Johnny Perez talks fantasy and diversity in art

I originally came across artist Johnny Perez on Twitter. A quick visit to his site and I was hooked. His work is surreal and colorful (you know how much I love color) and is inspired seemingly by otherwordly creatures – the women are fairies, mermaids, supernatural beings, and yet still intensely human.

Johnny was recently in Mexico collecting references and inspiration for a new project. He gives us the scoop here, as well as his creative process.

How did you first get into art?

I’ve been drawing pictures since I could hold a crayon. But I didn’t think of it as a career until around 6th grade, when we began looking at our futures for a class project. I have always been told I would be an artist, but I wanted to be many things before I chose to use my talents for work. My family was always nurturing, so I never had to fight to become an artist. My sister has great talent and helped me improve as a child, and then my own research took over from there. Plus I don’t sing very well, so that was out.

What inspires your work?

I have no lack of inspiration! My constant sources are mythology, folklore, animation, and comics. I find inspiration in nature, in people around me, and colorful environments like my recent trip to Mexico. I love authors like Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett, and it’s no secret I love “Harry Potter”! I love directors like Guillermo del Toro and Baz Luhrmann, and old fantasy movies like “Dark Crystal”, “Labrynth”, and “Legend”. My childhood influences I believe are very strong in my work and come out in my color choices, my subject matter, and the fact that I really like to have fun with an image. Probably because I’m a big kid.

Your website mentions that your work features “figurative fantasy and cultural diversity.” What does that mean to you? How do those two things work together in your art?

To me figurative fantasy is a play on the traditional figurative model. In my work I don’t just want to portray the figure as it is in reality, because I believe there is so much unseen mysticism. I want to capture something that speaks more about who they are perhaps if dreams could be realized. For instance I painted one of my favorite singers, Erykah Badu, and instead of a traditional portrait, she is painted as a siren atop a jukebox in a sea of records with speaker-head fish, and a crane carrying a microphone. There is a nod to fantasy, and a bit of surrealism there. I believe in the veil between our world and others and I believe they are always influencing one another.

As far as cultural diversity, I try not to limit myself to what I know, but I want to heavily lean on ambiguity when it comes to cultures. Living in America I still hope for peace because I truly believe we are a melting pot of the world, and I find it so odd when people forget that. I want to express my cultural heritage from Mexico and Native America. I want to express my upbringing with Hip-Hop/African-American culture. I want to express the excitement of learning about cultures from all the continents, because it’s all so fascinating and it should be celebrated.

Courtesy Johnny Perez
Courtesy Johnny Perez

Beyond that broad sentiment I want to bring what I know to be a serious lack of diverse entertainment and imagery to what I do. I look at what other people are doing and I can’t help but see that I’ve been blindsided by popular media. I use my work to correct that. I’m not just talking about Hollywood, because sometimes they get it, and sometimes they don’t. But on TV, in movies, and on the internet, fantasy images (and images in general) are often devoid of colorful, unique characters. For a few years I took a break from American movies, because I got tired of the lack of flavor and tired repeating stories. I was missing some imagination. I was inspired by anime movies by Hayao Miyazaki, Makoto Shinkai, and those series that really pushed boundaries on what the medium could do. I try to do the same with my work.

What message are you seeking to impart with your art?

There is more to us than the skin we’re in, and there is more to life than what corporations would have us believe. There is more to the world than what we are taught. I bring myself, a lover of fantasy and traditional media, and introduce these foreign concepts. Many are hot political buttons, like religious freedom, racial equality, and gender ambiguity. I still work on bringing these things together. I aim to expose my viewers to diversity in all its forms, racial, cultural, sexual, religious because I feel so much sheltering being forced. Because we only have two genders in our society when so many more exist. Because we have oppression of races because our society is built on it. Because we have interference of freedom from all sides who seek to have THEIR way because they believe it is right. I’m asking questions and seeking answers every day, [and] so should everyone else in my opinion.

