Melissa Tshikamba always wanted to be an artist but did not see many people of color depicted beautifully in illustrations and paintings. So she changed that in her own work.

Tell me a little bit about yourself.

I’m from Alberta, Canada, a small town called Fort Saskatchewan. It’s more up north. I come from a mixed-race family. My dad is from the Congo and my mom is originally from the US. She grew up in Connecticut and a little bit in Australia, and went on a study-abroad program to Canada. My dad immigrated from Congo to Canada to work and ended up in Alberta. That’s where my parents met.

Melissa Tshikamba

Growing up, I was always drawing and creating. I love children’s books and I was really obsessed with them. I’d put like twenty on my bed each night and look through them at all the illustrations. I really, really loved art. At school, I always drew on my notebooks and I got in trouble when I drew on the walls. I know a lot of kids do this when they’re younger, but I never grew out of it. I just always knew that this is what I was supposed to do and this is my purpose. I never really questioned it because I was super passionate about it even though I wasn’t great at it. I feel like when you’re passionate about something, you put your all into it, and you want to get better.

I was raised in the church, so I wanted to go to BYU and get into the illustration program. They have a really good illustration program. I had family in Utah and I knew I wanted to be an artist, so I thought it was a good match.

I didn’t get in the first time and there are only two chances to apply. I remember being so nervous and heartbroken because I knew this is what I’m supposed to do. I put my all into developing my skills that year, taking figure drawing classes and developing my techniques so I could get into the program. I was accepted the second time, which was great because I don’t know what else I would have done. I still would have said this.

What was the process to be accepted?

You had to apply and turn in a portfolio with a certain amount of figure drawings in it. I actually hadn’t taken any figure drawing classes before I went to BYU, and I didn’t know how to draw people, to be honest. I think that was what hindered me from getting in because my technique wasn’t great. I’d never had instructional classes, so taking classes at BYU that year for technical stuff and figure drawing really helped me get in with the second application. There was a lot of developing my technique because I’d never had any training before that.

How did your work develop into what you’re doing now with multimedia – gold leaf and resin and dried flowers? You’re getting a whole mix of stuff in there.

I really like experimenting with different mediums. At BYU, they mostly taught traditional oil painting. But I really like texture, I really like 3-D elements, I like texture. And I like sculpture. I hadn’t taken any sculpture classes but I wanted to somehow incorporate 3-D or texture elements into my painting. I became fascinated with resin and gold leaf because it brought dimension to my artwork that I really wanted. I ended up figuring out how to do that by myself. I followed different artists that I loved – saw an artist use resin and thought, “What is that?” I followed artists who had a lot of gold leaf and I was drawn to the gold. Yellow has always been my favorite color so I was drawn to it.

I looked at YouTube videos and probably spent thousands of hours figuring out how to use sculpture, how to use resin, what kind of resin to get, how to gold leaf. I taught myself from online and from watching different artists. Then I combined it into my own style. I combined everything into one because I love that all so much.

I understand about the University of YouTube; one of my kids watches art tutorials and is learning a lot. Then how did you get into selling your art?

It was a long process. When I went to school, I didn’t have a Plan B. I feel like a lot of artists or creative people often have something else to fall back on. They say, “If art doesn’t work out, I’ll do this other thing instead.” But maybe they never put their full focus on what they actually want to do with art because they feel like they’re going to fail or people have told them they’ll fail. I think when you’re really confident and know that you’re supposed to be doing something, you go all in. I just went all in. I didn’t have a Plan B, I said, “This is what I’m doing so I need to figure it out.”

I followed a whole bunch of different artists that I loved and watched their process. If they sold stuff, I watched where they sold stuff. If they sold prints, I watched how they sold prints. I studied what they did and I mimicked it because I didn’t know what I was doing before that. So I was self-taught when it came to that.

I had some great opportunities and I was lucky because I had a lot of support from other artists. J. Kirk Richards reached out to me and wanted to do daily paintings with me. That helped advertise my paintings more. I built my website and started selling prints. I used to make my prints at the print lab in a basement at BYU – I personally would go down and print each one. I saw different artists who embellished their prints and I thought that was so cool. I used a lot of gold-leaf in my original paintings, and I thought, how can I incorporate this into my prints. So I ended up gold-leafing my prints. I feel like that was more of a niche market because not a lot of people were doing that.

