In what was probably one of the most unforgettable moments from the Real Housewives of Atlanta (RHOA) reunion series, former series regular NeNe Leakes uttered the classic one-liner “I said what I said” during a heated exchange with fellow RHOA alum, Kandi Burruss. With the use of only five fiery words, Leakes made clear the very essence of the phrase: that she understood the message she communicated, would not apologize for her words and there would be no further discussion about them.
But let’s forget about RHOA reunion squabbles for a moment because multimedia visual artist Jewel Ham has parlayed that same phrase into the catchy title of her latest solo exhibition in Chicago. Located at 6760 Stony Island Avenue, Ham’s exhibition, titled “i said what i said,” opened at Theaster Gates’ Stony Island Arts bank. Originally on view from March 10 through April 10, the show was extended due to popular demand through April 17.
The exhibition, organized by Anthony Gallery in collaboration with the Rebuild Foundation, is part of a yearlong partnership to amplify the work of emerging and established contemporary artists like Ham. The show “invited viewers on an emotional journey that contextualizes the need for an unapologetic expression to be part of our reparational demands.” It featured fourteen of Ham’s best-known pieces depicting images of female subjects.
Ham, who developed an interest in painting early in life, honed her craft at Howard University where she graduated Summa Cum Laude in 2020 with a BA degree in fine arts. She went on to appear in national and international exhibitions, such as in Senegal and Sweden, was featured in Essence Magazine as one of “7 Contemporary Black Women Painters to Watch” and interned with the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Spotify.
South Side Weekly sat down with the talented North Carolina-born artist a few days ahead of her show to discuss her background, process, and the road ahead. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
How long have you been painting?
I’ve been painting seriously since about middle school or high school, but I could always draw. I was always someone who drew a lot during class; you know, one of those. Then I started getting more serious about my art. I wanted to paint so I tried acrylic painting. I went to the art store in middle school and my mom was like, “you can get five colors.” So, I learned a lot about color theory just from not having that many.
When did you become serious about really wanting to be a painter?
[It was] when I got to high school and finally decided that I wanted to go to Howard that I decided to pursue this seriously. No one was really doing art, especially not in North Carolina and I wanted to be the best. So, I was like, ‘let me do the oil paints.’ I needed to teach myself so I spent my entire senior year of high school just practicing and honing my craft.
When did you first realize that you wanted to be a visual artist? Did something or someone influence you in that way?
When I was in high school, I was not the best behaved. My attitude was like, ‘I’m not going to school. I’m just going to do art.’ I didn’t know until I took one of those college placement tests at school and I got Howard University as a match. I didn’t really know anything about Howard. I knew about HBCUs because my parents are HBCU graduates. So, when I saw that Howard was an HBCU in a major city, I thought, ‘let’s go,’ and I kind of just had to make it happen.
In your artist statement, your art is described as presenting chaotic imagery against commonplace backdrops that imagine how it looks to reclaim our time, space, and history. Can you talk a little bit about that?
Absolutely. For me, I use a lot of red. That is the base color whether it turns into pinks, purples, or oranges. Red is the core [of my art], and that’s because the level of creativity that we possess as Black folks is a bloodline that we all share. We’re able to share it because to be Black is to be frustrated even though not all of us are loud with the frustration. It’s not something like, “I’m pissed all the time!” That’s not always the vibe, but so much of that frustration is the reason we’re able to do things so differently—because there’s a need to move differently. I think that’s something in all of us and it’s the reason we’ve been able to influence culture so much. We are culture. There would be none without us. Whether it’s food, music, or fashion, it’s all of us. So while that’s the case and we know it, they should know it by now, too. I feel like putting that in the forefront is incredibly important. I really want people to experience the work and the chaos that kind of comes with being Black and being a Black woman.
When you look at some of your earlier paintings, do you think that they’ve changed at all?
Yes and no. When you do a craft that other people see, it is always going to change because as people we change all the time. It’s like tweeting and deleting. So much of what I was doing before is still informing what I do today. I was going through a lot emotionally and so I was always putting that into the work. I thought that was the way work was supposed to be created. It’s “experiential,” but before I could even say that word or know the vocabulary behind what I was doing, that’s what I was interested in. I was putting my heart and soul into the work, even physically. Telling a story, in some capacity, was always important to me. In my state of North Carolina, they had a Martin Luther King art award. You had to create work inspired by him and I remember when I first won it. I think I was in sixth grade. I drew a picture of him, Obama, and me. We were made completely of words. I drew all the words throughout the skin, and I shaded the skin on top of the words. Looking at different ways to tell a story visually is something that has always been with me, but I’m still learning and I’m still figuring out ways to go about it. I’m still interested in new things all the time. So, visually it’s changed, but the roots are always going to be there.
