Artist Nefertiti Jenkins working on a painting of green and white flowers in her studio.

To celebrate Black History Month, we're highlighting New Jersey-based painter Nefertiti Jenkins. In discussing how heritage impacts her work, Nefertiti reflects on her Multiracial identity, and how growing up in-between African American and Korean cultures has influenced the recognizable, yet open-ended imagery of her dream-like paintings. Watch the full interview on Instagram, or continue reading below.

Where you are from and where are you currently based?

I'm originally from Colorado Springs, Colorado, but have been living and working in Bordentown, New Jersey for most of my life.

Can you describe the kind of work you create? How is it made and what inspires you?

The work I create incorporates surrealism and figuration. I take a lot of photos of scenes and objects I find interesting: flora, unique trinkets, friends, radiant lighting situations, or some amusing internet esoterica. I am also greatly influenced by several artists that utilize dreamlike narratives and figurative abstraction, such as Kaye Donachie, Agnes Pelton, and Theodora Allen.

There are several avenues for my inspiration, but a significant one lately is the world building and narratives within video games, particularly fantasy and adventure RPGs. The cloak of a fantastical setting with magic and other worldly entities are present but substantial, realistic issues and complicated dynamics still exist, just with extra flair and obfuscation. My paintings incorporate high chroma, anthropomorphized objects, and uncanny subjects but still have a sense of familiarity even if they’re saccharine and embellished. That all comes together from sketches that get transferred into digital painting programs where I collage and combine these separate elements.

Artist Nefertiti Jenkins at a desk in her studio surrounded by her own paintings, using a pencil to draw an outline on an in-progress composition.

How long have you been working in this style or with these materials?

I’ve been painting and drawing for most of my life, but the more personal and phantasmagorical imagery has been part of my practice for the past 5 years. Undergrad is where my process initially began and it has only grown from there. I try out more and more materials as time goes on but all roads eventually lead to oil paint. I was always comfortable using digital painting programs to create illustrations and then I started merging my traditional art practice with it. That resulted in me collaging things together and painting over them then translating them back onto the canvas. Subjects and color schemes will be extrapolated upon while further imagery could be layered and interjected on top. I usually go back and forth between these processes right up until the completion of a painting.

What is a typical day in your studio?

A typical day in my studio begins with a hot beverage and putting on my headphones. If I’m beginning a painting I’ll project the image I’m working with, usually a photo or drawing that’s been altered in Procreate, and try to capture the outline of any primary subjects. I’ll begin with water based mediums and eventually work my way up to oils with airbrushed alcohol inks in between layers. I rotate between works, some of which I’ve purposefully hidden away, in order to ideally capture and carry similar or useful ideas from piece to piece while they’re still fresh in my mind.

To me, heritage means acknowledging who and what came together to create me and carrying that forward as I forge my own path and identity. My father is African American and my mother is a Korean immigrant that came directly from Seoul, Korea. I was raised to embrace these cultures but also given the freedom to comfortably live as myself.

Nefertiti Jenkins

What moments in your process do you enjoy the most?

The moments in my process I enjoy the most typically include the initial drawing phase and any eventual deviations from my original image. As much as I utilize paint, I tend to draw, outline, and re-establish basic shapes frequently with my brush as if it were a pencil. While the deviations can be counterintuitive, I enjoy when it can result in a more interesting composition or element which then results in a new, separate painting that I can commit to.

What does 'heritage' mean to you?

To me, heritage means acknowledging who and what came together to create me and carrying that forward as I forge my own path and identity. My father is African American and my mother is a Korean immigrant that came directly from Seoul, Korea. I was raised to embrace these cultures but also given the freedom to comfortably live as myself. I think that background helped me communicate and value people different from myself without alienating or objectifying them. I know that despite having a Black parent and an Asian parent that it results in me being both but ultimately being neither; I cannot claim the exclusive experiences of these two groups but I lie in the periphery of them both.

My family never expected me to choose between one or the other even when the whole of society assumes that’s what I would do. I welcome questions about my ethnic background when they are respectfully administered and I am proud of who I am but not because I view my status as a Multiracial person as superior. I appreciate that I’ve experienced two contrasting cultures growing up and that I’ve been able to witness them blend together beautifully as opposed to tearing one another apart. I feel it helps me sympathize with a lot of people and has given me the skills to navigate more sensitive subjects with others.

Artist Nefertiti Jenkins in her studio painting a pink female nude.

How do you think about culture and identity in relation to your work?

I think culture and identity is expressed through my work by creating imagery that’s recognizable but still defies complete understanding. As a Multiracial person I tend to look racially ambiguous to most people. It has often spawned curiosity and assumptions about who I am and that questioning can either lead to interesting cultural dialogues or being exoticized and feeling othered. When creating my paintings the intense colors and dreamlike visuals are an expression of that feeling. The viewer can come to various conclusions but there won’t be one definitive answer. My compositions can at times be placid and mundane to confrontational and overwhelming. I have plants and objects superimposed with facial features that serve as witnesses to either the outside viewer or another figure within the painting. I imbue them with enough volume to make them feel more alive and authoritative so it’s not an entirely passive image.

Subjects, such as my own face and body, get transmogrified and cast in colors that are unnatural. This helps guide my pieces towards feeling accessible and pleasurable to potentially intoxicating or off-putting once the viewer actually engages more closely with the work. Something is clearly going on but the context isn’t fully comprehensible and it may have to be left at that. There is a desire to be known but also a desire to hold passers-by accountable depending on how they question what they see.

Can you tell us more about your painting A Drink For Us?

My painting A Drink For Us is a more overt depiction of my desires for comfort and whimsical narratives for marginalized peoples. I show two melanated women sharing drinks and affection towards one another in a landscape overrun with plants. They’re passive, both having their eyes closed, but are still directly engaging with one another. While the plants aren’t superimposed with faces they’re all encompassing and envelop the two women, like a protective veil. It’s a secluded space that’s free of microaggressions where minority bodies can exist comfortably, at least in my own mind. I’d normally feel intimidated entering a rural space but this is one of my own making.

A figurative painting by artist Nefertiti Jenkins of two women in dresses sharing a drink while sitting in a field of golden orange trees.
Close-up of a figurative painting by artist Nefertiti Jenkins of two women sharing a drink in a secluded field.

Listen on Instagram as Nefertiti describes this original painting.