Strokes of genius: Jewel Ham's exhibition captures the essence of Black femininity

Jewel Ham | Soho House

Ahead of her show with Anthony Gallery, and supported by Rebuild Foundation, we talk to the artist about the storytelling and lyrical influences behind her work

Friday 8 April 2022 By Isis Davis-Marks

Jewel Ham is a modern-day griot: the New York-based multimedia artist tells intricate tales about Black life with her hands, creating complex tableaux with bold colours, ebullient marks, and expressive faces. Some of her best-known works, like ‘Did I Stutter?’ (2021), portray commensal scenes of Black women bonding over meals and drinks, giving viewers a depiction of our lives that is uplifting and unmediated by negative media portrayals.  
‘I’ve been a person who has had a story to tell or something to share,’ says Ham. ‘I was always interested in putting some type of story in my painting, just because that’s what art should be.’
Now, Ham’s latest works are on display at her debut Chicago solo show. Entitled I Said What I Said, the exhibition features 14 narrative paintings, many of which contain ruminations about Black experiences, femininity, and food. It’s currently installed at Theaster Gates’ space, Stony Island Arts Bank, and will run until Sunday 10 April. 
Ham has always been interested in using visual media to tell stories. The young artist grew up in Charlotte, North Carolina and knew that she wanted to make art from an early age. 
‘I drew and coloured, and [when I was in] elementary school everyone wanted me to be on their group project,’ she told the arts journalist Daria Harper on the podcast The Art Of It All. ‘Then I started winning some art contests. In middle school, though, it was fun. I was really into it. And then when I got to high school, I was on this rebellious tip [and said], OK, no, I’m just doing my art.’ 

Jewel Ham | Soho House
Jewel Ham | Soho House

Once Ham enrolled at Howard University, a historically Black research university in Washington D.C., she honed her practice, painting for hours in the studio and developing her narrative as an artist. ‘Howard taught me how to live as a Black woman,’ she says. ‘It taught me that you don’t realise what you don’t know until you know it.’ 
As Ham developed her visual language, she increasingly began to reference lyricism and wordplay in her work, much of which stemmed from her love of Black female musical artists like Megan Thee Stallion and Lil’ Kim. As a child, she played tracks like Destiny’s Child’s ‘Independent Woman’ and ‘Bills, Bills, Bills’, songs that speak to the power of Black womanhood and inner strength. 
When you look at her paintings, this makes sense: her canvases seem to undulate in reds (a colour that the artist often uses to represent blood, and the lineage of her people) and capture a sense of rhythm and oral histories. ‘I’m really interested in unpacking different language or phrases [and understanding] how there’s often an inside understanding for [Black folks],’ she says. 
This lyricism continues to inspire and invigorate Ham. One piece in her Chicago show, And Did (2022), portrays a woman drinking from a bottle inscribed with the words ‘Haters Tears’ – the bottle clearly references the design of a Hennessy flask, but Ham put her own spin on it.
‘There’s a Megan Thee Stallion lyric where she says, “my favourite drink is haters tears”, or something like that,’ Ham says, pausing for a second to remember the line. ‘I can’t think of it off the top of my head, but it’s on one of her recent songs. But when I heard the line, I was like, yes. Absolutely yes.’

Jewel Ham | Soho House

Other works like ‘Down Bad’ (2022) point to other aspects of Black femininity: this painting depicts a woman holding multiple objects, including a bag of Cheetos, a cigarette, an iPhone, and a bottle of alcohol. It’s more than she can carry safely; with a single step, she could drop her phone or spill a Cheeto onto the ground, so when you look at the piece, you can’t help but feel overwhelmed. 
‘A lot of [these paintings] are celebratory, but many contain levels of darkness,’ says Ham. ‘Especially in “Down Bad”. It [shows the] idea of being constantly booked and busy, of how you are on the outside versus what you have to deal with on the inside. I’m saying I’m allowed to feel what I’m allowed to feel, and I’m not about to sit here and stutter about it. There’s a lot of Black womanhood that’s hinged on strength, and that’s wonderful because we are strong people. There’s so many levels of vulnerability and emotionality that I feel like we don’t get to express, so I want those levels to be equally talked about.’
Ham’s works express these levels of vulnerability: they’re complicated creations that touch on different facets of identity. I Said What I Said – and Ham’s entire oeuvre – show the intricacies and amazingness of Black womanhood.
‘I make work about the people that really rock with me, my real community,’ says Ham. ‘I feel like that search and constant appreciation and uplifting of my real community transcends all aspects of my life.’ 

Jewel Ham | Soho House
Jewel Ham | Soho House
Interested in becoming a member?