Are the images in your art based upon real-life people or situations? What’s the story behind the titles, such as “whew chile”?
First of all, I want it to be about Black womanhood as a general experience—first things first. We all know what phrases like “whew chile” imply. Those kinds of titles are really important to my work. I could go into it more and speak at length about what that means exactly, but I think it’s kind of pointless because the people who get it—it’s for them. It’s that kind of attitude that I wanted to bring into the work first. As Black women, we’ve got a lot of stuff on us. The Black woman, as we know, is the most revered but equally the most ignored.
Of all your pieces, do you have a favorite?
That’s the question of all questions. I would say that the favorite changes. I am forever partial to a work called, “did i stutter?” because I feel that was one of the first works where I was channeling the attitude that I really wanted to put into my work. I think the attitude that I’m putting forth lurks in all my paintings, but with that one, it just hit me, especially because it was a quick painting. I did it in a few days and that doesn’t always happen. Trust and believe that doesn’t always happen. I was so excited to put that painting together. In it, the faces are changed and re-adapted. I used two photos of Nina Simone, plus a photo of one of my friends. After collaging those images together, you kind of get the feeling that it could be you or it could be me. That’s always what I want in my artwork. It’s not necessarily one person. Even though it’s based on a reference, I try to change features so that it’s no one and everyone. So I was really happy with that one, but I also love “try me better,” which is the main piece of the show. I’m still finding favorites and, hopefully, I can make my next work my favorite, too.
Are you ever featured in your paintings?
Yes and no. Some of them are blatantly like me. There’s a piece called “what’s tea?” in the solo show and I am one of the figures. However, I try to tweak my facial expressions. I’m also [in] a lot of the people that I wasn’t necessarily the reference for. I think you put yourself in your work inadvertently because that’s what you think faces look like: like the way you look. So, I am in a lot of pieces, but most of the time I don’t really mean to be.
How did you decide on the title of your show “i said what i said”?
It’s funny because if you knew me personally, you couldn’t imagine another title. When I paint, it’s an attitude. That is what I’m really creating. I’m painting attitude. It’s about energies. The attitude that I feel is most important is the attitude of “i said what i said.” That means even if it’s going through things that aren’t necessarily great—I still said it, I’m still doing it, and I’m still looking damn good whilst doing it. That’s big energy for me like the unapologetic queen NeNe Leakes. It’s that kind of attitude and that kind of energy. I love a powerhouse Black woman and I think before NeNe even put that quote on the map, we knew it. We’ve heard it in our community. We know what the attitude is.
What do you want the viewer to take away from experiencing “i said what i said?”
I want the viewer to always feel at home with my works. I like when people can see themselves in the work, even if it doesn’t necessarily look like them. I try to paint things that are familiar because they’re familiar to me and a culture that we all kind of share. Whether that’s pop culture references, food or drink selections, certain outfit features, or accessories. I want people to feel like: that’s my friend, I’ve experienced that, or I remember when. So, even though each painting has a personal narrative, I don’t really like to go too in depth with what the story is because I want you to feel whatever it is for you.
Who are your biggest supporters?
My parents for sure: my mom and my dad. They’re Team Jewel all the way. They’ve always come out to all the shows. They’ve never had any hesitation about me doing art. I really appreciate that because, who would have thought?
If you could give one piece of advice to an up-and-coming visual artist, what would it be?
I would say continue to do your craft. Keep doing it and keep doing it non-stop. Continue to experiment with new things. And if anybody is telling you that you cannot, ignore it. By all means, ignore it all. If you really have the drive and the passion to have it, it will be yours. All you have to do is put in the practice behind it. I think anybody saying that you can’t be an artist for a living or it’s not a career only speaks from fear. If you have the conviction and the work to back up your craft, no one can take that from you. So keep doing it and post about it. You never know who you’ll meet.
After your exhibition here in Chicago closes, what’s next?
I will be back in Chicago for a group show. I can’t say where and I can’t say with whom, but you’ll see me in the summer. I’m still creating works. So we’ll see what happens.
If our readers want to find out more about you, purchase some of your artwork or just get in touch with you, where can they go to learn more?
They can follow me on Instagram @whateverjewel, where they can see my works as they’re being made. They might even be able to snatch one early. And they can email me—I have an email button on my Instagram or at firstname.lastname@example.org—and we’ll chat.
Dierdre Robinson is a writer and accounting manager in Chicago. She has a BA in Journalism from Michigan State University. She last wrote about the south suburb’s Underground Railroad.