Art

10 Gen Z Artists around the World Offer a Look inside Their Art Practices

Cornelia Smith
Aug 23, 2021 8:59PM

Generation Z cannot be flattened into a single, simple category. Despite the public’s perception of a group of social media–obsessed and ego-driven young people, Gen Zers—born between 1997 and 2015—maintain a diverse range of perspectives. And what’s often dismissed is the way that world-altering events and technological advancements have impacted their lives. Gen Z grew up in a post-9/11 internet age; their young adulthood coincided with the decentralization of information, more accessible education, and the erosion of fact-based knowledge. And the need to confront our damaged and dying planet from an early age left an indelible mark on the generation as a whole.

When it comes to visual artists of Gen Z, while they might share characteristics with their older peers—addressing issues of identity, cultural taboos, sexuality, and social and political unrest—the specific contexts in which they matured distinguishes them from their forebears.

Signe Ralkov
Not awake just growing, 2021
Eve Leibe Gallery
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Below, we share insights from 10 Gen Z artists who hail from across the world. The intention is not to paint a portrait of what Gen Z artists are like. Rather, we offer a glimpse into the practices, motivations, and values of young artists working today, as well as threads that connect artists of this generation to one another—like affinities for the color blue and post-production editing, and the impulse to honor one’s heritage and community.

When asked about the challenges they face as young artists, most cited a lack of respect for their practices and the double-edged sword of social media. And despite launching their careers under undeniably challenging and unpredictable circumstances, the Gen Z artists here have hope for the future. By cultivating supportive communities, engaging in dialogue through artmaking, and remaining true to their authentic selves, these artists demonstrate the critical role that art plays for their generation.


South African artist Shakil Solanki creates work that is informed by his South Asian heritage and identity as a queer, brown man. His deeply personal, blue-hued paintings and prints convey experiences of heartbreak, pain, and vulnerability. “My work primarily explores the many dynamics of queer intimacy, held in the space of a secret garden, a visual exploration of the dualities of tenderness, desire, and violence,” Solanki said. “The notion of this enclosure is central to my work, pertaining to an internal, allegorical world, where one’s most veiled vulnerabilities converge.”

Anonymous figures frequently inhabit these gardens, floating around one another or wandering in tranquil solitude. “The ambiguity within these bodies is what I hope opens the artwork to interpretation, allowing other individuals to insert themselves into the otherworldly environments, and find similar solace within them,” Solanki explained.

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Connecting with his audience on such a personal level is a vulnerable undertaking for Solanki—and this kind of vulnerability, he noted, is pervasive among Gen Z artists. “There has been a very definitive push for the validation of diverse individuals’ vulnerabilities,” he said. “Power is found in the assertion of oneself, via their art practice; pertinent discussions of gender, race, and sexuality are thereby always at the fore.” Given this, he’s concerned over whether powerful figures in commercial art spaces are interested in young artists’ work, or if they “only view artists—queer, and/or of color, which, historically, have been excluded from these spaces—as commodities to further their own financial and social gains.”

Overall, Solanki maintains a positive outlook on contemporary art, especially within his small yet vibrant Cape Town community. “Having each other to rely upon is something which is a considerable relief,” he said. “I could not be more appreciative of the support system which I have within the artistic circles around me.”


Beatrice Dahllof
Do Domu, 2021
Huxley-Parlour

Shaped by her upbringing in a Polish family, Beatrice Dahllof values storytelling and incorporates myths, traditions, and rituals into her art practice. Her work is primarily figurative; subjects are captured in moments of silence and self-reflection, and are almost exclusively depicted within domestic spaces. Their inner emotions rise to the surface, conveying familial relationships, human nature, and complex emotions.

As a teen, Dahllof started out in illustration, though after visiting a Degas exhibition a few years ago, she pivoted to her current impressionistic style. “I’m not the biggest fan of Degas,” Dahllof clarified, “but that was the first time I remember seeing paintings that moved me the way they did.” The show taught her how to look at paintings and to communicate feelings and thoughts through art.

