are struggling a lot with their mental health during this pandemic, many of them are feeling guilty for not creating. I definitely felt the pressure to say something about the pandemic but I think it’s important for artists to take breaks, to take time to look after themselves and to create when they feel they are ready.
"We all consume art even without realising it - it’s the very foundation of everything that’s created around us. It’s precisely because it’s everywhere that we come to expect it and this is where I think people fail to see the true value of it.”
Charlot Kristensen’s debut graphic novel about the struggles facing those in interracial relationships, What We Don’t Talk About, is currently available for pre-order here.