Art of Color: Black Men, Beauty, & Femininity
See Justyn’s work on his instagram @justyncreates.
Lack of diverse representation in mainstream art is not a new phenomenon. While in recent years the art world’s focus has expanded to include underrepresented and marginalized groups, there’s still much work to be done. Justyn Hunt wants to use his latest photography series, Art of Color, to include black men in the conversation, and explore their sense of comfort and discomfort in their beauty and femininity.
Hear from him below.
Do you want to start by telling me about yourself?
My name is Justyn Jeremiah Hunt, and yes – it’s Justyn with a y, it’s not an instagram stunt (laughing). I’m from Hyde Park, Chicago, I grew up in an upper-middle class home, and my mom is a therapist who raised my sister and I by herself.
Even as a kid, I knew I was an artist. I remember being four and sketching out dresses and wanting to be a shoe designer. I have no idea where that went,because the most I can do now is style – I’ll leave the designing and sketching to someone else (laughing).
Art of Color came into play with just being young and fourteen and in high school, scrolling through Instagram and seeing that the beauty standard was tall, light-skinned, blond-haired guys – and I didn’t fit into that because I’m black. I may be light-skinned, but no, I’m black. And I always felt insecure.
Fast forward to two weeks ago. I’m sitting on my bed, scrolling through Pinterest, trying to put together a mood board, and yet again there were all these white boys and I was like, “You know what? Fuck this. This is not the reality of America and I’m going to show the diversity in black men – and the beauty in black men. And better yet, I’m going to tell the stories of queer black men.” That was how Art of Color came to life, because I wanted to show beauty in black males.
That’s so powerful. Can you tell me more about what it felt like for you – at fourteen years old and just two weeks ago – to look around you and see this twisted beauty standard? Was it a disconnect, did it make you angry?
Hell yeah it made me angry. I mean – I’m going to be very clear – I am extremely privileged. As far as economic background, I’m privileged. But I’m not white, I don’t have that kind of systematic privilege. And I love the fact that I’m black, I like the fact that I’m a black male artist. But I felt insecure, I felt insecure for a really long time. Just recently, I started saying, I’m black and I’m beautiful and that’s that. I didn’t understand the importance of the idea of being black and beautiful until later on in life – but it’s important because what if other black boys need to read this?
Completely. Something that you’ve brought up is this issue of access, that there needs to be diversity in artists, there need to be more black artists. I was wondering if you have any thoughts on what it means to be a black artist telling stories about black men and femininity through Art of Color?
To be a black artist telling these black stories is a privilege because no white person is going to do it, and not enough artists are doing it. I think everyone is noticing this shift in my Instagram account because it has gone from these sexy-ass white girls that look like they walked out of Vogue to these black men that belong in Vogue catalogues.
But to be a black artist, that’s a privilege to me because I don’t know many black artists. I mean, my favorite black artist is @deunivory, she’s a photographer and the forefront of her work is showing the beauty in black women and it is amazing. I want to photograph her one day, and as a matter of fact when I become the creative director of Vogue, she’s going to be on the cover as soon as I can get that approved.
But being a black artist, it’s important. There needs to be more black artists, there need to be more people telling black stories and showing the diversity and beauty in black people.
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resting in the fact that i am not required to be perfect — just myself. and that’s where my power is. 💭 april 2nd – 19th, i’ll be in nyc creating magic + hopefully working on even more projects. so email me for any nyc-based projects + so on. also — GREAT NEWS my project @thebodyahomeforlove just received it’s 2nd $1k pledge + an abundance of other donations from you guys. thanks SO much. 5 days left until my kickstarter ends + i have faith that we can meet our goal. please continue sharing. donating. tweeting. emailing. all dat. reposting my work for the purpose of promoting the kickstarter helps, a lot! so so excited!! please see link in bio for more info. your dollars will be used for a community series for black sexual assault survivors. 💫 #vsco #beauty #portrait #blackwomen #style #thebodyahomeforlove #awaytravel
Art of Color focuses on black men and their femininity. I was wondering why you picked that specifically and what that means to you?