While art historical giants have influenced Dahllof’s work, her peers have been more impactful. “My community is hugely important in shaping my art practice,” she said. “I think no artist can make work without a community that they can share ideas with and talk about work.” Dahllof admires the drive of her artist friends to “be their authentic selves.”

“The authentic self is obviously a universal idea in art,” she continued, “but I think before this generation, it was rare to see so many people embracing it so early on in their lives and careers.”

One of the challenges for Gen Z artists, Dahllof said, is the pressure to be a “content creator”—someone who consistently produces photos and videos for dedicated followers on social media platforms. “If you think about artists in history who had huge bodies of work, they weren’t making hundreds of paintings so they could get five minutes of instant gratification from likes online,” Dahllof remarked. “They were painting and making to be able to experiment, grow, learn.”


Cielo Felix-Hernandez
Achiote, 2020
Sargent's Daughters

Cielo Félix-Hernández makes work that references the 2000s—the decade when she moved from Puerto Rico to Virginia. “I saw a parallel between how both home and my ‘new’ home weren’t truly ‘mine,’” Félix-Hernández said. “I experienced displacement due to gentrification and the economic hardships my mother faced as a single mother of three.” Moving around frequently, Félix-Hernández spent a lot of time in her mom’s Honda Civic, with a small yet proud Puerto Rican flag dangling from the rearview mirror. “We were one of the few Boricuas in the part of Virginia we were in, so the car flag really was a rarity,” she said. “When we’d see other cars with Puerto Rican flags drive by, we’d all freak out like, ‘Eyyy otro Bori!’ Those moments for me growing up inspired this idea of mobility that our bodies all hold and are capable of obtaining.”

Félix-Hernández embeds her paintings with traces and symbols of her Puerto Rican heritage. Mimicking the border of the car flags, several of her canvases incorporate fringed edges and colored satin, a fabric she also use in performances. The artist is interested in “conveying a reclaiming of power” through “aesthetics that remind [her] of home, a sense of comfort from seeing familiar iconographies that you wouldn’t typically see in oil painting.” Some of her recurring motifs include: high heels made from plantains; cans of sugar cane juice; long acrylic nails; the all-purpose surface cleaner Fabuloso; and nude or partially clothed bodies unabashedly taking up space.

Félix-Hernández is concerned that artists of her generation are not being taken seriously. She described judgments that are passed, such as being deemed “too ‘young’ to possibly hold any knowledge or contribute to ongoing dialogues they’re interested in or a part of.” Like many Gen Z artists, however, community is a source of motivation. “Community has held me and made me feel like the work I’m doing is important,” she said. “Sharing stories of our own experiences with iconographies, figures, architecture, colors, and objects such as ‘Fabuloso’ is always a moment that recenters me.”


Monserrat Palacios’s otherworldly compositions include highly detailed, grotesque-yet-beautiful depictions of cyborgs, sea creatures, machinery, plant life, and other sci-fi-inspired organisms. The artist’s colored-pencil drawings and paintings are rife with endless detail, primarily drawn from memory. “I don’t work through references, from life, or from photos,” Palacios said. “I don’t create a picture as it is supposed to look, as if it were only one thing, and had only one point of view. Memory is a fluid thing; it is not fixed.” Her practice includes traditional pen, pencil, and oil paint, as well as digital and bio art.

“Just as I think there is not a single world of art but many, there is not a single motivation [to create art],” Palacios said of her generation. “Some artists are very political, socially committed. They do net art and hacktivism, they talk about techno-power and bioethics, artivism. Others simply want to commodify their work and earn money—or conversely, do something that cannot be commodified.”

It is almost a prerequisite of Gen Z artists to express acute awareness of the world at large. “The challenges facing this generation are ecological and economic, and therefore political and ethical,” Palacios said. Her work is entrenched in understandings of image theory, communication theory, information theory, and general systems theory. “We face complex systems that require complex thinking,” she said. “The challenge is not to lose ourselves in the face of the overwhelming load of activities.”