I often paint the fantastic, but it does mean more to me than a fairy tale. In a sense they are what fairy tales used to be, cautionary tales. “Don’t hate, appreciate!” as the saying goes. I was in a bubble as a child, and when I drew, my mother asked me, “where is the color?” referring to the pale skin and blonde hair of my subject. I was immediately offended, but something in me opened that day. And from there I realized the world I lived in. It is clear in recent events that many people want to remain in a bubble, and I hope that if any see my work, perhaps that will burst, in a good way. More importantly I hope to help fill the void along with other artists, that shows people of color are just as beautiful, fantastic and full of magic as any other.

Courtesy Johnny Perez.
Courtesy Johnny Perez.
Tell us about your latest project in Mexico.

My project [that] I’ve been referring to as Urban Sketches and Landscapes of Mexico, and sometimes “Viva Mexico!” is about my exploration of the country’s natural beauty as well as urban environment and graffiti art through photo and painting. Many things in my childhood and later my love life led up to this project. First I grew up in a mainly English-speaking household. I always felt I was Latino/Mexican in race, but as I learned more about my roots, I realized how out of touch I was, and what I was missing out on. My elders spoke Spanish, and we ate Tex-Mex daily, but that was certainly not enough. I hated the Spanish music my family listened to, I didn’t particularly like molé, and I was positive everyone south of the border was wearing ponchos and sombreros. I mean, I had so much to learn! That chance [came when] I was about 10, and I went on a trip with my grandmother to Acuña, Coahuila just south of Del Rio, TX. She was conducting bible school classes there with a church group from Haskell, TX. I immediately felt the sting of the privileged life I had led. But I also fell in love with the landscapes, the architecture of buildings, and the small neighborhoods of the residents we visited. There was so much color, and history!

After that trip, I became friends with someone at my school who was from Jamay, Jalisco. From his family I learned what Gorditas were (real ones!), how to play Lotería, how to make Horchata, what chile seasoning goes on Duritos, and so much that my family never did or ate. We also connected over the music and death of Selena. Because of it, I listened to Spanish music, and learned the words. I learned her story, and probably watched the movie of her life a million times, all the while gaining the inspiration to connect with my roots in the same way and someday have my art be as admired. Not long after, in high school, I lost my grandmother to liver failure from diabetes. It was in the back of my mind that we would take another trip someday. I thought I would never go back unless it was on my own, but I was always told it was too dangerous.

My boyfriend of two years now got a great opportunity to perform professionally there, and I of course had to tag along. It was a time of connecting for the first time with his immediate family that still lived there in Monterrey, Nuevo Leon. It was also a time of reconnecting for me to see what I couldn’t before, and appreciate what I didn’t understand so many years ago. It was my intention to paint plein-air [meaning outdoors, so that you recreate the source as it is while you paint] but that was nearly impossible with everything we wanted to see. So I took every photo possible. I was able to tour the city with his family, which was a far cry from the poor villages I first encountered. I was able to eat the home-cooked Mexican food, that was so different and yet familiar. It was almost instantly a home away from home that I had been away from for too long. This was my first chance to see Mexico both as an adult and as an artist, to connect the dots, and capture the experience to reference for future work.

When will the project be available to the public?

I’ll be releasing artwork as it becomes available through my website: JohnnyPerezArt.com/vivamexico I will also be posting progress on my blog, so its a good time to message me if you see a piece in progress that you want! Prepurchase is no longer available but links will be provided to buy each work through PayPal, or in person if local.

YouTube stories on diversity with Arif Choudhury and more

I was recently introduced to the YouTube channel JustStories through Arif Choudhury, a storyteller, filmmaker, and stand-up comic. Arif travels the country telling stories of his Muslim upbringing that tackle issues of religion, identity, and diversity.

