Looking at the paintings Kaila Austin has in her exhibit, “Saints & Icons” at the Harrison Center, it’s difficult to tell that she had to teach herself how to paint Black people. During her time at Indiana University, she was taught tips and tricks on how to paint white subjects but not people who looked like her.
White professors advised her to not use brown paint because it looked “muddy and ugly.” She said this, along with a lack of diversity among faculty and her class (she was one of two Black students), inspired her to teach herself how to capture Black people in portraits.
“It’s just basic color theory,” Austin said about painting different skin tones. “Professors just got uncomfortable with the topic, and it definitely keeps Black artists from joining programs. You have to fight constantly to be seen and heard.”
Austin, 29, hopes her art will serve as a reminder of Black history and Black excellence. Her take on Marie Guillermine Benoist’s 1800 painting “Portrait of a Negress” is one of Austin’s favorites. She wanted to make the subject, Madeline, a Black woman brought to France to escape slavery, look more like what she might have in life. Benoist’s original painting darkened many of Madeline’s features, making them difficult to notice.
Portraits of McHale Rose and Dreasjon Reed — two men killed by Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department officers in 2020 — hit closer to home.
Austin, who is friends with several of Reed’s family members and met Rose’s younger brothers after his death, said she wanted to share their stories and provide audiences a chance to see who they were, beyond the news stories, beyond the police reports.
“You don’t realize how impactful it is until it hits close to home,” Austin said.
Austin contributed her talents to local efforts to promote social change when protests came to Indianapolis, both for Dreasjon Reed and George Floyd.
Austin painted several murals downtown — including one depicting writer Audre Lorde and another depicting James Baldwin — as part of the Arts Council of Indianapolis’ Murals for Racial Justice project. Austin hopes the ongoing push for diversity in the arts and the use of art to effect social change will make an impact for younger generations, including her 10-year-old daughter.
“Art is one of the few mediums that asks you to take a step back and really put yourself in someone else’s shoes,” Austin said. “There’s an emotional impact, and it forces you to step outside of yourself and really think about the world around you.”
Contact staff writer Breanna Cooper at 317-762-7848. Follow her on Twitter @BreannaNCooper.