Art as the Cornerstone of Change: In Conversation with Bakpak Durden

Bakpak Durden, is a self-taught interdisciplinary fine artist. Pulling from various figurative art techniques, Durden employs a wide range of mediums—oil and acrylic paint, graphite and fine art photography — to construct their hyperrealistic and conceptual works of art. Durden’s artworks illuminate the complexity and precarity of human emotion and identity by meticulously examining their own. Durden has completed a number of murals nationally and is the co-founder of Paper Street Press Co, a QTBIPoC and Disabled BIPOC centered zine press, distro and residency.Bakpak is focused on continuing their work within their communities, highlighting black trans and queer visibility in addition to mental health, neurodiversity and disability advocacy/representation as a Detroiter in a robust art scene.

Last year you co-curated a show entitled, “WE EXIST: The Future is Fluid” in an effort to draw awareness to post-genderism, and to push destigmatied images for LGBTQAI+, and non-binary people. Could you talk about the show, as well as what role art and culture can play in pushing back against stigmatized images of LGBTQAI+ and non-binary people?

WETFIF was meant to be a celebration and showcase of, by and for LGBTQIA+ Trans and non-binary artists. We placed an emphasis on folks submitting their most authentic work, highlighting the complexities of identity.

Art at its essence is the cornerstone of change, inviting us to ask new questions and form better answers and eclipse previous misconceptions with more understanding and empathy. Despite some folks’ best efforts to erase us, we are here.

Along with Cyrah Dardas you co-founded Paper street Press Co., an artist-run zine press that centers the work of Queer & Trans BIPOC (Black & Indigenous People of Color), and Disabled BIPOC. How did this project come to be and what do you see as its mission?

Cyrah and I had the desire to create a community that uplifts the processes and behind the scenes aspects of historically marginalized folks’ art practice in dissent of systems designed to extract from and commodify us. We pour a lot of heart into the project and prioritize care at every turn.We hope to one day find funding for this project so we can broaden our impact instead of largely self funding this endeavor.

You recently created a new mural as part of the Blkout Walls Mural Festival, which defines itself as a direct response to a “shared history of participating in mural festivals throughout the country, where there is no renumeration for the participating artists, and where there is limited racial diversity among the artists represented.” Could you speak a little bit about your experience in the festival and why you felt it was important to participate? What are your thoughts on the state of the mural economy in Detroit?

This can go in many directions but there are many aspects in art that have been reserved for those with privilege. Going to art school, being a full-time artist and even interning while in school without the need for monetary compensation is a privilege. The very same barrier exists in the mural industry; many mural festivals (and people asking for murals) have asked artists to perform their extremely laborious, expensive and challenging crafts for the promise of “exposure” and that’s a privilege many historically marginalized folks dont have.

Additionally, oftentimes an artists’ “passion to create” is used as a tool of gentrification as opposed to celebration and compensation. There are organizations that seek to use murals to “artwash” parts of the city, to the detriment of many long-time detroiters.

I’d also like to add that my personal experience is unique in that Sydney G James took me under her wing as a mentee in navigating the art world specifically when it came to murals and advocated on my behalf. I also have a community and partner that supports me and my craft and vice versa.

As for the inaugural BLKOUT Walls festival, it was an honor to participate. And to be in the company of some amazing artists was also a privilege. I had witnessed the behind the scenes of the festival’s inception and was on the first BLKOUT walls collaborative wall in Denver and to finally see the festival come together was an amazing feat that I’m in awe of everyone’s involvement in, especially my mentor, Sydney G james.

What do you see as the role(s) of public art? Are there social/political responsibilities that come with making work in a public space as opposed to private/studio work?

This is another question that can be taken in a lot of directions but a major one for me being, REPRESENTATION. Striving for representation and advocating in the realms of mental health, disability, neurodivergence and identity is REVOLUTIONARY. In the domain of public art, I feel by simply existing as a black trans person, I am revolutionary. By creating art in the realm of fine art, having not attended an institution is revolutionary. Frequently, artists find themselves working alone and in solitude and then we present in sterile gallery spaces to whomever’s attention we happen to have caught; alternatively, public art has the intrinsic ability to capture more people’s attention and meet them where they’re at, in its virtue it is a lot more accessible.

As a self-taught artist, what advantages do you believe come from not being trained within traditional institutions/art academia?

For me, I have less student loan debt and less to unlearn. I work from a place of curiosity, apply analogous ideas and principles to my own authentic experience as opposed to working within the rigidity of prescribed institutional practices.

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