I had people reach out slowly because they were interested in what I was painting. I think this is because I was at BYU and it’s predominantly white. Not a lot of people painted people of color. They didn’t even think to paint people who didn’t look like them. I think that’s what made me stand out and start my career a little bit faster than it otherwise would have. It helped that I stood out in a place where artists weren’t painting a lot of people of color and I wanted to change that, because it’s isolating not to see yourself as the norm.

Going from technique to the themes of your art – I’ve seen some of your pieces about Heavenly Mother and other religious themes. How do you choose a subject to focus on in a piece of art?

I’m not sure that I necessarily pick it. I think I’m more drawn to it. If I pick something specifically, it’s because I’m not seeing it in other art.

Auset and Heru by Melissa Tshikamba

It came naturally, I just started painting what I knew, and we know ourselves better than anyone. People paint what they know and it’s a reflection of themselves. It’s so funny – we had an assignment in school when we had to paint eyes. I painted my eye, my husband’s eye, and my dad’s eye. They happened to be of a different ethnicity. I didn’t pick doing that, that’s just me, that’s who I am. I painted what I knew. But I had people come up to me and say, “Oh, it’s so interesting that you’re painting a Black eye.” How is that interesting? I don’t go up to any white artists and say, “It’s so interesting that you paint white people, why do you do that? What makes you so interested in that?”

It was interesting that people automatically thought diversity and painting different ethnicities was not the norm. Diversity is the norm – this whole world is very diverse, and I feel like art should reflect our world. We should normalize it and redefine what it means to be normal. We need to expand our boxes of what normal is. I think people have really limited views of what they think is normal, especially when they don’t travel. There’s so much diversity and people tend to forget.

Is there any theme in your art that has stood out as a favorite?

I feel like I’m on a journey of self-discovery. Every painting I do is somehow part of me or part of my process, and I develop and get better as I go. So maybe my favorite painting of the past is no longer my favorite painting now.
I think I have current favorites. Not to say one is above the other, because they’re all an important part of my journey and process, and they’ve added some value in some way. Maybe it was a terrible painting that taught me different skills on how to be better, or a favorite painting when I had a breakthrough and I was able to do something I thought I couldn’t. They’re all favorites for different reasons, based on where I was emotionally or technically at the time.

I have a strong theme of women because I didn’t have a lot of black female art around me growing up, and I didn’t see myself in art. Because of that, it was hard to see myself as divine. Part of painting myself and other Black women was a process to develop self-love, maybe find my identity culturally, and redefine what beauty was to me outside of what the world was telling me what beauty was. It was to help myself to unlearn false things.

I saw a photo shoot you did with many women of color and it was amazing. Tell me about that whole experience and process. It was gorgeous.

Thank you! It was so stressful. I had some great friends and acquaintances. So this is a bit about my process – I can’t hire a model to pose for me for eight hours while I paint them, so artists really rely on high-resolution photos. I wanted to get a photoshoot together to get great reference photos of some concepts and ideas I had for future paintings. This photo shoot was important to me to show the diversity in Blackness. I think people look at it as a monolith. There are different languages, different cultures, different skin tones, nose shapes and lip shapes, different body types and hair textures … I noticed when I was growing up that people put it into one monolith, and that’s not how it is. The photo shoot was mostly to highlight the diverse Blackness in Utah and what it looks like – to honestly be inclusive, to educate people, to express unity and self-love and sisterhood. That’s a really important message for me.

The photo shoot was a fun process. We woke up super early in the morning, got everyone’s makeup done. Someone helped me find outfits and we all drove to the Salt Lake flats. It was hard to get that many people to do the same things or pose, but it ended up working out. There was one shot that was almost like a pyramid. I had them all leaning on each other and it was going up to the top. Their hands were all intertwined and they were leaning on each other for comfort or support. That was one of my favorite shots because it really emphasized the message I wanted to share, which is: “All are alike unto God.” We are all loved by God, but we tend to forget that when we’re constrained or boxed into what we think “normal” is.

I really wanted to break the negativity associated with blackness. There are a lot of negative connotations ignorantly or naively passed down when we’re talking about blackness. I wanted to deconstruct what that meant and show people how diverse and beautiful and different we all are. I still haven’t finished the painting from that, but I think the photos stood on their own.

