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Exit Interview: Why painter Antoinette Cauley left Phoenix for Berlin

By Lauren Gilger
Published: Thursday, September 1, 2022 - 12:21pm
Updated: Tuesday, January 17, 2023 - 10:16am

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Antoinette Cauley James Baldwin mural phoenix
Antoinette Cauley
Antoinette Cauley poses in front of her mural of James Baldwin on the Ten-O-One Building in downtown Phoenix.

Born and raised in Phoenix — largely in south Phoenix — painter Antoinette Cauley’s art is a mix of intense realism, portraiture that she has called “hood whimsical.” She sees herself as a representative — and an advocate — for the Black community in south Phoenix.

“My entire next body of work is specifically about south Phoenix, and it will tie in the south sides of other major cities globally,” Cauley said. “So I feel like what I’ve been doing is sort of dipping my toe in the water of speaking to and for the community here. And what I’m about to do is kick in some doors and yell for the community here.”

Antoinette Cauley James Baldwin mural phoenix
Antoinette Cauley
Antoinette Cauley beneath her mural of James Baldwin on the Ten-O-One Building in downtown Phoenix.

A few years ago, Cauley was at the height of her career in Phoenix. In the summer of 2020, her mural of little known Black author and activist James Baldwin went up on the side of the Ten-O-One building on Roosevelt Row downtown — nine stories tall. She did it in the midst of the Black Lives Matter movement. His silhouette is outlined with a Baldwin quote: “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”

It was a bold move by an up-and-coming child prodigy of an artist who felt like she was finally having her moment.

“I want Black children to be able to look at this mural and see the possibilities for themselves,” she said in an August 2020 interview with The Show. “I want this to be a mirror.”

She painted the Baldwin mural overlooking the streets where protesters had marched for justice in the wake of George Floyd’s death. And it made her a household name here But personally, post-Floyd America was suffocating her. She said she felt like she had to get out of Phoenix — out of America.

“My body sort of had this fight-or-flight response, and I was like ‘Man, I’ve got to get out of this country.’ This country is not built for us. It’s built by us, but it’s not for us. And it never will be for us, so I need to go somewhere where it’s safer.”

At the same time, even as her career blossomed in Phoenix, she felt she had hit a ceiling here. As much as she loves this place, it couldn’t give her what she needed as an artist anymore.

Antoinette Cauley painting James Baldwin
Antoinette Cauley
Antoinette Cauley paints James Baldwin.

“I’ve shown at the galleries I want to show at. I’ve tried to get into the museums, and at times it feels like they're not even paying attention to me. I’ve applied for residencies in Tempe and Tucson and Phoenix. No one’s accepting me. So, what more can I really do here? I love Phoenix. This will forever be home. No matter how much I grow — career-wise, artistically — I will always bring it back home. The community means so much to me. I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing without them. But at the same time, this is such a young city. It’s not as developed as some of us need it to be in order to really step into our full potential,” Cauley said.

So she applied for residencies across the globe and landed one in Berlin, Germany.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Due to an editing error, the headline has been modified to correct the spelling of Antoinette Cauley's name.

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Antoinette Cauley James Baldwin painting
Antoinette Cauley
Antoinette Cauley's painting of James Baldwin in progress.
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