Chanel is formally trained in photography and has styled photoshoots for Essence, Ebony, Sports Illustrated, and Ralph Lauren to name a few high-profile projects. She’s also brought her own style to unique collaborations with Nickelodeon, Macy’s, and Pepsi. Originally from Inglewood, California, after living in and attending college in Toronto, Canada, she now calls Brooklyn, New York home. We caught up with her to chat about her influences and uncover some of the layers of her work.
All images provided by Chanel Kennebrew
What sparked your interest in art and design?
I was born into creativity, like hanging out in recording studios as a baby, understanding textile properties before middle school creativity. My mom was a fashion designer and my dad is a musician. Both worked with the late great Prince. Coming into the world nurtured by that environment I don’t think I had a choice but to be creative.
My mom tried to steer me to the lawyer, 9-5 type thing for stability, but yeah right. I’m like, “She’s doing costuming for Purple Rain, and my dad’s on tour with Morris Day and The Time.” Ha! You two aren’t gonna have all the fun. (laughs) My mom’s fashion drawings always held my fascination and admiration. That combined with Sanrio and 80s cartoons fostered my first interest in art and design.
You went to school in Toronto, right?
What did you study?
I studied Photography (ironically for stability) at a time when the industry was in a major state of flux. Basically, I learned film, and graduated into an industry that was ungracefully transferring to digital. My interest was always in set stuff, and printing both digital and analog. I love the tactile aspects.
How would you say that’s influenced your art?
Photography is usually the organizer of my work. I work with a lot of mediums and photography has always served a great medium to stack the layers. Even with media literacy and all that jazz, photography is one of the few mediums that is often viewed to describe a level of “truth.” That’s interesting to me, considering that one only ever sees one slice from one perspective. The themes I work with often play into the perspective aspect of photography.
How would you describe your style?
Hmm, I like to think of my style as funky D.I Y. Martha Stewart, the 2009 version of Kanye West, Hello Kitty and that happy cloud dude, with some Zora Neale Hurston sprinkled in.
Your work strongly features layers - what is it about the idea of complex designs that you keep coming back to?
My work addresses plurality and spotlights societal duplicity. Those topics are pretty complex and I feel like my style relates to the themes. For example, racism is complex - it’s a stacked type of hate that can be camouflaged into exoticism, singular historic perspectives, and a hierarchy of feelings about those things. Stacking allows me to dive into many aspects of this, in a literal and abstract way.
Do you feel like you were drawn to specifically engage in the conversation of being black in America through your work, or was it always a part of what you wanted to explore?
I think in America the second a member of a marginalized group speaks via art, music, or anything else, it’s inevitable that they will actively engage in pushing the envelope, whether that is or isn’t the intention. The opportunity and platform to tell a story and share a perspective that isn’t the status quo causes a shift.
To me, art is supposed to move you, tickle your spirit, knock you off kilter. My work is deliberately visually appealing and loaded with content that is often not discussed or not discussed from this perspective. I’m attempting to light a flame, spark imagination, and propose possibilities.
How do all the different materials you use in the creation of your pieces impact your work?
They all feel different, we have different emotional triggers when it comes to materials. I try to draw on the common emotional triggers and use the materials to support the themes.
How do you decide when a product is the right fit for your shop?
That’s hard. Lately I’ve been trying to organize myself. Sometimes I feel like there’s so many things I’d like to put in the shop but It’s easier on the customer to have a pretty clear collection. So my current collection is athletic wear. I need y’all healthy.
The first shop criteria is that it has to be something that inspires movement whether that’s mental or physical. The second shop criteria is that it has to be something that isn’t a kazillion bucks and can be purchased by American working class folks - non-Americans can purchase, too :) - my wording simply takes into account economic and currency considerations.
Can you share the concept behind your most recent exhibit, Explorations In Nude?
Explorations in Nude is an articulation of a deep dive into that world of isms (racism, colorism, normalism, conformism, westernism, and more). Using mixed-media, illustrations, photography, hand-cut paper, wood, paint, ink, and installations, I dissect, deface, layer, and crassly tack on foreign elements to chisel away at society’s history, power, trends, and language. By exposing the layers, I’m attempting to clear a path to imagine, design, and build a better futuristic representation of a transparent new world socially aware.
Along with your exhibitions, your work can often be seen in the physical world. What’s it like to see your art all around Brooklyn?
Freaking amazing! It’s the hugest honor to have your work adorn the streets of the city you call home.
You also do a lot of styling for clients like Essence, Ebony, Sports Illustrated, and Ralph Lauren. What’s that experience been like, especially as far as further developing your own voice?
It’s cool, I love it. I swear, I live in a space of opposites and often describe my commercial prop styling work as “creating desire.” My personal work plays with that by unraveling it and repositioning elements. the commercial work is fun and I enjoy working in the collaborative space with some of the most talented photographers, creative directors, producers, and editors in the game.
What was your experience like in Toronto? Were you just there for school, or longer?
Originally I was there for school. I ended stayed a year longer and must admit school became a bit secondary to dancing, shooting, and socializing.
Was there an unexpected lesson or experience you took from your time there that still sticks with you?
There were so many lessons! Don’t assume anything about anyone. Toronto is such a diverse cosmopolitan city. Folks coming and going from all over the world carrying with them their culture, perspectives, and roots. This beautiful baggage is so embraced by Toronto. The main lesson is that the whole world is broad and should be approached with an openness. You don’t know what you don’t know.
How would you say your time in Toronto impacted your art and your perspective?
In the United States race and ethnicity is very binary - very ‘us’ vs. ‘them’ - and all the boxes are defined, ranked, and orgazed. This is a terribly stifling overtone. I remember being in elementary school in California and having a teacher explain to me what soul food was - she was completely astonished that I had no idea what collard greens were. My mom’s side is from Belize, so my day-to-day food consisted of things like tropical fruits and rice and bean tamales. Basically that teacher had no idea that Blackness has plurality. I was an example of that plurality and it disrupted the black narrative she was teaching.
In Toronto, the whole place is pure multiplicity and tug of war between old and new. There is more fluidity of culture exchange. Duality is more embraced. For example, being Jamaican-Canadian or Sudanese Canadian isn’t lesser Canadian than being 5 generations British-Canadian. The amalgamation of cultures is very visible in Toronto compared to the states groups and communities are more divided by race and ethnicity.
Thematically, my work tackles disconnect. My experience in Toronto showed me that many of the factors that disconnect us are made up and unnecessary. I’m American and will always carry that perspective in my work, but Toronto helped me to make ‘bridge work.’ Work that celebrates duality and multiplicity in a way that is inclusive. I strive to make the type of work that is basically a road map into what could be, if we want it. Visually, Toronto is an old city remixed into a futuristic glass city - this aesthetic of design is every present in my work.
What’s your favorite thing about the city?
- The people - my Toronto fam is my heart.
- The food - what I would give to have Ghandi’s roti right now!
- The access to art - the grant system is incredible.
Who (or what) inspires you?
I love propaganda, societal disruptions, old magazines, vintage cars, Hannah Höch, Malick Sidibé, Lisa Frank, my yoga teachers, Anderson Paak, colors, light, space, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, the city, nature, shiny things, and sharp scissors to name a few. ;)
Muse From the 6 is a week to celebrate the artists who call Toronto home and the art that makes it unique. This week, Big Cartel will be supporting ArtHeart, a community organization helping people of all ages explore their creativity with art supplies, accessible studio space, and healthy snacks.
If you’re like us and can’t get enough of Chanel’s thought-provoking work, pick up a piece of Junkprint art or apparel from her shop. You can follow her on Instagram and Facebook to see what she’s getting up to next.