Adah Glenn, the Mid-City artist behind the alter ego AfroPuff and purveyor of all things brown, girl and kawaii stands out at the California African American Museum (CAAM) group show “Flash Tag,” which showcases African-American L.A. street artists.
Her mural, Afro Kokeshis in Bloom, depicts kawaii (a Japanese art term that means "cute") characters with blue Afros. “My friend brought me some Kokeshi dolls and they had round heads and looked like Afros. I like to juxtapose things,” says Glenn. She also stands out because she's the only woman artist in the show. “It’s a girl,” said one CAAM patron, pointing at her and looking at her mural.
Glenn has often found herself the only woman in the room. “I would like to just deal with the art and not the women issues. I wouldn’t have to if these dudes would behave better,” Glenn says only half-jokingly.
The world of street art is often portrayed as a homogenous male and working-class scene. There's this idea that the women involved are girlfriends or groupies. Glenn, a former child actress whose first commercial role came at six months of age, challenges that.
“The women who are often portrayed as girlfriends in interviews are usually artists. Omega, a woman street artist who has been around since the 1980s and owned a hip-hop shop across the street from Fairfax High School, is almost never talked about,” she says.
Glenn was raised in the South Los Angeles community of View Park. She's a product of South L.A.’s African-American Catholic school system, although she attended a U.K. boarding school after her engineer father briefly relocated the family to Africa.
“In Nigeria, my step-sister and I were of marrying age, so it wasn’t safe for us to stay there. They kept asking for us to be thrown in[to] business deal arrangements,” she recalls.
Her journey to street artist and graphic designer began after she got fired from a fast food commercial as a child. “I just couldn’t eat the hamburger," she says, laughing. "The special sauce was disgusting. They replaced me rather quickly with another little girl. They even put her hair in two Afro puffs just like mine.”
AfroPuff is the name of Glenn's Mid-City store and one of the characters in her corporation Adahma, which is structured around three African-American alter egos: The first is DahJemimah, the second is "her politically correct milk-chocolate sister" AfroPuff and the third is Adahma, "the sophisticated black buppie type,” says Glenn.
To critics who think a street artist with a corporation is incongruent, Glenn explains, “That’s my upbringing. Corporations protect you from certain things. It’s not right, but it is the way that it is. You have to keep up with trademarks. It’s rough out there.”
Her aesthetic was greatly influenced by the British punk scene, which she experienced while living at the English boarding school.
“I didn’t get punk on revival, I got to experience punk firsthand in the suburbs of London," she says. "The mohawks, the bands, the street style and the energy — I had never seen such an exciting movement. For a little Catholic school girl from L.A., this was a big deal.”
When she returned to the U.S. she studied music, but wanted to play punk and rock. She dropped music after being pushed to play classical. South L.A.’s Catholic schools were a poor fit for her, and she ended up at Hamilton High School. In the back of algebra class, she discovered hip-hop, boys and street art.
At night she began painting with her crew, known as Leaders of the New School. She spent "a lot of time with West Coast Artists," another crew, but wasn't a member.
After giving birth to twin boys whose father is Design9, a member of West Coast Artists, she realized she had to find a way to support her children. “I was in a bubble," she says. "I didn’t know that there were people out there with issues. My father was always in the picture.”
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After she and Design9 broke up, she enrolled at Cal State University Los Angeles. She says that at the time, the Cal State L.A. graphic design department got some funding from JPL and Pixar, and students learned how to write their images in code. "Being a designer who could code helped me," she says. "By the time Illustrator and Photoshop popped around, for me that was just drag and drop. It was easy.”
Today she works with graphic design clients and sells her Adahma characters in the U.S. and Asia in forms including dolls, paper dolls, T-shirts and fashion accessories.
“In this country — well, in this world — you have to create your own dream job, because the alternative really blows,” says Glenn.
Glenn’s mural, Afro Kokeshis in Bloom, is on view in the group show “Flash Tag” through August 26 at CAAM. Admission is free. More info at caamuseum.org.