There is a delicate balance that must be achieved when it comes to maturing as an artist. For Palacios, this means nurturing your interests while also pushing the bounds of your knowledge. “I believe that creativity, the best creativity, is never born from comfort zones,” she said. “It is never born without a previous struggle, without resistance.”


Signe Ralkov
Milky Smile, 2020
GSB / Gallery Steinsland Berliner

“When I was little, I would always come home after a trip with pockets heavy with stones and whatever stuff I would stumble upon,” said Signe Ralkov. “Now, I’m a hoarder of images.” Ralkov collects photographs—both found images and her own shots—and draws inspiration from them. “In Danish, the verb for developing an image is fremkalde which translates to ‘calling forth,’” she explained, “and I find that very illustrative to the way I think about drawing: recognizing shapes in pixels and putting them onto paper, drawing upon the swamp of imagery that resides in my brain and computer.”

Ralkov’s work is almost exclusively executed in blue. Currently enrolled in the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, she has sustained her blue drawing practice for over six years. She primarily uses colored pencil to compose pieces that consider the fluidity between humans, nature, and data systems. In her work, “lakes, stones, plants, and places are seen as alive and sometimes given a body,” Ralkov said. She is influenced by folktales and myths—stories that have historically helped us make sense of “unfathomable” phenomena.

Signe Ralkov
Embryo, 2020
GSB / Gallery Steinsland Berliner
Signe Ralkov
Thirsty Lashes, 2020
GSB / Gallery Steinsland Berliner

Lately, Ralkov has been consumed with data visualizations, particularly in relation to her own natural environment. Because she works from photos stored online and on her computer, her practice is intrinsically linked to mechanisms of data storage. “There’s a lot of water surrounding data, cooling the servers of the server farms, around the fiber-optic cables on the seabed,” Ralkov said. “I like to speculate about these streams of images and how they mutate in bodies of water and form new lifeforms on their own.” Water is a recurring theme in her work and life.

“I love that the city is surrounded by water,” she remarked, expressing her fondness for Copenhagen. “On warm days I can work in my school studio, and walk for five minutes to swim in the harbor and cool down.” Ralkov lives on the outskirts of Copenhagen where a large park, complete with lakes and bogs, offers respite from the commotion of daily life. “There are so many birds and huge flocks of geese and I find it so entertaining to go for walks there and just watch all the drama that plays out,” she said.

While Ralkov describes social media as “a blessing and a curse,” she ultimately views it as a net positive, especially for Gen Zers who have “learned to use it in their favor.” Given the relatively small art scene in Copenhagen, Ralkov depends on social media to cultivate a broader community—a global network of artists with whom to share work, ideas, and notes of encouragement.


Megan Dominescu
Massage Girl 2, 2020
ANCA POTERASU

Megan Dominescu studied painting at the Bucharest National University of Arts, yet she’s since shifted her focus to textiles. From life-size crocheted figures to rug-hooked scenes of whimsical and alien subjects, Dominescu’s work mingles difficult subject matter with lighthearted imagery. She uses humor to convey the hardships people face and the “absurdity” of the world we inhabit.

In Massage Girl 1 (2019), Dominescu designed a large, eye-popping rug in the style of a classified sex ad. “CONFIDENTIAL MASAJ EROTIC,” it reads at the top, with a phone number to call at the bottom, and bubbles of text that say “NON STOP” and “100% REAL” bookending the female figure’s neon green nipples. This kind of sci-fi erotica appears regularly throughout Dominescu’s work, adding comical shock value to messages around sex work.

Megan Dominescu
Iorgu, 2019
ANCA POTERASU
Megan Dominescu
Massage Girl 1 , 2019
ANCA POTERASU

“Sometimes I feel like all of my works are part of one big series, although some may seem unrelated,” she said. Dominescu culls her subjects at random and finds them in unexpected places. “My work has always been very intuitive for me and I don’t question myself too much before creating something,” she said.

Living in Bucharest has exposed Dominescu to a small yet vibrant arts scene. “Although we don’t have the largest art community, we are closely knit, and quality runs higher than quantity,” she said. “I can already see how Romanian artists are being more and more appreciated in Europe and throughout the rest of the world. I believe that cultural exchange and communication is the key to getting artists known and connected with each other.”

