USC Alumna Chelle Barbour Brings Improvisation to Art

A multidisciplinary artist creates portraits that reimagine notions of black women.

February 28, 2019 Ana Beatriz Cholo

Combining things that were never meant to go together and ending up with art takes a special talent. Multidisciplinary artist Chelle Barbour ’07, MA’ 13 likens the skill to playing jazz — both rely on a creative spirit that embraces improvisation.

Barbour got to showcase her own brand of creative improvisation in her first solo show last fall, “You IS Pretty! Surrealism and The Black Imaginary.” Her collage-based Afro-surrealism series offered vivid portrayals of women of color as majestic, feminine and bold, with visual motifs like flower petals, reptiles and leaves juxtaposed with architectural and warrior items. The configuration of the design elements might seem to clash, Barbour says, but the images draw viewers in while also disrupting the notion of black women as unattractive, threatening or lacking economic value.

Born to a black mother and Filipino father in Oxnard, California, Barbour has thought deeply about subjects like identity, gender, race and culture her whole life, and has explored many of these themes in her work. She began to focus on art about 15 years ago after taking community college art classes. She later enrolled in the USC Roski School of Art and Design, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in fine art/digital media and a master’s degree in art history and curatorial practices. Today, her art practice includes photography, painting, digital media, video, writing and curating.

Citrus Mood, by Chelle Barbour.
Citrus Mood, by Chelle Barbour

In addition to being an artist, Barbour has also established a career in advertising and communications and opened her own boutique agency.

Last October, her solo show was curated by Terrell Tilford, founder and executive director of Los Angeles’ Band of Vices gallery, and Oscar-nominated actress Angela Bassett. “Curating my show was a great followup after Black Panther, a film that was also quite surreal,” Barbour says about Bassett, who played Queen Ramonda in the blockbuster movie. “I couldn’t be happier and more excited to be the subject of her curatorial collaboration with Band of Vices.”

It appears that Barbour’s brush with fame — and famous strong women — isn’t over. She was commissioned to create a piece for the executive director of a Netflix series based on Madam C.J. Walker, an African-American woman known as America’s first female self-made millionaire, which will star Octavia Spencer. She is also in the early stages of other film-related commissions.

Barbour is also continuing with her collages, which combine pages pulled from books with painting and photography. She sees her latest work as just the beginning of her artistic improvisation — part of a process that usually begins with “a constellation of women” as her muse.