Ms. Bell, 34, a Chicago native, is an African-American artist straddling two worlds dominated by white men: media and art. Though there are writers and journalists who applaud her analytical approach to deconstructing news, Ms. Bell noted, there are people in the arts who are more cautious. “I’ve been told that maybe I shouldn’t focus so much on race,” she said. “Art people try to get me to diversify my work and not pigeonhole myself so I won’t be seen as the ‘race girl’ in the art world. But everything is about race. It’s tough not to say it’s about race.”
This was apparent to her even when she worked as a grant writer for a syringe-exchange program. She spent five years in that job before applying to Columbia’s masters program in journalism. Eventually she experienced a “quarter-life crisis,” which prompted her to take a semester off. “I went to Paris for a month and spent time in an art collective not doing art,” she said. “I’m from what feels like a small gay black space, and I needed time to be in a different space where I could think through ideas.” Upon her return, she completed her degree in 2013.
It is that concern for historically marginalized groups that is the focus of her“Counternarratives” series, which examines the print version of The Times. “I’m creating a narrative that goes against the dominant narrative put forth by the news,” she explained.
One installment of her series looked at a front-page article about the United States swimmer Ryan Lochte and the controversy swirling around his robbery claim during the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. Underneath the headline (“U.S. Swimmers’ Disputed Robbery Claim Fuels Tension in Brazil”) was a photo of the Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt, referring to the article in an inside page about his winning gold in the 200 meters. To Ms. Bell, that particular juxtaposition — with no image of Mr. Lochte on the page — was egregious.
As was the special display on the sports section front of a profile of the retired tennis player John McEnroe, she said. Two large images ran with the article about Mr. McEnroe’s career and new book. He also talked at length about a comment he had made about Serena Williams’s rank if she had played on the men’s circuit. (It would be, he said, “like 700 in the world.”) The McEnroe feature appeared the same day Serena’s sister Venus Williams was to play a historic match at Wimbledon — she had reached the singles final there at 37. The day before, an article about her feat ran without an image on the sports section front. The Williams piece was “dwarfed in comparison to McEnroe’s,” Ms. Bell said. When contrasting the articles about Mr. Lochte and Mr. McEnroe, she said, “an important question emerges about how The Times centers whiteness,” when the news stories are positive and when they are negative.
Inside her windowless Bushwick studio, Ms. Bell has taped drafts of her works to the wall and spread them out on the floor. “I do subscribe to The Times,” she said. “My studio is like an archive room.” To her, it’s crucial to examine current publications with a historical lens. Once she’s identified an article, she proceeds to work.
“I choose a story because there’s been some kind of violation to me,” she said. “It’s imperative to show how a turn of phrase or a misplaced photo has real consequences for people at the margins who are still suffering under the weight of unfair and biased representation.”
While her art has been exhibited at Bennington College in Vermont and Atlanta Contemporary in Georgia, her fans have printed smaller versions of “A Teenager With Promise” and posted them on the streets of Washington, D.C., and Chicago. (Ms. Bell mostly pastes her works onto walls in the Bedford-Stuyvesant, Clinton Hill and Crown Heights neighborhoods of Brooklyn.) Prints are also on view in a group show at the Koenig & Clinton gallery in Brooklyn, MoMA PS1 in Queens as well as at the Nathan Cummings Foundation in Manhattan.
Ms. Bell said she wants to help readers engage more critically with the news through her art. Occasionally, she will linger on the street just to observe how people react to her work. One day, she said, two men were about to climb into a car and one of them stopped to look at Ms. Bell’s piece. His friend urged him to hurry and get in, she said. “The guy replied, ‘I’m trying to learn something.’”