Arif has a series on the JustStories channel where he talks about growing up as a Bangledeshi Muslim American, and how that has influenced his view of himself and others. His stories illustrate the diversity of the American experience – for example, in the video below, he discusses the diversity among American Muslims in how they view and practice their religion:

The video resonated with me because I think it’s a common experience for many people,

The JustStories channel is a project of RaceBridgesStudio, which itself is a project of the Chicago Province of the Order of the Divine Word, a Catholic religious order. According to their website, RaceBridgesStudio is essentially a resource for discussions on race relations and diversity.

The channel features videos from Noa Baum, Charlotte Blake Aston, who performs stories from African and African-American oral history, Shannon Cason, who has appeared on NPR and Tedx, and many more. The stories are all very different but they are all passionately told by people who clearly believe that human beings are ultimately good.

Here’s another from Arif:

And this, from Noa Baum, which I found particularly touching:

Happy Eid! Positive portrayals of Muslims in the media

As some of you may know, tomorrow, Wednesday July 5th, marks the first day of the Muslim holiday of Eid Al-Fitr. I thought to celebrate, it would be interesting to dig around and find some of the best portrayals of Muslims in the media.

It’s no secret that since 9/11, there has been an increase in hostility towards Muslims and those who appear to be of a racial background associated with Islam – Sikhs in particular, for example, have paid the price for increasing Islamophobia. As a result, the portrayal of Muslims in the media has been overwhelmingly negative. While this is most apparent in the news, it’s also strongly present in creative media as well. This isn’t even just a post-9/11 trend; the documentary “Reel Bad Arabs” incisively demonstrates that degrading stereotypes of Arabs and Muslims in Western media goes back decades.

It’s important, then, to highlight and celebrate the movies, television shows, and books that buck the trend. Here’s five titles that prominently feature characters that are prominently and pointedly Muslim and make them active, sympathetic protagonists. I tried to focus on movies and books that are set in a Western environment, rather than those set primarily in the Middle East or Indian subcontinent. Spoiler alerts all round!

1. Ms. Marvel – Marvel Comics

When Pakistani-American teenager Kamala Khan discovers that she has superhuman powers, she takes on the superhero name Ms. Marvel and goes off to fight crime and the forces of evil! Kamala is not the first Muslim superhero, but she is definitely the first one to be produced by a company with the clout and legacy of Marvel Comics. The comic series marks an important shift in the portrayal of Muslim women in particular.

2. Little Mosque on the Prairie (Six seasons)

CBC’s “Little Mosque on the Prairie” was a big deal when it came out, and no wonder – where else on television can you find Muslim families and in particular a Muslim Imam portrayed so normally? The series follows Amaar Rashid, a big-city lawyer who leaves his lucrative career to become the Imam of a mosque in a small Canadian town. He befriends the many residents, including the Anglican Reverend, whose church basement actually houses the mosque. The show is particularly good in that in showcases a variety of personalities in the Muslim community: there’s the conservative but ultimately loving father, the practical businessman who just wants to keep his costs down, the ambitious, feminist doctor, all part of a larger community of allies and antagonists, who are ultimately united for the greater good of their town.

“Little Mosque on the Prairie” is available on Amazon Prime and Hulu.

3. Arranged (2007)

In “Arranged,” Muslim teacher Nasira feels isolated in the Brooklyn public school where she works – that is, until she meets and befriends fellow teacher Rochel, and Orthodox Jewish woman. The two bond over shared beliefs and values as both go through arranged marriages, arranged here referring to marriages based on introductions set up by family, friends, or a matchmaker. The film not only demonstrates the common ground to be found between Muslims and Jews, but also elucidates religious practices that are often seen negatively in Western society, such as wearing the hijab or dressing modestly in general.

The movie is available on Amazon Prime and Netflix.

