Imani Barnes breaks the mold with her metal sculptures

Imani Barnes began metalworking during a summer program at 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 sculpted metal work of art, both literally and figuratively.

One of her favorite pieces, titled “Broken Guarded Heart”, features a glass vase containing five handmade hearts, surrounded by a brick wall and three faces. Some bricks and features of faces are missing, which is how Barnes describes the things people lose forever when they experience grief.

“You can see smooth parts of my face, and you can see rough parts, but you can also see another part where the right side of my eye is missing. … It represents a part of me that has been kind of removed and that I cannot recover,” the artist said.

Barnes, 29, was recently featured in a virtual emerging artists exhibition sponsored by the Birmingham chapter of The Links, Incorporated, a voluntary service organization made up of professional black women dedicated to enrichment of their communities.

Barnes began metalworking during a summer program at Sloss Furnaces National Historic Landmark. At the time, she was attending Ramsay High School, located in the Five Points South area of ​​Birmingham. 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 due to the scarcity of black women in the field.

“I didn’t want to stick with 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] I love seeing how my art relates to people and how they can see my emotions through my art.

Barnes added that she was undeterred by people saying she couldn’t make money from artwork. “Sometimes it’s just not about the money,” she says. “It’s about the love of work, and the love of work is really what makes you successful and profitable.”

Become an artist

Barnes, who currently lives in the community of Ensley, grew up 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 cartoons, a style of cartooning that originated in Japan and became increasingly popular in the United States beginning in the 1980s.

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

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

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

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

Hall directed Barnes to two after-school educational art programs: one at George Washington Carver High School which taught animation and a summer program with the Sloss Furnaces Historic Landmark.

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

“[Hall] was like, ‘That would be an amazing experience.’ [Plus], it was something different, so I was curious,” Barnes said. “I like to learn different things. I believe that learning different skills and different artistic mediums makes you much 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 of metal sculpture, Barnes has a somewhat improvised approach to creating a piece.

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

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

Actual job

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, Barnes has had to stop working with Sloss, but she is studying the institution’s scholarship program to use their resources in the future.

In addition to his metalwork, Barnes paints in a variety of styles and has a particular interest in pour paint, a typically abstract style that involves pouring paint onto a canvas. She has been able to present her work in several venues, both domestically and internationally, 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 is also a Jefferson County tax assessor.

Barnes was one of the few artists to have participated in an art exchange with Székesfehérvár, Hungary. Székesfehérvár is one of Birmingham’s “sister towns” through a local non-profit organization of the same name. Barnes also sent his work to a town in Ghana that was opening a new library. Through The Links, Incorporated, Barnes was able to donate artwork for the new space in the West African country.

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

“I fly as high as I can and even go beyond,” she said.

For more on Imani Barnes, follow her on Instagram at africangoddessimani (