April Bey addresses antiracism, absurdity and Atlantica in artist talk

Mo Dow, A&E Reporter

Star Trek, chemically corrosive hair products and the far flung planet of Atlantica: These are just a few of the topics April Bey, prolific artist and tenured professor at Glendale Community College, explores in her work.

On Friday, April 23, Bey held a digital lecture with the Whitman community for the opening of “Still Life,” the exhibition featuring the work of senior studio art majors. She spoke about the anticolonial and antiracist themes in her work, and the ways in which her own personality and history shape the art she creates. Bey is known for using mixed media formats that stress artistic boundaries, such as a quilt addressing white fragility that Bey constructed out of memes she had collected.

Bey’s work incorporates her love of science fiction and the stories passed down from her father. According to Bey, this is where her concept of Atlantica came from. Atlantica is an advanced planet where much of Earth’s strife is considered to be a thing of the past. Bey uses this concept to explore different aspects of human culture from an outside perspective. By implying that Earth is regressive by Atlantican standards, Bey also establishes that things are going to get better.

“Earth is certainly heading in the direction Atlantica already exists, and that’s a big part of why Atlanticans observe and report on Earth. The best part of science fiction is that imagination can become reality with science and social consciousness-building. Speculative fiction enables us to dream into reality in order to circumvent our not-so-favorable reality at present,” Bey said.

Illustration by Madi Welch.

Daniel Forbes, the co-director of the Sheehan Gallery at Whitman, hosted the event. Forbes believed that Bey’s unique multimedia approach to gallery art would give every student something to think about.

“In terms of the diversity of what our students are exploring with the media, it really didn’t seem like there was a single media that April wouldn’t be able to have an amazing conversation about,” Forbes said.

Forbes also saw in Bey’s work an opportunity for students to engage with this year’s theme of “Race, Violence and Health.” Bey’s work brings topics of white fragility, colonialism and feminism to the conversation while centering real experiences.

“There are a lot of things that resonate with the issues our students are grappling with, and from a very different perspective as well… April’s work articulately addresses those things. There were all of these beautiful alignments.” Forbes said.

Forbes first heard of Bey through Matthew McKern, a senior designer for Whitman’s communication department. McKern is the director of a quarterly art publication called Oddville press, which featured Bey in 2020. McKern spoke highly of Bey to Forbes, and encouraged him to seek out some of her work. 

McKern also attended Bey’s talk, and was struck by the force of her work and her openness about her process.

“One thing that I really appreciate about April Bey is how autobiographical her work is. Even though her work is topical, it is also infused with a powerful sense of personality. She brings a levity to the work that strikes a balance with her critiques of sometimes heavy cultural issues,” McKern said.

At the lecture, Bey also spoke on the unique sense of humor and optimism that pervades her work, which offers a striking contrast to the difficult and hard-hitting themes of her art. 

“I think my work can be humorous at times because the absurdities of still having racism and colonialism so blatantly on this planet is maddening to the point of laughter. Black people across the diaspora have a long history of using humor to endure astronomical experiences of trauma. I try to mirror what I see in others and my favorite thing to see in others is joy. It’s my initial reaction and self-protection to the textured and hard things in life.” Bey said.


Bey’s work is currently displayed in five solo galleries around the world. Examples of her art can be found on her website.