Updated: Dec 22, 2022
by Mara Soloway, I Start Wondering Contributor
Bari Jenks, 73, sees her art as a language that can bring understanding to her diverse audience. Her bold, colorful multimedia canvases, banners, and masks embody the pride and courage of their subjects, usually African and African American women and men. She depicts women as warriors and huntresses amongst greenery evocative of a jungle setting. Most of the individuals portrayed on canvas, often in a head and shoulders view, look intently back at the viewer as if to say, “See me, see my vibrancy and strength.”
And seeing Bari’s extensive creative effort gives the works the impact she seeks: depicting figures in acrylic and metallic paints; beading each statement necklace herself with African beads or those from her own jewelry; framing some of the canvases with beads; texture, rich patterns, and colors; using fabric and quality handmade paper; deciding on the person’s physical form and design of the body and face paint; adding the floral headdresses, raffia hair, and turbans. She names each of them – Nala, Kamau, Tajah, Amira, Zharah – based on what they say to her.
Just like the 1 billion-plus people on Earth who are African or have African heritage, Bari’s portraits show a range of skin tones, facial features, and hair textures. “I want my art to really speak to everybody. I want it to be a uniting force,” she explained. “My subjects used all of their natural resources as part of their creativity, which I think is so profound – from painting their huts to their bodies; from using the flowers and all the natural resources that grow; to the dyes, they extract for paint and fabric colors – everything is incorporated in their lifestyle and their culture.”
Bari’s artwork offers the lesson of unity. “I want Black people to see themselves, to see their connections. If you remove the face paint you see a Black woman. And it doesn’t even have to be a Black woman, just a female. And I want people of other ethnicities to look from a different perspective and to be open to learning and maybe even seeing themselves beyond the brown skin. We are all colors, with all different features,” she says.
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As an African American, Bari has for many years explored her heritage through her art. A recent DNA test was revelatory: she has 82% African ethnicity – including the heritage of Senegal, Nigeria, Ivory Coast, Benin, and Togo – and 14 percent from Native American, the British Isles, and Germanic Europe.
“I think everybody knows that most black people have some white ethnicity, but I never thought about it regarding myself. It’s like knowing the sky’s blue—I never questioned it,” she said. “But when I saw how heavy my African ethnicity is, I said ‘It’s in my genes. I’m supposed to do this because that’s who I am.’ I didn’t have any questions about the path I’m on after that.”
While African tribespeople is often portrayed as living primitively in various media, Bari – along with a multitude of Black people, anthropologists, and other scholars – have long known that this depiction is false. “My personal exposure to the cultures as great people was from early on. It is accepted that life began in Africa,” she says.
Bari became determined to rectify the misconceptions. “I decided that I would really like to do something that would speak to a broader range of people and get people to see a different perspective,” she said. “And so it really became my mission to instill pride and curiosity for Black people and a learning opportunity for others. Several people in the past year have said to me, ‘That painting looks just like me.’”
Creativity: the Family Lineage
Bari never questioned that she would be an artist. Her mother’s creative output inspired her to be an artist. Now as a mother herself, Bari has influenced one of her sons, Jason Davis, who also is an artist. The gift has come full circle. Several cousins also are artistic.
“My mom emphasized creativity, but her influence was also in her work ethic. I still hear her words to me: ‘Anything worth doing once, if it’s not your best, is worth undoing and redoing again,’” Bari says. “Isn’t it amazing that at 70-plus years old, I’m still listening to her!”
Like her mother, Bari’s interior design and graphic design skills would become her vocation and her art. But because her father thought graphic design was a more practical career than art, Bari compromised with him and studied graphic design for two years at Carnegie Mellon University.
Eventually, she was able to persuade him to allow her to change paths, and he agreed. She began attending the Rhode Island School of Design from which she earned a BFA in Interior Architecture. Bari and her late husband Ron Davis moved to Philadelphia where she did interior design work as a freelancer and on the staff of Temple University, where she also taught. Not surprisingly, her work was large-scale and applied decorative arts using bold colors and graphic elements.
