Ajani Russell Making Make Believe

Adrienne Raquel
Joel Parada
Jessica Gianelli

New York born and bred Ajani Russell is the multi-medium artist skating her way across television screens, magazine covers, and high fashion campaigns. As a self identified visual artist, the Skate Kitchen and Betty HBO star continues to carve space for herself in this little thing called ‘art’ while standing tall as a beacon for change throughout her various platitudes of creativity. While challenging the confines of reality and a certain conservative tunnel vision, Ajani lets loose about her foray into the world of art, and the freedom inherent in escaping the everyday. Touching on the dire necessities of on-screen representation, and the exploratory pleasures of being uncomfortable, we get a glimpse into the mind of the 22-year-old trailblazer – as she breaks down stigmas and starts conversations simply by being herself, and telling her story, her way.

Moncler X Richard Quinn jacket

Gucci dress & shoes, Falke tights

Givenchy top, skirt, shoes & earrings

Jessica Gianelli: A mark of us millennial beings is a tendency towards juggling our talents, dreams, and responsibilities, taking societal standards and expectations and turning them on their head. In short – we do a lot of stuff, and there’s a lot of stuff we want to do. People often refer to you as ‘multi-faceted.’ How do you describe yourself?
Ajani Russell: I usually just describe myself as a visual artist. You have to determine what medium you are if you’re an artist. Like, things have to be so specific or used to be so specific. But I’m finding that as I don’t conform to those forms of descriptions and categorising that I’m able to make room for myself as an artist. And it can be more broad than just, “I’m a sculptor, I’m a painter” or whatever. I’m a visual person and I don’t like to be limited by the categories. These categories are just things that people have created. And if you want there to be something different, you have to make it.
JG: The dichotomy of real and ‘make believe’ are so readily considered both in front of the camera, and on the canvas. In which realm do you prefer to exist?
AR: Who’s to say that make believe isn’t real? I was just having this conversation the other day about when movie characters end up in an alternate reality. They’re in a completely different position in life than they were before they went to sleep or when they jumped through the portal. They go to this fake alternate reality. They experience it truly, physically, emotionally and mentally. So who’s to say that those experiences aren’t real? I like to be in the make-believe. Everything is up to my own expression, in my own creation. Well, not everything.
JG: When we’re talking about art, especially as a young Black woman in America, accessibility and representation are extremely important things to consider. And today in media, they are getting a bit more intense attention – as they ought to – but in relation to both your art practice and your work as a model and an actress, what do you think still requires addressing regarding these necessary topics of conversation?
AR: Things as simple as having versatile women characters on screen whose actions aren’t motivated by males. Creating more diverse characters, but not just diverse in terms of physical appearance, but in personality, in background. I actually don’t like watching humans on my screen like live action TV though, with me searching for one person that looks like me. I’m with people all day, so I like to watch cartoons. Most of those movies, like the archetypes of characters we see in American Hollywood movies, it’s just bland. And sometimes I want to look at my TV, and I don’t want to see white people. And that goes back to being fluid with all of my mediums. Because I’m not a performer, but I know that the story of me and the Skate Kitchen and how we came together couldn’t have been told by anyone other than us because it’s our story.
JG: And how does it feel being a part of something that’s so needed in the industry?
AR: I’m just happy to be a part of it. When I was little and they asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, this was not a part of my plan. But I’m grateful for where I am. And I do love to fantasise about the 36,000 other jobs I could have done, but that’s the thing. I just have to embody whatever task I have at hand, and not let the fear of the unknown and being uncomfortable prevent me from giving my all at whatever I’m doing. Acting makes me so uncomfortable, and I don’t like watching myself on screen, but I like being uncomfortable and I like sitting in that uncomfortableness in order to explore what I can discover in that space.

Chanel dress, coat, belt & jewellery

Saint Laurent by Anthony Vaccarello jacket, bra top & pendant, Ajani’s own necklaces

JG: Was art something that was celebrated when you were growing up? How did your journey lead you to it?
AR: Art was not necessarily celebrated, but it wasn’t like there wasn’t a focus on it. When I was in elementary school, everybody thought I was gonna be a writer. I mean, I still write stuff, but I don’t share it with anybody, so nobody knows. Like, it’s a secret that I’m a writer. It’s my secret career. But when I got to fifth grade, I started doing photography, and I was like, ‘Oh, oh, I can make images, too’. It was a discovery, then I realised I could draw and I was like, ‘Oh, I can draw. That’s cool’. And so it just kept building. I was like, I want to try that. I want to try this. And I did it. I took art classes in a programme outside of school, and I got to meet a bunch of artists showing in galleries – working artists – and that sort of shaped my life.
JG: Once upon a time there was something known as the ‘American Dream’. At a time where things can actually feel quite nightmarish, where does your heart go for warmth and security?
AR: Regarding America, I’ve never felt those sentiments embedded in me strongly, because when I look at America, I don’t see myself in the representation. When you think of America, you think of the founding fathers, and those guys don’t look like me. This world was not made for me. I’m supposed to be near the equator on a beach somewhere. This is not where I’m supposed to be. But since I’m here in this life, I guess, to the kitchen. I like to cook. I’ll make myself ceviche and platanos (plantain) or something.
JG: A compassionate world, where love is our most powerful currency – can we get there? What will it take?
AR: This is gonna be hard. Everybody needs to look within for this. With a lot of our problems, there’s just so much history and so much ancestral trauma, the things we’ve inherited that we haven’t actually lived, and things during our lifetime that would have an impact because our culture is so surrounded by suppression and maintaining differences. First of all, that’s gonna have to stop for us to even be able to do it. I just don’t think that we’ve accepted any of our problems. We can’t address them if we haven’t accepted them. The fact that our president doesn’t believe in climate change. That’s from step one, exhibit A. But we need to see the problems without being confrontational. It has to be a safe space type thing because you can’t reopen all these wounds if you’re not in a space that allows you to be vulnerable.

Prada top, skirt, belt, tights & shoes

Gucci dress & shoes, Falke tights

Christian Dior shirt, skirt & earrings

Saint Laurent by Anthony Vaccarello jacket, bra top, skirt, belt, boots & pendant, Ajani’s own necklaces

Dolce & Gabbana jacket, Joel Isaac Collab dress, Falke tights, Giorgio Armani shoes

Joel Isaac Collab dress, Falke tights

Photography: Adrienne Raquel
Stylist: Joel Parada
Model: Ajani Russell
Creative Direction: Heathermary Jackson
Makeup & Hair: Andrea Wilson
Casting: Clare Rhodes at Casting By Us
Production: Harbinger
Interview: Jessica Gianelli
Download your copy of issue 12 here