Dominescu believes that Gen Z artists have a greater sense of responsibility and self-awareness than previous generations. “I feel like Gen Z artists are much more progressive in their work and search for ways to explore new media and look to the future, not the past,” she said.


In Omar Gabr’s “Funny Effects” series, humor mixes with the absurd to express the perplexing qualities of the human condition. Bodies of tigers and shrimp have human faces, while odd assortments of items are frequently rendered in disjointed harmony. Gabr experiments with scale and subject matter, though his compositions are rooted in reality. He aims to make art that focuses on people, politics, and issues that plague society, particularly in his home city of Cairo.

Gabr’s local art community has had an indelible impact on his art practice. “Other artists have influenced me and enabled me to avoid repetition, and to produce works using different techniques in new directions,” he said. In 2016, Gabr joined the art collective Al Laqta—Arabic for “the shot”—and has since taken a more academic approach to creating art. “Joining this collective has allowed me to share my works with different artists and get their input and feedback,” Gabr said, “which has been beneficial to me since I did not study art at university level [and do not] have formal training.”

Being a young artist in Egypt, Gabr has both witnessed and experienced difficulties unique to his generation. “Gen Z in Egypt is quite a confused generation,” he said, “because it has gone through several revolutions, and experienced political and economic unrest.” He is critical of the public education afforded to people in Egypt, and the censorship that artists face; he noted that “galleries and government-backed exhibitions are reluctant to accept contemporary work” when it goes against the norm.

“I believe the biggest challenge [for Gen Z artists] is continuity, longevity, and honesty,” Gabr said, “especially in light of pressure that many artists face from those in positions of power and authority in the art world.” While these challenges can pose significant obstacles to emerging artists, Gabr ultimately believes these conditions can be motivating, helping to foster more authentic work.


Mai Ta
Untitled 8, 2020
PABLO´S BIRTHDAY

After graduating from the School of Visual Arts in New York in 2019, Mai Ta returned to Vietnam, where her art practice shifted. “In art school, I was influenced a lot by my professors, and they had a specific vision for how they wanted my art to look,” she explained. “After graduation, everything sort of changed for me.” As a student, Ta’s bold canvases delved into difficult, personal subject matter. “I was approaching art in a way that was very much based on how I want people to perceive me, to think of me,” she said. “It’s more for me now, it’s not for anyone else.”

Her current work is more meditative, focused, and minimal, expressing her inner self. Ta uses a muted color palette to enhance the cerebral qualities of her paintings, which center on a single female subject—a representation of herself. “Everything is kind of a self-portrait,” she said, describing her paintings as diaristic. “The subject matter is always centered around my experiences and my emotions, but the way I approach it changes every time, every era.” Yet Ta does not see the work as beginning and ending with herself. “I’m very interested in how people perceive my work nowadays,” she said. “How people feel about it, what people take from it, is more important than what I’m trying to say.”

Hair is an especially prominent motif that Ta employs regularly. “When I got into art and started looking at Vietnamese culture and Vietnamese women, I started to realize our hair holds so much spiritual power,” she said. There was a period when Ta used the motif of cutting hair to symbolize change; in her most recent works, she depicts long veils of black hair to evoke mystery and strength.

Since moving back to Ho Chi Minh City, Ta has immersed herself in the city’s small, tight-knit art community. “Everyone supports each other,” she said. “It’s like ’80s New York type of vibe but less, not as crazy.” Being surrounded by multidisciplinary artists has exposed her to new media, providing her with a “kind of freedom and inspiration” she didn’t have before.


In David Uzochukwu’s recent exhibition “Mare Monstrum / Drown In My Magic” at Galerie Number 8 in Brussels, they presented a series of enigmatic photographs of Black merfolk. Human bodies with fins, scales, and tails surround color-shifting bodies of water; moments of pain and violence are conveyed through gestures of support and embrace. The works are grounded in Uzochukwu’s examinations of the relationship between the African diaspora and water; the othering of Black individuals and communities; and the politics of modern-day migration.

