Art as Activism: Riley Holloway

Exploring the voices of Black artists with art curator, historian and educator Antoine J. Girard.


So much conversation can exist in the art world over success, what defines it and the shortcuts one can take. We’ve moved away from the seductive fifteen minutes of fame art prophet Andy Warhol promised us, to the compressed fifteen seconds our Instagram Stories hold. While so many of the voyeuristic omens Warhol preached about authenticity and the speeding up of culture proved to be accurate, no one could predict the global halt we’ve all experienced. A shift so strong that the spaces in the art world, galleries and museums who have historically prided themselves on their ability to hold expensive expressions of humanity, were also left wondering where to turn.

I wanted to reach out to four artists that challenge and cultivate new positions of connectivity, that lead the way—artists not afraid to create community in what’s missing. The voices of the artist originate from vastly different places: Otis Kwame Kye Quaicoe of Ghana, Esmaa Mohamoud of Canada, Murjoni Merriweather of Maryland and from my home state of Texas, Riley Holloway. They represent the moment.

In my experience as a curator, the voice of the artist of color can work in chorus, expressing shared human truth and hardships but the true intellect is mastered only when listening closely for their individual differences and high pitches and wildest dreams for us. It is more widely known than ever that Art, especially that made from creative minds of people from African descent are not monolithic. No two walks of life are the same.

The task was simple: open up a dialogue where the artist can comment on how they are maneuvering professional creative careers ahead in the frightening uncertain reality of our “new normal.”

— Antoine J. Girard.

Riley Holloway is a painter whose body of work explores figures from his local community in Dallas, Texas. Intertwining audio or text elements with his figurative paintings, Holloway creates a familiarity between the subjects and the viewers, redefining what American culture could be for people of African-American heritage. 

LOCATION: Dallas, Texas

MEDIUM: Painting

INSTAGRAM HANDLE: @hollowayfineart

Can you tell us about how you got into art?

My mom got me into art at a very young age, as she's an artist herself. She went down the graphic design route. She was showing me anatomy, and we would draw portraits from these fashion magazines, because she was into fashion too. Now here I am, painting photographs from my family album. Going through the photos kind of has a therapeutic vibe. With the pandemic and not being able to see family, I think part of revisiting the albums was a little bit of wanting family around. Before that, [my practice] was about how I can create a space when you go to my show and [hopefully] it's a point of healing for you. 

I hadn't been back home, so I think when I saw the painting that you did of my grandmother, Eva Catherine Partee McMillan, I was in tears because you have painted so many people who were pretty monumental in my development as an art thinker and in Dallas. After not seeing them for such a long time, you reminded me of where I came from.

I went out looking for people who changed the area, who changed the neighborhood, who had an impact on how it looked and what went on in it. She seemed to always come up.

You create feelings of home in your work, but have you ever personally felt othered by art? Oftentimes, artists of color are considered the othered body, the one that's not the prominent or primary voice, but we're adding to a narrative that's not necessarily our own. 

I think in this country, we carved out our own thing the best that we could with what we were given. One of the pieces that didn't make it into my last show and that I might explore again is this thing I wrote that said, 'What's as American as apple pie?.' This is kind of going down the line of questioning: What is our art? What are our symbols and what are our elements of being American here?

Because of the current climate, do you feel any political responsibility in your work? Do you feel like as an artist, you have to say certain things or express certain points of view?

I always wanted to try to glorify us and heal us and that has never changed. No matter what's going on, I feel like that should always be the focal point, but there also is the fight too. That's why I have to have things like Made in America where Mama Mac [Eva McMillan, the civil rights figure] was involved and the activists in the area were involved [Made in America was Holloway’s solo exhibition at African American Museum in Dallas which explored African American history and featured paintings and video installations including interviews with the individuals within the exhibit]. I'm trying to cover as many bases as I can at the moment.

What's something that you hope that your work does or inspires?

I want [my art] to be open. And, open for me is, I want to make sure I am useful. The project, Made in America, where I had to feed everyone was hard because I had never interviewed people before. I'd never cut interviews and sliced them together before. I was dealing with some very strong individuals. What made it better is [that] they all looked like my aunties and stuff, so that helped. To paint them, I just took everybody's photo and I had them meet me at a studio in Dallas. Then, I was using the cultural center. Marilyn Clark was amazing.

I love Marilyn Clark [an activist and educator known for her work on Sesame Street and with South Dallas Cultural Center, a major art institution emphasising on the African contribution to world culture].

That was my first time meeting her, and that was another part of the project too. I wanted to know more about just African American history. That's where I was going. I was like, "Well, let's start right here, and my studio is right here in Dallas." I always had this idea of “Made in America” in my head, and so my wife was like, "Look, you've been talking about this [exhibition] idea. We can get a grant for it, I think." I was like, "Really?" She was like, "Yeah, because it sounds community oriented." I was like, "Well, yeah, it's heavily community oriented." I need the community that is going to make it happen. That's what really helped too.

I just pulled everybody to South Dallas. After a while, when I ran it to Maryland, we did most of the interviews at the cultural center, and then we did the show at the African American Museum, and we did a panel discussion with everyone at the African American Museum. I had some writers in the city who came through and were like, they'd never been to the museum, and it's a beautiful space. 

Artists need to know to keep practicing, to keep going and to not rely and wait on that one image. I really love that you highlighted your community's support and success in championing you, and then also this idea of mindset when it comes to being an artist—you really can't wait for the opportunity, you must make it.

I want to tell other artists at different levels: make bodies of work. That's your best chance of getting into galleries or whatever your goal is. So many kids, especially coming straight out of high school—you don't have to wait to make bodies of work, to tell a story of cohesive sets of paintings. That's been my biggest lesson.

Interview: Antoine J. Girard

Artwork: Courtesy of the Artist