Ms. Bell, 34, a Chicago native, is an African-American artist straddling two worlds dominated by white men: media and art. Though there are writers and journalists who applaud her analytical approach to deconstructing news, Ms. Bell noted, there are people in the arts who are more cautious. “I’ve been told that maybe I shouldn’t focus so much on race,” she said. “Art people try to get me to diversify my work and not pigeonhole myself so I won’t be seen as the ‘race girl’ in the art world. But everything is about race. It’s tough not to say it’s about race.”
This was apparent to her even when she worked as a grant writer for a syringe-exchange program. She spent five years in that job before applying to Columbia’s masters program in journalism. Eventually she experienced a “quarter-life crisis,” which prompted her to take a semester off. “I went to Paris for a month and spent time in an art collective not doing art,” she said. “I’m from what feels like a small gay black space, and I needed time to be in a different space where I could think through ideas.” Upon her return, she completed her degree in 2013.
It is that concern for historically marginalized groups that is the focus of her“Counternarratives” series, which examines the print version of The Times. “I’m creating a narrative that goes against the dominant narrative put forth by the news,” she explained.
One installment of her series looked at a front-page article about the United States swimmer Ryan Lochte and the controversy swirling around his robbery claim during the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. Underneath the headline (“U.S. Swimmers’ Disputed Robbery Claim Fuels Tension in Brazil”) was a photo of the Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt, referring to the article in an inside page about his winning gold in the 200 meters. To Ms. Bell, that particular juxtaposition — with no image of Mr. Lochte on the page — was egregious.