Because I wasn’t allowed to be feminine. You can tell from this conversation, I’m pretty masc. But I wasn’t allowed to be feminine. I was raised fairly Conservative Christian and being gay was heavily looked down upon. I remember sitting in the hair salon with my mom and I remember them making me chant, “Being gay is wrong, you go to Hell for being gay.” And I remember being eight and thinking, “Well, I’m gay, so what does that mean for me? Am I going to burn in Hell?” Well shit, if I’m gonna burn in Hell I’m gonna catwalk my ass down there.
I wasn’t allowed to be feminine, I wasn’t allowed to express myself the way I really wanted to. I played football, I played sports, I hung out with boys. Girls were cheerleaders and I was throwing a football and getting tackled and getting bruised and stuff like that. I see other gay males now, who feel comfortable painting their nails and putting on makeup and I wonder what I would be like now if I grew up in a more accepting environment. And I want to be clear – my family is good now. We are in a much better place now. But sometimes I wonder if we would be closer had they been a little more accepting.
Lawrence for Art of Color
I see. I don’t want to put words in your mouth so – do you think then that the project is a way of exploring black male femininity for you? Or more of a way to showcase it?
More to showcase it. Like, I’m still super into sports, I guess I was so forced to suppress femininity… I’m just not feminine. I don’t think it’s a bad thing, but I think how I was forced to suppress it is a bad thing. I mean, being black and gay is such a crime in the black community and looked down upon so heavily. I want to blame it on the stereotypes that black men need to be these huge masculine figures who run the household and make the most money and have these submissive wives – and I didn’t have that. My mom did everything that she could to provide an upper middle class lifestyle for my sister.
It was always like be a man, man. Don’t do this. Don’t do that. It was just like that for so much of my life. It was just so sheltered. I still carry parts of that with me now.
Yeah. It’s so hard to unlearn those things that we’re raised with, the mindsets that were instilled in us from before we even know they’re being instilled. Do you have any sort of advice for people going through similar situations?
I know how this is going to sound, so typical – but really, it will get better. But also – be a badass. You have to rebel against your parents. Most people say don’t do it, fucking do it. Because, guess what? It’s your life. When you die, you die by yourself, you don’t die with somebody next to you. You gotta live your life. I remember when I went off to college, my mom told me not to come home with any tattoos. I’ve gotten four since I went to college. I have wild tattooed on my left leg. And it was just like a reminder to be wild and live your life for yourself.
I love that. I want to go back to photography a little bit more because it’s essential to Art of Color, right? Why photography?
Because it’s what I know best. I have always been able to display my emotions, everything I feel, through a photograph. And through Instagram, the people following me feel every single thing I feel. Like, if I’m pissed off, you’re going to see that in the photo, I’m happy, you’re going to see that in a photo. If I’m in a sexual mood, you’re going to see it in a photo. You see my feelings in my photos.
I think one of the things that happens sometimes in photography, or any visual medium, is that you lose the storytelling aspect. And one of the things that I think is so cool about your series is that in the Instagram captions you include little story snippets on the subject of blackness and masculinity. Why make that such a focus?
Because people are going to just see photos and ooo and ahh. And it’s like, no, this is not this is not just a beautiful photo. This is a story. This is something you need to hear and understand. Each photo is telling a different story.
I love that. Do you think your Art of Color series is meant to live on your Instagram? Or do you want it to go elsewhere?
I think it’s going to live on my Instagram for awhile, but eventually, yeah, it’ll go elsewhere. I’m 18 right now. I’m not trying to be like famous or anything like that. Chicago is a really good stomping ground for artists, and I just opened that account a couple months ago and look at where I am now. So it’s like, let’s just see where I am at the end of this year. Right now I really just want people to be inspired by my art.
