Introducing: Aliyah Bonnette
by Yvonne Bynoe·
Aliyah Bonnette is an emerging textile artist based in Raleigh, North Carolina who is quickly gaining a reputation for her striking quilts that depict the complexity of contemporary young African-American women. Aliyah employs an improvisational quilting process supplemented with paint to create stories that seamlessly connect her sexuality, femininity, Black identity and generational memory. Her female subjects are not the typical hypersexualized or trauma laden media images of Black women. Instead Aliyah creates intimate vignettes that allow the viewer to engage with a young woman who each day experiences a range of emotions and situations as she journeys through her life.
The 23 year old has been featured in numerous group exhibitions throughout North Carolina and most recently her work was shown at the Spring Break Art Show in New York. Aliyah is concluding a month-long stay at the Bed-Stuy Art Residency. The Bed-Stuy Art Residency is in a brownstone located in the historic Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York. An artist-in-residence is provided with a quiet apartment that has a bedroom, kitchenette and a separate studio space with plenty of natural light. Additionally Aliyah has access to a culturally rich community and all of the galleries and museums that New York City has to offer. Aliyah is continuing her residency at ArtSpace in Raleigh, NC and preparing for an upcoming collaboration with Good Black Art. Aliyah joined me to discuss a range of topics including, family lineage, her inspirations, and the importance of mentorship as an emerging artist
YB: How important is community to you as an emerging artist and how do you define it?
AB: My community first and foremost is family and friends. I think that the people you surround yourself with are super important. Fortunately, I have been surrounded by people who were supportive of my work even when I wasn't. In my personal experience, community is what has brought me the opportunities that I have had today to be where I am in my career right now.
It's my mentors and some of my professors in school who were active in trying to help me to grow as an artist and other artists around me who are where I want to be in a couple of years. As artists we tend to work alone in our own studios and it can get kind of lonely sometimes for me personally. I like to interact with other artists and people because it inspires my work more. It's super important to me as an emerging artist.
YB: Your family lineage informs your work. Would you share some insights with us?
AB: I think that the women in my life who have guided me thus far have been important. My grandmas are no longer living, some great aunts who were important in my life are no longer living, so it's rooted in me, the importance of lineage and family, especially your matrilineal ancestors. Without them I wouldn't be quilting; without them I would have no context or basis to make the work.
YB: How does your grandmother directly influence the medium that you've decided to work in?
AB: If the history of my grandmother being a quilter wasn't there I probably wouldn't still be quilting. I would definitely be doing textile work but I wouldn't feel as connected to quilting. My grandma had passed away before I was born, a while before. She wasn't actively talked about in our family unless it was distant relatives who brought her up. So I didn't know that she quilted until I was in college doing an assignment.
We had to paint something that was portable that could be carried around the room. At that point I was in African-American Studies and I had learned something about quilts being used in the Underground Railroad as a way to help the enslaved to freedom. I did my thesis on it. While there's not a lot of concrete evidence, it inspired me to want to make a quilt for the first time ever in my life.
I told my mom I was making a quilt for one of my classes. My mom said, "I think my mom used to quit, you should ask your grandfather about it." I called my grandfather and he had kept all of her fabric, quilts, and everything. It had been over 30 years since she passed. We went to Atlanta where he's from and picked up barrels of fabric that she used to get from JC Penny auctions. It became important for me to understand why my grandmother was quilting, the time in which she was quilting. At that time my grandfather said that they had 12 people living in their house; she quilted in a space downstairs. She had recently retired from the post office and quilting was a way for her to have something to do everyday and time away from all of the people in the house.
YB: What artists inspire or influence your work?
AB: Bisa Butler obviously, I feel that she's going to be up there, no matter what. Faith Ringgold has been a really big inspiration for me in terms of how she tells stories and the narratives behind her work. Ambrose Murray, she is a textile artist based in North Carolina and a great friend of mine, so it's always interesting to see how she's working with similar themes because our work ends up so different. Basil Kincaid. I just saw his solo show– I loved it. It was so great to see his work finally in person. We have been talking back and forth for a while so it was good to meet him for the first time. Other artists who have had an influence on my work are Kara Walker, Kerry James Marshall, those really big artists who have pushed forward Black art.
YB : How is being from the South reflected in your work?
I lived in Silver Spring, Maryland until I was 16 so I went to high school and college in the South. North Carolina was the first place that I had experienced overt racism and that shaped my work so much. I started making art at 17 and that forced me to make work that was about social injustices going on around the world at that time. I was displaced from my Black community so I was feeling it even more heavily. I felt that I needed to express myself in some way.
I doubt that I would be making art if I had stayed living in Maryland. I think artists have such a unique perspective when you're from the South because you're in it…we see it all of the time. [In North Carolina] was the first time I saw a Confederate flag in real life…it was the first a White person called me mulatto and I'm not even mixed. We had moved to a suburb of Raleigh and Trump was in our yearbook. He was elected the year I graduated. All of those things were happening and I just had to make stuff about it.
B: You exhibit a lot. How do you do it?
AB: Thankfully people reach out to me a lot of the time. I know that people apply to things and I certainly do that as well. But networking is so important especially in your specific community. Most of where I show is in North Carolina right now and I think that it's because I network with the people in those areas. Residencies help people to learn about you and that opens doors. I work all of the time. I take breaks but I work 7 days a week and I consider networking working. When you're an artist the work doesn't stop when you make art.
Aliyah's works are now available on Good Black Art.
Yvonne Bynoe is an art lover and the founder of the online platform @SheLovesBlackArt which boasts a global audience of more than 46,000. Yvonne's love of art began as a child when she started visiting the Brooklyn Museum of Art in New York. Yvonne has written extensively for Black Art in America and most recently she contributed the essay for the exhibition catalog for 'Cey Adams Departure: 40 Years of Art +Design at the Stone Gallery at Boston University." Yvonne is curating her first exhibition in Charlotte, N.C. at The Brooklyn Collective in 2023.