Ford Gives Black Women Artists A Platform At Essence Fest

July 9, 2019  |  

Ford Essence Fest

Source: Nigel Degraff / Getty

“Paint the Future Proud” was the theme of Ford’s booth during the 25th Anniversary of Essence Fest this past weekend, and the automotive brand tapped into Black women artists of many forms to bring that vision to life.

Ford’s theme was evident from the entry point to their booth where a 22×10-foot mural of a brown-skinned Black woman with a glorious fro created by Sydney G. James greeted visitors. James is an Illustrative fine artist who began her career as an ad agency Art Director after earning her BFA with an illustration concentration from the College of Creative Studies. The Detroit native went on to earn her masters degree in secondary art education, and since switching her focus from commercial to fine art, she has completed murals in Detroit, New Orleans, Atlanta, Los Angeles, Honolulu, and Ghana.


Source: Nigel Degraff / FORD

“I painted her how I want them to see us, when they see any Black woman,” James said of her festival artwork. “I don’t care if she’s homeless, if she’s a CEO, if she’s just middle management. Whatever she is, I want people to look at her like she’s a queen or some type of regal entity that’s just walking here on the earth. I want them to experience pride when they look at it. I want them [Black women] to look at it and feel her and relate to her at the same time.”

James’ mural wasn’t the only artwork the 11-year Essence Festival sponsor had on display. Inside the Superdome, Shantell Martin‘s drawings were featured in the “Proud to Be Me” art gallery in the Ford Hot Right Now Superlounge. Martin, who was born in London, is known for her large-scale black-and-white drawings which bridge fine art, performance art, technology, and everyday experiences such as conversations, objects, and places.

Ford Essence Fest

Melissa Butler and Shantell Martin. Source: Nigel Degraff / Getty

In 2015, Martin was the artist in residence at the MIT Media Lab where she explored the use of drawing to visualize data. Thus far, the former Adjunct Professor and Artist in Residence at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts has had her work displayed at the Brooklyn Museum, Museum of the Contemporary African Diaspora, Bata Show Museum, and a number of private galleries.

Against the backdrop of performances by Normani, Jacquees, Elle Varner, Aluna George, Queen Najia, Nao and VanJess in the Ford Superlounge also stood the work of Melissa Mitchell. In 2014, Mitchell, a self-taught artist, entrepreneur, author, and motivational speaker, founded Abielle Creations and began her foray into abstract art. Her work has not only been seen in a number of campaigns with major brands like Ford, but also via her clothing line, most notably her kimonos and headwraps which have been worn by Lupita Nyong’o, Amara La Negra, Yandy Smith, Karen Civil, and Rebecca Gross to name a few.

Ford Essence Fest

Melissa Mitchell at the Ford booth. Source: Nigel Degraff / Getty

The Miami native who now resides in Atlanta also created the design for a special shoe Ford execs and press junket members received during the festival. And she’s the front-runner in Ford Motor Company’s “Driving Her Dreams Forward” pitch contest.


Melissa Butler during a panel at the Ford booth. Source: Nigel Degraff / FORD

Leaning into a different type of artist, entrepreneur Melissa Butler of The Lip Bar participated in a panel discussion on the Ford stage in the convention center. Another Detroit native, Butler first began making her vegan lip products in her kitchen, without any formal training. Now, The Lip Bar has opened its first storefront and launched its first-non-lip product, a bronzer and blush duo that debuted during the festival all this year.

Speaking on the choice to give Black women artists a platform during Essence Festival, Dibrie Guerrero, Ford’s multicultural communications manager, said in a news release, “There’s no better way to highlight the spirit and beauty of the community than through art at the Essence Festival. Ford is proud to show its continued support for all women who demonstrate strength and leadership in their community.”

*Ford was a sponsor of this year’s Essence Festival press junket.
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