'Art and Protest Will Forever Be Bound Together': Kimberly Drew on the Fine Art of Activism

Maiysha Kai
·6 min read
Kimberly Drew attends Prada “Shaping a Sustainable Future Society” conference in New York on November 08, 2019, in New York City.
Kimberly Drew attends Prada “Shaping a Sustainable Future Society” conference in New York on November 08, 2019, in New York City.

When it comes to handing out our annual accolades, we consider ourselves a pretty discerning bunch here at The Root; with so much Black excellence in the ether, we have to be. So, the fact that Kimberly Drew—also known to hundreds of thousands of her online followers by her “Museum Mammy” tag—has been honored as a member of both The Glow Up 50 and The Root 100 this year should tell you exactly how excellent she is.

To date, Drew’s still-growing resume is already unbelievably impressive. Formerly the social media manager for the famed Metropolitan Museum of Art, the influencer also has several curatorial credits and collaborations under her belt, and most recently, a career pivot she’d never planned: writer. Amid penning features on luminaries like Tina Knowles Lawson, Virgil Abloh and Janet Mock, Drew earned her first book deal, releasing This Is What I Know About Art in June of this year via Penguin Workshop’s Pocket Change Collective series. Her second, Black Futures, co-edited with journalist Jenna Wortham, will hit shelves before year’s end. In between, Drew has also made a name for herself in fashion, scoring campaigns, collaborations, and runway appearances for names like Ganni, Ugg, Kate Spade, Chromat, and more.

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It’s a fully creative life, but no matter the medium, it’s always been about representation, as she reminds us in the prologue to This Is What I Know About Art. “I am not your typical art historian. I am not your typical activist,” she writes.

Art and protest will forever be bound together. And the beautiful thing about art, like activism, is that it allows us space to be curious and learn. Sharing art has helped me learn how to make my voice heard and ask better questions.

If being in the arts has taught me anything, it is that one of the wisest things anyone can say is “I don’t know.”

“One of the things that I think a lot about in terms of especially the art world and any conversations around diversity and inclusion, progress, growth, it really is about who’s in the room,” Drew told The Glow Up soon after publication—and just prior to learning she was part of The Root 100 2020—while sheltering-in-place in the Bushwick neighborhood of Brooklyn, N.Y. She views her first book—literally a pocket-sized, less-than-40-page primer on her journey to art and through art to activism—as an invitation to a younger generation, one increasingly deprived of an arts education.

“I really wanted to reach out to that audience, that whole audience, and really explicitly talk about the work that I do in that space. Because even for me, as a kid who grew up in proximity to art, I would never in a million years have thought that this would be the work that I would be doing,” she continued. “It is really super important for younger audiences who are entering into high school or into college to just have that seed planted.”

Likewise, as we find ourselves in a period of both increased stillness and hyper-vigilant awareness of issues of equality and racial justice, it has ironically become a fortuitous time to be a Black creative. But while the art, advertising and fashion worlds may be scrambling to seek out diversity, Drew sees a bigger pattern; one she hopes we all recognize.

“I think it’s really important whenever talking about awareness or recognition of artists of marginalized backgrounds, that we do acknowledge the work of the past. Like, we’re not operating in a vacuum, this is not the first time that we’ve seen a lot of critical attention paid to artists of marginalized identities,” she says. “But this is definitely a really thrilling time just because we have more access to media than ever before. And so that’s really exciting.”

Like many creatives, Drew sees a unique opening in this otherwise stagnant time—one that echoes Toni Morrison’s now-famous declaration that times like these are “precisely the time when artists go to work.”

“I know the world is bruised and bleeding, and though it is important not to ignore its pain, it is also critical to refuse to succumb to its malevolence,” Morrison wrote for The Nation in 2015. “Like failure, chaos contains information that can lead to knowledge—even wisdom. Like art.”

For Drew, the conditions of our current chaos provide an opportunity to not only make art but to make it more accessible. “The majority of the work that I was doing before all this happened was traveling and connecting with people directly, and now it feels like people are so far off,” she says, admitting the pivot to virtual engagement has been a shock to her naturally extroverted personality. “But I don’t know, I also invite the challenge to be more creative about how to reach audiences. I think if anything, it’s challenging all of us to think more broadly about who might be interested in what we have going on.

“I think there are ways that we can predetermine our audiences which make our audiences already exclusionary,” she later adds. “So what if, [in] this moment, we just diversify and complicate the ways in which we anticipate who might be interested in what we’re doing?”

Whether it’s reading a book, writing one (or two), or discovering more art, Drew posits that the best method of coping with the moment is making the most of it.

“I think in this moment, it’s really important that you, if you have extra time, to, one, just acknowledge that as a privilege, because it’s not given for everyone. And I think that that’s the first step. And so since you have this incredible privilege, what are you going to do with that time? And I think one of the things that you can do with that time is just get lost in research...I love finding artwork I like, either just [that] I think are beautiful or are some artists that in some way relate to the many intersections of my identity. That for me is like, ‘Oh, I’m not alone.’ And so I think those types of journeys, I think are really worthwhile. And that’s how I’m spending my quarantine. I can’t say that for everybody. But I know that’s where I’m at...I think one of the great things about quarantine is that it’s changing the pace of life for many. And if you have the privilege of more time, I think it’s a really incredible time to learn more about our history.”

This is what Kimberly Drew knows about art—that we have always been there, whether acknowledged or not. With the upcoming Black Futures, due out on Dec. 1, she is working to ensure we remain recognized and represented.

“We really were trying to build something that could be a lasting document for future generations...I think is the clearest throughline is that I want whatever book my name is on the cover of, that people open it and feel invited in.”