4. The Room of Lost Things – Stella Duffy 

Set in London, “The Room of Lost Things” features Akeel Khan as the entrepreneurial son of Pakistani immigrants who works in a dry-cleaning shop under the direction of the owner, Robert Sutton, who is preparing to sell it to him. Akeel is ambitious and hard-working, and, as a bonus, his wife is portrayed as cheerful and intelligent. Unfortunately, she doesn’t feature prominently in the narrative, which focuses on the way the lives of the dry-cleaning customers intersect with the life of Robert Sutton. But the relationship between Akeel and his wife is a supportive and happy one, in stark contrast to the forced marriages narrative that is so often peddled by the media.

5. Sofia Khan is Not Obliged – Ayisha Malik

Londonite Sofia Khan works at a publishing house when her boss asks her to write a “tell-all” book about dating and marriage among the Muslim community. She approaches the idea with skepticism (I don’t blame her), having recently gotten out of a relationship with a man who expected her to live with essentially his entire extended family post-marriage. The book benefits not only from a diary-style format, but also from the fact the focus is less on Sofia’s search for love at the personal level, a classic chick-lit topic, but on her search for love at the academic, exploratory level.

Who are some of your favorite Muslim characters? Share in the comments!

 

Link Bank: June 2016

This month’s Link Bank explores issues of diversity, representation,  and more…

Who Gets to Tell Other People’s Stories? – NY Times

“There are times when such efforts can appear profoundly self-serving; when bearing witness or showing compassion feels more like public performance than real acknowledgement or understanding of another.”

Asian-American Actors Are Fighting For Their Visibility – NY Times

“It’s never been easy for an Asian-American actor to get work in Hollywood, let alone take a stand against the people who run the place. But the recent expansion of Asian-American roles on television has paradoxically ushered in a new generation of actors with just enough star power and job security to speak more freely about Hollywood’s larger failures.”

X-Men: Apocalypse Needs To Be The End For Bryan Singer – Film School Rejects

“This is a cast that is easily likable, but the creative teams behind it aren’t giving us anything that feels fresh. No matter how many new visual tricks, or beloved characters and moments it adapts from comics, it seems like more of the same. And even though Oscar Isaac is a great actor, Apocalypse is an indistinct big bad whose stakes are so high that it has a numbing effect on the audience. The fact that he looks like Ivan Ooze the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers TV show just feels like a twisting of the knife. ”

A Cup of Tea With Oliver Sacks – TEDTalks

“Out popped Oliver Sacks, peering at me uncertainly. His prosopagnosia, or face blindness, made him unable to recognize me from my author photo. When I told him who I was, he engulfed me in a great big bear hug.”

How Do Artists Make a Living? – TEDTalks

“After all, artists innovate — it’s what we do, no matter what our medium is. We imagine ways forward that no one else has imagined before, in literature, music, theater, dance, art, performance. There’s no reason we can’t do it with economics as well.”

How Can We Best Help Talented Underrepresented Students? – The Creativity Post

“It was support from teachers that helped students feel connected to school. Further, rigor without attention to social-emotional and talent development proved to be a deal-breaker, especially for adolescents at this critical period of identity development. We came to understand how proactive schools needed to be in building collaboration with families.”

Racebending vs. whitewashing: Whys, whens, and hows

If you have a Twitter account and a vague interest in movies, you’ve likely heard of the rising furor over recent casting choices in upcoming movies. Specifically, the casting of British actress Tilda Swinton as Asian character The Ancient One of the “Dr. Strange” comics, and the casting of Scarlett Johansson as the lead character in the movie version of the Japanese series “Ghost in the Shell” caused outrage over the whitewashing of Asian characters, culminating in the trending hashtag #whitewashedOUT.

Of course, Asian characters aren’t the only ones being whitewashed in pop culture. There’s a lot that has been written about race and representation in the media (some of it by me). The concept of representation is simple: people should see their world reflected back to them in what they consume. The process of representation, however, can sometimes be more complex, because we can have disagreements over what constitutes representation, particularly when it comes to changing the race or gender of already established characters. For the record, I am all for race and gender-bending – I actually wrote an article highlighting some great examples of it here. But there are times when race and gender-bending is appropriate and fun, and times when it is not.