My Sister’s Keeper by Melissa Tshikamba

We had so much fun. I brought a ton of snacks. Everyone was super helpful and kind. I have a really great friend who photographed it for me, and she helps me with a lot of the shoots that I do. It was a chaotic yet smooth process. They loved it. They said, “Oh my gosh, I can’t believe I’ve never seen this many Black girls in Utah all at once, this is amazing!” It felt like a safe place, a place of unity and love, a place where people look like you, and you could really relate with, which is sometimes rare when you’re here.

You’ve said that your art’s purpose is to share the message about divinity in each of us. How does sharing this message connect you to the Savior and our Heavenly Parents?

I love that. We all have different talents and strengths that God gives us, and when we’re put on this earth, we all have different things we’re supposed to do. Part of life is discovering our gifts and how we can help and uplift others with them. So I think when we are developing our talents and sharing them for good, it’s bringing us closer to God because we’re using the gifts that they gave us. That’s so important. We’re showing it, showing them. We show that we love God when we help and uplift others. It brings me closer to God when I see someone connect with my art, or it makes them cry and feel loved. That’s what God wants us to feel. When we’re helping God do that, we become more like God, and we become closer to God. We do.

What are your next steps and goals going forward?

I have a lot of different goals. I want to own my own gallery one day. This year, I’m focusing on making a solo show, and I’m going to call it “The Divine Feminine.” I’m working on really large pieces of art just for me. Honestly, there are a lot of different paintings I’ve been wanting to work on, but I haven’t had the time or opportunity to do so yet because of commissions or other projects that I had to complete first. So I’m super, super excited about that.

I think “The Divine Feminine” is going to emphasize what I want to portray and what I want people to see and feel in my art: healing internalized racism, developing self-love, reconnecting with your cultural identity, eradicating self-hate and colorism … These are huge messages in my art. We’re deconstructing what it is to be beautiful and what we were told is beautiful. When I was growing up, just in the media – what I watched, the books I read – it largely didn’t portray me, especially in religious and historical contexts. Black wasn’t seen as positive or good. I hope I’m changing the narrative and redefining what normal is with my art. It’s a huge goal.

Also, showing different types of beauty – for a different audience, maybe that could seem shallow. But when you come from a background historically, in which it was shown that Black is ugly, it was said that Black is ugly, not divine, and not worthy of divine places…We don’t see it shown as the mainstream of beauty. It really affects people mentally and emotionally, and develops self-hate. Showing beauty is an important thing for me because it’s eradicating self-hate. You see yourself as beautiful.

It’s interesting to me that there are so many divine places and temples and churches, but we still only see one ethnicity in these places. That’s just not accurate historically or fair. I want to change that narrative because Black is also divine and it is also beautiful.

Have you had any of your art purchased by the Church with that end in mind, of it being displayed in our church buildings?

I hope it will get to that point. I did have one painting purchased by the Church History Museum, which is exciting – it was a Black man with his son. It’s not going to be in the church halls, but I think that’s a great step. You don’t see Black men in divine spaces when it comes to our videos. I think the narrative is changing to be more inclusive, and I’m really glad that they have that piece because that’s important to see. So hopefully, we’ll have more of that.
I try to identify what’s missing in art or what people need to see, and create based on that. If a painting is not for me, it’s because sometimes I feel like I’ve been inspired – I didn’t really need the message because I already felt that it was true. But then people reach out to me and say, “Oh, I really needed to see this.” Or, “It just really made me see myself so differently.” That’s such a cool part about creating, that you can uplift someone just by an image.

The Church and religion and spirituality in general claim that we’re all children of one Creator. I feel like if the central figure of a faith doesn’t look like you and looks like someone else, you revere a different ethnicity besides yourself. You put them above you, and it creates a barrier between you and your spirit because you don’t love yourself. You want to be someone else, you want to look like someone else, and you put that person above you. It stops you from being able to see the divinity within yourself, and it inhibits us from seeing ourselves the way God sees us. You really need to be mindful of what you watch, what you read, and in your thoughts to reprogram yourself to see yourself the way God sees you. And I guess that’s, that’s honestly my goal with my art: to eradicate self-hate and develop self-love. When you have love for yourself, you can see beauty in others and really, truly love others even more. We’re supposed to love others as ourselves, and if you don’t love yourself, it’s hard to love other people.

At A Glance

Name: Melissa Tshikamba

Age: 28

Location: Utah

Marital History: Married

Children: None

Occupation: Artist

Convert to the Church: Born in the Church

Schools Attended: BFA illustration BYU

Languages Spoken At Home: English and French

Favorite Hymn: How Great Thou Art

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Interview Produced By: Trina Caudle