She and her husband then moved to New Orleans. She continued as an interior designer incorporating decorative finishes and as a graphic designer; she later started her own firm, Arterior Dimensions. She also began painting as a visual artist in a variety of genres, though not on the scale she is now.
Surviving the Storms
Bari knows not to take anything for granted. Ron and Bari had a daughter, a son, and another son on the way when Ron died in a boating accident. Bari was a widow for more than a decade while working and raising her children.
Despite her grief, Bari continued to be involved in professional organizations, serving on two national interior design oversight boards and the Louisiana State Board of Examiners for Interior Design. She also was a community college interior design instructor and an elementary school art teacher.
A literal storm would affect the new life that Bari and her second husband, Leo Jenks were creating; they evacuated to Houston in the days before Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in August 2005. Besides the displacement involved with leaving their home, possessions, and community, Bari lost a body of work – along with those of Jason and one of his friends – that was displayed in the lobby of the New Orleans Trade Center Building, located downtown near the French Quarter. Among the 40-plus pieces destroyed was her painting of her grandfather, whom she had never met, created from a black-and-white photograph her father had.
Realizing the effect of these traumatic circumstances, Bari’s cousin, who lives in the Houston area, said that she would hold an art show for Bari if she would produce another body of work. “That gave me the incentive. I knew I couldn’t go home. So I started finding out where I could get supplies here,” she says.
Soon, resiliency and optimism about having a creative life in Houston edged out the loss and upheaval. Her first show in Houston was held in her cousin’s home six months after Katrina.
Bari also found success as a decorative painter with one referral leading to another for several years. When she finally decided it was time to get off the scaffolding about 12 years ago, she transitioned back to the visual arts and to her African-centered creations.
Bari is sure of her purpose in life. “I think what I do – my creative ability – is a gift from God. Between the fact of my ethnicity and the fact that I’m an artist, I just really see what I’m doing as my purpose, that I should use my art as my language to tell people about people and how many exterior things that we focus on are so unimportant,” Bari says.
“I believe that when people create art, it’s a language, and I am telling them this is how I feel about this group of people. It’s the creativity, it’s the pride, it’s the focus on working as a unit together, the way they as tribes work. To me, that’s what people should be focused on instead of differences.”
Artists who speak to Bari through their own special creative language have a place of honor in her personal collection. Many years ago she purchased a wood carving by Ghanaian artist El Anatsui, who is known for large-scale assemblages of metal bottle caps, rings, and strips resembling tapestries. Woodrow Nash, who creates ceramic tribal figures, also speaks to her.
Bari has another set of gifts: those for making connections and sharing her wisdom. She reaches out to artists on Instagram whose work she finds inspiring; the conversations have generated ideas for collaborations. She recently connected with a young woman with health issues on Instagram who thanked Bari for sharing life lessons by sending her a book on Africa and African culture. Bari delved into this new book and almost finished it in one sitting. Even though she has numerous other books about African art and culture, Bari found she has a lot more to gain from this one.
As a lifelong learner herself, Bari counsels others who need a change of mindset and inspiration to learn and create new things. “I think that everyone has some kind of a gift. And it doesn’t have to be art,” she explained. “I suggest doing a self-assessment and determining what you like to do and what your strong points are. Do some research at the library, bookstore and online and see what other people do as an end product.
“Then start simply. And as you become familiar with various factors and processes, you will open up more to it, and it will become a joy instead of a task. There’s no one there grading you or trying to determine the value of what you do. I think that’s what’s important.”
One of the lessons from her life’s continued creative trajectory is that Bari didn’t let people discourage her. She also learned to compromise, when necessary. “At a certain point, very possibly the people who questioned you and your abilities will hopefully be your supporters,” she says. “It’s your work as an individual person, and there’s only one you.”
Readers in the Houston area can see more than a dozen of Bari’s works as part of the current installation at Art Museum TX Sugar Land in Sugar Land, Texas, and will transition to the Art Museum TX in Cinco Ranch, Katy, Texas in Spring 2022.