Context matters

One of the major criticisms of the movie adaptation of “Ghost in the Shell” is that the casting of Scarlett Johansson ignores the specifically Japanese context in which the story takes place. That’s not to say that you can’t adapt a story from one culture into another – you can, and that’s a great way to share cultures. But the key is that you adapt the whole story, recognizing that there are some aspects to the original that won’t translate or are not relevant in the receiving culture. A movie like that wouldn’t be “Ghost in the Shell,” it would be something else, something different, that’s inspired by “Ghost in the Shell.”

This is particularly important when we consider manga and anime works. Because of the way they’re drawn, a lot of Western audiences perceive anime characters as being white – they’re not. Anime and manga stories are created in a Japanese context and are often set in Japan. If you’re going to translate anime directly into another medium, you have to acknowledge the characters’ Japanese identity.

See this beautiful setting? It's Crystal Tokyo. TOKYO. via sailormoonnews.com
See this beautiful setting? It’s Crystal Tokyo. TOKYO.
Image via sailormoonnews.com

Where diversity is now

If you’re going to racebend a character, don’t do it to one that’s already underrepresented in mainstream media. Our goal should be to increase diversity, not decrease it.

Although there’s been some improvement in the representation of minorities, there’s still a lot of work that needs to be done, not just in numbers but in how these characters are presented as well. As this wonderfully detailed post by Nerds of Color demonstrates, major franchises sorely lack in representation of not just people of color, but also women and women of color specifically. What little representation there is often relies on harmful stereotypes and double standards for male and female characters.

The "diverse" world of The Avengers.
The “diverse” world of The Avengers.

This leads to another question – should you switch out one underrepresented group for another?

I’m going to go ahead and say no, and here’s why: a lot of Western culture tends to treat minority groups, especially those from similar cultures or close geographical areas, as though they’re the same and therefore interchangeable. Indian and Pakistani cultures are often conflated, Arab cultures are treated as one monolith, Asian people are seen as “looking the same,” and people deem it socially acceptable to say things like “I went to Africa.” Where in Africa? Apparently, that’s not a distinction that’s necessary to make.

Minorities are not interchangeable. You cannot, for example, replace an originally Arab character in a story with an Indian one and call that a win for diversity. When production companies do this, they’re basically saying, “Well, Indians and Arabs are basically the same.” Now think about it. If someone told you that Arabs and Indians are the same people, wouldn’t you consider that ignorant and racist?

I rest my case.

What purpose does race/gender-bending serve?

When we examine race and gender-bending in the media, we need to ask why it’s being done and to what end. I don’t include fan art in this because a lot of artists use these techniques to see themselves reflected in the works they love and admire, and I think that’s something we can all relate to. But when studios and production companies do this, I think we as an audience are entitled to ask questions.

For example, a good question here would be, "Is this a costume party? Because otherwise I have no idea what is going on."
For example, a good question here would be, “Is this a costume party? Because otherwise I have no idea what is going on.” Image via trevorcamis.tumblr.com

1. How does race/gender-bending fit in the original story being presented? In a story like “Ghost in the Shell,” for example, we can see that it doesn’t fit very well at all. In others, it might work better.

2. What does race/gender-bending add to the character? A black Superman, for example, would make a lot of sense given the science and the fact that, being an alien, Superman doesn’t (or shouldn’t) have a particular ethnicity associated with him.

3. What are the motives of the production companies in charge of making these decisions? One of the main arguments for the casting of Scarlett Johansson and Tilda Swinton as Asian characters (and for whitewashing in general) is that these names bring in big bucks at the box office. We don’t need studios casting minority actors in an attempt to be edgy or to pacify “angry minority hordes.” Diversity should be reflective of the world around us – it’s that simple.