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Imani Barnes Breaks the Mold with Her Metal Sculptures

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Imani Barnes first began metal work during a summer program at the Sloss Furnaces National Historic Landmark. (AMARR CROSKEY, FOR THE BIRMINGHAM TIMES)
By Ryan Michaels
The Birmingham Times

Imani Barnes was able to mend a broken heart with a piece of sculptured metal art—literally and figuratively.

One of her favorite pieces, titled “Broken Guarded Heart,” is composed of a glass vase containing five handmade hearts, enclosed with a brick wall and three faces. Some of the bricks and features of the faces are missing, which is Barnes’s way of depicting the things people lose forever when they experience heartbreak.

“You may see smooth parts of my face, and you may see some rugged parts, but you also may see another part where the right side of my eye is missing. … That represents a part of me that was kind of taken away that I can’t get back,” said the artist.

Barnes, 29, was recently featured as part of an Emerging Artists virtual exhibit sponsored by the Birmingham Chapter of The Links, Incorporated, a volunteer service organization comprised professional Black women who are dedicated to enriching their communities.

Barnes first began metal work during a summer program at the Sloss Furnaces National Historic Landmark. At the time, she was attending Ramsay High School, which is located in Birmingham’s Five Points South area. The program exposed students to the visual arts and paid them minimum wage for the work they produced. Barnes wanted to continue with metal work because of the rarity of Black women in the field.

“I didn’t want to just stick to an acrylic landscape of a boat or other landscapes,” she said. “I want to do something that’s out of the ordinary, that’s going to touch people, and that’s going to touch me, most importantly.

“I get a lot of offers because you don’t really see African American women doing metal. … [People] love to see how my art relates to people and how they can see my emotions through my art.”

Barnes added that she is not discouraged by people who said she can’t make money from artwork. “Sometimes it’s just not about the money,” she said. “It’s about the love of the job, and the love of the job is really what makes you successful and profitable.” 

Becoming an Artist

Barnes, who currently lives in the Ensley community, was raised in Birmingham with her younger sister, Zemira. Her mother, Zephrine, is a cosmetologist and runs her own salon.

As a child, Barnes was inspired by cartoons, particularly anime, a cartoon style that originated in Japan and became increasingly popular in the U.S. beginning in the 1980s.

“My favorite thing was drawing anime characters,” she said. “I loved doing that. It was always in pencil, and I would write my own. … I used to have a dream. My overall dream was to work for Walt Disney.”

Barnes’s mother always went the extra mile for her daughters. She would drive them all the way from where they lived on the west side of Birmingham to Huffman Middle School on the east side. She also was one of the first people to recognize the creative potential of her older daughter. As early as when Imani was in the third grade, her mother encouraged her talent.

The family agreed that Barnes would never be a starving artist: “That was number one in our household. … We confessed that before I even got to this point of being an emerged artist,” said Barnes.

At Ramsay High School, Barnes really started to pursue her artistic passion. Her mentor was the late art teacher Freida Hall. “Her work was amazing,” Barnes said of Hall. “She took us under her wing, and she exposed me to different opportunities.”

Hall pointed Barnes in the direction of two extracurricular educational art programs: one at George Washington Carver High School that taught animation, and a summer program with the Sloss Furnaces Historic Landmark.

Barnes didn’t know what to expect when she applied for the Sloss program.

“[Hall] was like, ‘It would be an amazing experience.’ [Plus], it was something different, so I was curious,” said Barnes. “I like learning different things. I believe that learning different skills and different art mediums makes you a lot more valuable.”

Through the Sloss program, which Barnes accessed through a scholarship, she learned the principles of what is now her signature work—metal sculpture. Despite what most people think about metal sculpture, Barnes has somewhat of an improvisational approach to creating a piece.

“Usually, it all starts out with an idea, but usually I never go through with that idea. I just kind of let my hands do all the work, but it will be based on a feeling,” she said.

In addition to “Broken Guarded Heart,” which Barnes put together over two to three weeks, some of her other favorites are “My Dream” and “The Tree of Life.” 

Current Work

Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, Barnes had to stop working with Sloss, but she is looking into the facility’s fellowship program to use their resources in the future.

In addition to her metalworking, Barnes paints in a variety of styles and has a particular interest in pour painting, a typically abstract style that involves pouring paint onto a canvas. She has been able to showcase her work at several venues, both at home and abroad, with the support of the Birmingham Chapter of The Links, Incorporated. Barnes was initially connected to the organization because her mother knew another member, Gaynell Hendricks, who also serves as the Jefferson County Tax Assessor.

Barnes was one a few artists who participated in an art swap with Székesfehérvár, Hungary. Székesfehérvár is one of Birmingham’s “sister cities” through a local nonprofit of the same name. Barnes also has sent her work to a town in Ghana that was opening a new library. Through The Links, Incorporated, Barnes was able to donate art for the new space in the West African country.

Barnes is very grateful for the exposure and opportunities provided to her by The Links, Incorporated, and she is confident in her future as an artist.

“I’m soaring as high as high as I can fly and even going beyond that,” she said.

For more info about Imani Barnes, follow her on Instagram at africangoddessimani (https://www.instagram.com/africangoddessimani/).