Mythical themes permeate much of Uzochukwu’s work. The Austrian Nigerian artist has developed a visual language that blurs the line between fantasy and reality. “I often say that my work is about longing and belonging,” they said. Through images, Uzochukwu asks, “How do I fit into my environment? How does the human fit into the environment?”

With a focus on Black subjects and people of color, Uzochukwu reimagines preconceived “shapes” of Black bodies. “How can we reclaim monstrosity?” they ask. “That, I think, is something kind of inherent to Blackness—reclaiming some violent category that you’re confronted with and applying it to modern politics.”

Uzochukwu began their photography career at 13 and has created surreal imagery for the past several years. A significant amount of energy goes into the editing process, though as they’ve become more ambitious, it’s become much more efficient. Uzochukwu has also been delving into video work and co-directed their first short film Götterdämmerung (2021) with Faraz Shariat.

“I feel like there’s a big awareness of the responsibility that one has in putting work out into the world,” Uzochukwu said, reflecting on the prominent role that ethics play in young artists’ work. They believe young artists need time and space to develop their practice, but shouldn’t feel pressured to continuously put out new work. “I’m not sure you should always be sharing,” Uzochukwu said. “If there is some sort of economy of content, that is hyperproductive, and thus kind of dangerous.”


Trenity Thomas has been surrounded by art from an early age. His mother, also an artist, enrolled him in an arts program in second grade and gave him his first camera in 2015. Almost immediately after experimenting with his new equipment, he was hooked. Though he started off as a painter—and continues to paint, modeling works after his photographs—Thomas now identifies primarily as a photographer. “I met a couple of friends who also do photography, followed them along, and I got deeper into it,” he said.

The New Orleans–based artist now focuses on capturing the people of his city. He draws inspiration from his friends and family, as well as from films, particularly those of renowned cinematographer Roger Deakins. Thomas especially loves photographing people who aren’t models; he believes the camera brings out “their true potential and true beauty of who they really are.”

“I like to tell a story through an image, a vision, instead of words,” he continued. “Say I have a guy that looks like a detective, but he’s holding a big doll; I want people to think, ‘What is going on in this image?’” In this example, he refers to Whereabouts (2021), in which a young man in a bowler hat and trench coat holds a large, red-and-white-striped stuffed monkey. The image elicits many questions, while reflecting Thomas’s skill with lighting, composition, and post-production editing.

With many friends who are also young artists, Thomas has found a supportive community in New Orleans. “Almost everybody in the city is networking, connecting, and collaborating. We’re all working together,” he said. Thomas recognizes how challenging it is to gain recognition in the art world, though he remains steadfast in his practice, and even has advice for other young artists: “Don’t let nothing get in your way, don’t let anybody tell you what you can or cannot do. There are no rules at all.”

Cornelia Smith

Header image: David Uzochukwu, “STAKE OUT,” 2019. Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Number 8.

Portrait of Shakil Solanki by Jesse Navarre Vos. Courtesy of Shakil Solanki. Portrait of Beatrice Dahllof. Courtesy of Beatrice Dahllof. Portrait of Cielo Félix-Hernández. Courtesy of Cielo Félix-Hernández. Portrait of Monserrat Palacios. Courtesy of Monserrat Palacios. Portrait of Signe Ralkov. Courtesy of Signe Ralkov. Portrait of Megan Dominescu. Courtesy of Megan Dominescu. Portrait of Omar Gabr. Courtesy of Omar Gabr. Portrait of Mai Ta by Duong Nguyen. Courtesy of Mai Ta. Portrait of David Uzochukwu, 2021. © David Uzochukwu. Courtesy of David Uzochukwu. Portrait of Trenity Thomas. Courtesy of Trenity Thomas.

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Jenna Gribbon, Luncheon on the grass, a recurring dream, 2020. Jenna Gribbon, April studio, parting glance, 2021. Jenna Gribbon, Silver Tongue, 2019