Young Black artists show the academy what movies mean to them
Temi Coker and Michelle Robinson talk about their contributions to the promotional campaign for the Oscars
Since 2012, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has partnered with artists to create custom Oscar statuette art in advance of the Academy Awards. This year, to broaden the artists’ approach to re-imagining the iconic statuette, the academy removed rules that had restricted past artists to traditionally formal colors such as black, white, red and gold. Armed with this expanded color palette, each artist was asked to create a piece inspired by the question, “What do movies mean to you?”
Among the seven artists selected to craft a response are two Black creators on the rise. Nigerian-born Temi (rhymes with Jamie) Coker was inspired by cinema as a tool for storytelling, while mixed-media artist Michelle Robinson looked to the architectural grandeur found in the movie theaters of the past.
The Undefeated spoke with Coker, a multidisciplinary artist who co-runs Coker Studio in Dallas, and Robinson, who was born in Korea and now lives in Seattle, about the process of creating original art for the 93rd Oscars ceremony, their favorites in film and what they do to stay creative when they’re not making visual art.
Aside from your visual artwork, what are your other creative interests?
Temi Coker: I’ve played keys since 9 or 10 as a way to express creativity. One of my dreams is to have an EP called Temi and Friends and make it this creative outlet with stories and visuals behind each song. To be able to do something like that with my friends is something I’ve wanted for a long time.
I always listen to music when I’m designing, so I think it becomes a part of what I create.
Michelle Robinson: Aside from my undying love for music and film, I enjoy transforming spaces. I’ve always been attracted to interior design, but more for fun than professionally. I’m my friends’ go-to for advice when it comes to all things home decor.
The academy asked each of you, along with five other artists, to create custom Oscar statuette art inspired by the question, ‘What do movies mean to you?’ Temi, you said movies are “about creativity, inspiration and the art of storytelling.” How does that show through your piece?
Coker: A lot of the artwork that I do is to uplift the Black community and people who look like me. When I started this project, based on the prompt, I tried doing my design on the gold statuette, but it wasn’t working, so I wanted to make it black. I told the academy that I wanted to do that because I love when our stories are being told by people who look like us and from our perspective, and they said they loved the idea. For a long time even movies that had stories about Black people were told from the perspective of a white person. The foundation for my piece was honoring Hattie McDaniel, Chadwick Boseman, Cicely Tyson, Ms. Ava [DuVernay] and all the others who tell our stories our way.
Then, in case people didn’t get the message or even pay attention to the statue’s color, I put “BLK” on the neck. I said, “I’ma put it right here, in bold, to make sure they see it!”
Michelle, you also chose to color the Oscar statuette black in your piece. Was it for similar reasons?
Robinson: Apart from being a color that stands out and demands attention, black has many symbolisms – mystery, power, a void, anger. I chose black for the Oscar statuette to invite conversations that resonate with the viewer.
How did you use color and pattern to express your love of movie houses, and are any particular theaters, films or performers represented?
Robinson: I use color and patterns to help to create movement within a piece. It also allows each of the individual elements to stand out, while at the same time working together seamlessly.
I drew inspiration from the “Picture Palaces” created in the golden era of the 1920s and ’30s because of how elaborately decorated they were. These venues helped to amplify the magic of the moviegoing experience. While the elements in this piece are inspired by the Art Deco style that was popular during that era, I chose to create something that didn’t replicate anything or anyone in particular.
Temi, what story are you telling through your use of color and contrast?
Coker: The colors I chose speak to the range, vibrancy and variety of skills, actors, personalities and stories in Black cultures. The black statuette was the foundation laid by the greats, and then everything else grew out of that blackness. A woman found me on social media to tell me that when she saw the piece, she immediately felt like it had been made by a Black person and that something about it made her feel seen. That’s exactly what I want out of my art.
Speaking to that variety in the culture, what are some of your favorite films, performances and stories by Black creators?
Coker: Black Panther, of course. You have When They See Us and Lovecraft Country that were amazing. Regina King was great in Watchmen. Even the shows that helped us grow up like Fresh Prince, The Wire, Martin, The Cosby Show … being able to see Black people from their own perspectives helped to shape me as a person because then I realized that my perspective mattered, regardless of what the world says. Creating safe spaces for people to share their perspectives is why I do what I do.
How about you, Michelle? What are some of your favorite films or memorable roles for Black and Asian actors and producers?
Robinson: Some of my favorite films by Black directors and performers are Boyz n the Hood, Eve’s Bayou, Pariah and Moonlight. Nine-year-old Quvenzhané Wallis’ memorable lead role in Beasts of the Southern Wild stands out in my memory. That was a beautiful movie and performance.
Some films by Korean directors and performers that I love are Mother, Oldboy, Okja, Parasite and Minari. I also adored Sandra Oh’s performance in Sideways.
Temi, you did the art for The Originals, a 2018 project from Tobe Nwigwe, a fellow Texan with Nigerian roots. What do you look for in opportunities to partner your art to a musician or a brand?
Coker: I don’t think Tobe’s goal was to get famous, but just to tell a story, and the way he did it resonated with people. That’s what I was drawn to, but there have been other projects where I just didn’t connect with the work, so I passed. I think it’s good to rock with people that are telling stories in a way that more people can connect with.
Michelle, do you find similar challenges in finding brands and projects that fit your art and personality?
Robinson: I’ve been approached by brands and campaigns and I have a couple of projects lined up. I’m not actively seeking partnerships and collaborations but if the right one comes my way, I may consider it. My main objective is just to create beautiful paintings and provide homes for them.
Tell me the best advice someone ever gave you and how you use it in your life today.
Robinson: There’s not one particular person with words of wisdom that stands out to me. It was the collective support of my friends and family that instilled in me the confidence to pursue what I deeply feel is my calling.
Coker: One of the organizations I worked with in college used the slogan “Lift as you climb.” As I get higher in my career, I want to bring people with me in the hopes that they surpass me and do the same for someone else. Just trying to be part of a cycle.
What’s next for each of you?
Robinson: I’m not sure what the future holds for me but I am open to all possibilities that align with myself and my work. For now, I will continue to share whatever my curious mind and eager hands create.
Coker: My biggest goal this year is to get into the fashion and apparel market. I am working on some products and I’m hoping to make my first jacket soon. I want to sell jackets, sweatpants, bucket hats … more than just T-shirts and posters. I’m also designing stuff for a few campaigns that I can’t talk about yet, but one of them is a TV show coming out later this year.