It’s really about: how many people do I get to reach? How many people are inspired by this? How many people get to look in the mirror and say, “I’m beautiful and I know it.” Or even like, “I’m beautiful. And he’s beautiful. She’s beautiful. They’re beautiful. And I don’t need to question my own beauty.”
And I know that that sounds bad. Because I don’t photograph enough black women. I don’t photograph enough girls who are plus size. I know I need to do a better job as a photographer. And I’m working on it. I just need people to feel inspired and loved and know that they’re loved.
Zae for Art of Color
Yeah, I think definitely like your most recent series shows a move to incorporate more diverse groups of people.
Yeah, I have so many next steps and plans to do better. I don’t think people take me as seriously as they should when I say, “I want to hear your story. Let me step into your shoes for a minute.”
Is that what you want the people that are like looking at the Art of Color series to do? Step into someone else’s shoes?
Yeah. Because you need to feel it. So it’s like I need to, we need to teach that we need to show the diversity of the world.
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Most Vulnerable “When my mom got sick, she got progressively sick and I’m very close to my mom. It was hard to be strong for my mom.” I still think about her every day. Sometimes I feel that she’s disappointed by my actions. I remover the day she died like it was yesterday. It helped me grow, grow to be a strong individual. No matter what life brings you don’t let it get you down. “She was a bad bitch” I grew up very conservative, no skin was allowed to be showed. I don’t go to church now because it’s hypocritical, they slander people. I get messages from the people at church saying “Give your life to the lord the lord still loves you” —Mike for Art of Color
I know that with Art of Color, one of the points toit is to tell authentic stories that are so often pushed off to the side. I was wondering if you wanted to talk a little bit about any struggles you face that have helped you grow to tell those stories?
Shit, oh my god yes. I’d say a big part of it goes back to my own story. I’d say I realized I was gay when I was three – I know, so young. I knew when I was very young that I was going to be different from other boys. So my mom being the conservative Christian that she was at the time would say, that’s a demonic spirit, you need to come out of that. And my mom and I, I’m going to say, from the time I was a kid up until now we would just, like, go at it because she had this big issue with my sexuality. And I’m like, Look, I’m your child. So me and my mom definitely have gone at it about like my sexuality and stuff like that. Her lack of understanding is really frustrating. But we’re better now.
How much of that do you feel comfortable including in the interview? I just want to make sure how you’re comfortable including that dynamic in the article? It’s your story and I want to make sure you don’t feel like I’m taking advantage of any of it.
All of it. It’s my story, and I have ownership over it.
Okay. Thank you for sharing and let me know if you change your mind. Sorry, back to you answering the question!
[Laughing]. Okay, yeah. So there was the family stuff and then there was also school stuff. I remember always getting picked on and feeling so… condemned and less-than because I was gay. And I knew I was gay. It wasn’t something that I hid.
We all knew what it was. We just we knew. But that’s because, you know, in the black community, you’re in an environment that condemns gay. So it’s like, everyone is going to be homophobic towards you until they get older and understand better. Some people who used to bully me for being gay are like flaming homosexuals now. I didn’t see that coming [laughing].
I remember another time in eighth grade, I liked this guy. He had a girlfriend, but he liked me too. So one day, his girlfriend like took his phone and read our messages. And then she outed me to the whole middle school. I mean, yeah, I shouldn’t have been messaging someone with a girlfriend, but I also didn’t deserve to be outed. I recently saw her over the summer at Six Flags and I don’t even think she remembers what she did.
I know. But by my sophomore year of high school towards the end of the year, I looked at myself in the mirror, and I said, “I’m gay. And it’s okay.” Then, when people would ask me, “Oh, are you gay?” I would be like, “you know what? Yeah, yes, I am. And I’m comfortable with myself. And if you’re uncomfortable with me that’s your own problem.”
That’s such a good, huge change. How did that come about for you?
It was right after the Orlando shooting unfortunately. I guess something snapped. I know that I need to live a full life. And I can’t have lived a sheltered life. And that’s that.
See more of Justyn’s work on his instagram @justyncreates.
This interview has been lightly edited for length.