Making Space to Thrive: Radical Representation in the Art of Tiana ConyersFeb 22, 2021 11:16AM ● By Patrick Mainelli
Photography by Bill Sitzmann
Omaha artist Tiana Conyers believes there is something radical in creating space for
“Black people have dealt with blatant systemic racism, police brutality, and other things far more egregious. For us to be able to celebrate ourselves and make space for ourselves—not only is that our right, but that should be invited and accepted, at the very least for ourselves.”
Conyers’ work, digital illustrations primarily, is a bold assertion of the power in representation. Her graphic figures—Black, queer, fat (a term she specifically embraces)—occupy visual space in an art world conditioned through centuries of Western art history to appreciate a specific definition of Anglocentric beauty.
“To me, it’s just really amazing and inspiring—taking this space back for Black people. This space that wasn’t created for us, and was so often created against us,” she said.
Conyers has achieved a prolific career as a young artist in Omaha. Steeped in the cultures of Manga, anime, and internet fan communities from a young age, Conyers’ digital style has evolved in harmony with the growth of social media.
“I started drawing very young and in order for me to get my work seen, the only option was the internet,” she said. “There was no art gallery that would have been interested in me—some 13-year-old at Monroe Middle School.”
Today, Conyers describes her work as “depicting fat bodies which, in Euro-American societies, are often deemed unworthy of respect and rarely make the subject of art.”
Conyers’ bristles at the now-common phrase “body-positivity,” feeling that the movement has been largely co-opted by advocates with less-than sincere motives. Instead, she prefers the more radical phrase “fat liberation.”
“This has definitely stemmed from me not being represented and wanting to see myself...in art and different spaces,” she said. “I’m not seeing people like [me]—not seeing fat Black people, or queer Black people. When I was younger...I definitely avoided myself as a subject matter. I felt like ‘I don’t fit in here; I don’t exist in these spaces so why even try?’ But now...I want to see myself more. I deserve to. Other people do, too.”
Conyers’ work made a dramatic appearance in a new venue in the summer of 2020. Her “We Thrive in Middle Spaces” project—produced through the support of The Union for Contemporary Art and the Omaha Community Foundation—brought her work to five billboards across North Omaha.
The billboards featured portraits of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, asexual, and two-spirit (LGBTQIA2S+) people of color from Omaha. In her artist statement, Conyers noted, “Middle spaces refer to the parts of our identities that overlap. My identity as a Black person and my identity as a queer person overlap—or more specifically, intersect—and better define my experience.”
Before production of the billboards, Conyers spent several weeks selecting, researching, and interviewing her five subjects, each of whom represented a broad range of ages and identities.
Among the group was genderqueer performer and member of the Indigenous Havasupai and Diné tribes, Mr. Little Cat. “I found it sentimental and a special touch how she incorporated things in the portrait of myself,” Little Cat said of the process.
In each of the portraits, Conyers worked to build a well-rounded character study of the subjects, including telling details of their individual identities.
“Seeing my two tribes flags next to me, I felt prideful,” Little Cat added. “I instantly knew I made my people proud. I made my family proud. When I saw the final product…I wanted to scream at every detail.”
It was this attention to the small particulars of identity—the subtle signifiers that illuminated the real people behind these often generalized groups—that drove the project.
Conyers’ also wrote, “LGBTQIA2S+ people are often defined solely by our queer identities, BIPOC [Black, Indigenous, and people of color], in particular, are often forced to make the impossible choice of choosing which identity comes first.”
“When I read Tiana’s statement about this project,” Little Cat noted, “I said to myself ‘I always said that!’...Being Indigenous and queer, I always felt like I had to pull hard for one identity more than the other.”
The feedback was overwhelmingly positive. “I even had a stranger in public ask me ‘Are you the person on that billboard?’ I felt seen and represented at the utmost for someone like me—someone who is Indigenous and queer,” Little Cat said.
In addition to her art and being a full-time studio art major at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, Conyers has worked for years as a teaching artist with The Union for Contemporary Art.
Jacquline Smith, Youth Studios Manager at The Union, speaks highly of Conyers’ talent for reaching young artists. “Tiana’s presence has had a positive impact on the youth. Their passion, skills, and confidence in creating art, specifically drawing, grew under Tiana’s guidance and mentorship,” she said. “It has been wonderful to see Tiana’s talent and reach as an artist continue to grow beyond The Union. I have so much love and respect for this young, fierce, and incredibly talented human being.”
Conyers is eager to branch out to new mediums and creative challenges. “I would like to work on a comic,” she said. “I feel like the university is kind of slowly pushing me in that direction. I also want to see my online store grow larger and get the word out about that. You know, help fund a college student through these tough times.”
Visit tianaconyersart.com for more information.
This article was printed in the March/April edition of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.