She loves cheeseburgers, watches porn every other day, and believes all people can embody sexiness, even Marge Simpson. She is building an empire based on the female gaze and winning at it. This is visual artist Iris “Barbee” Bonner, the creator of These Pink Lips, a vibrant brand of visuals that explore women’s eros, power and femininity.
Bonner depicts women as sexual beings who command your attention with racy mottos. Vaginas and provocative poses are front and center. Her textiles are overlaid in double entendres. Her t-shirts proclaim “PUSSY NOT WAR,” her capes announce “She’s The Boss,” the phrases “Gold Digger” and “It’s a Man’s World” are exclaimed on her canvasses and apparel.
Her artistry is a mash-up of Andy Warhol’s pop art Americana but only if it could be embodied by Pam Grier’s iconic sexiness. Bonner’s work picks up on Frida Kahlo’s feverish use of color to explore gender, but imagine seeing those colors while tripping out on acid and listening to Funkadelic. The sensory explosion heralds women’s sexuality, yet the aesthetic is controlled by her feminist intention. It’s no wonder she has a cult following including street-savvy celebs such as Amber Rose, Cardi B, Blac Chyna, Alicia Keys and Pink. Bonner’s work personifies the “pussy power” spirit of our times.
When I meet Bonner, I quickly realize that she embodies a #BlackGirlMagic even more spellbinding than that the provocative nature of her work.
She covers her mouth demurely when she speaks about herself. She perks up when speaking about her art. She possesses a quiet but insatiable appetite to create art and an equally powerful desire to control her art. For Bonner, controlling her art is the same as controlling her life. She wants for herself what she achieves in her art: “to be in your face, to be super strong and afraid of nothing.” After all, Bonner was a shy kid growing up in an adopted home in Philadelphia. She was bored in painting classes because landscapes and still lifes were not her thing. So she drew figures of women instead. She started painting on whatever surface she could get her hands on to. Her friends wore her hand-painted clothes. An online store soon followed, then Instagram fame. People began to seek out her work. Her big break finally came when Amber Rose and Blac Chyna wore matching fits designed by Bonner to the 2015 VMAs as part of their anti-slut-shaming campaign. Now These Pink lips can be spotted in fashion shoots and music videos.
She seems to hardly believe her own life. As we talk and look at her work she points out her self-portrait: an image of a woman covered in paint with a gap in her teeth, hair reaching for the sky and a boob job. In real life, the unassuming Bonner drapes her petite frame in her hand-painted denim and leather. It’s clear she uses her art to speak on her own behalf in a world that often silences black women who embrace their sexuality.
According to Bonner, women have a right to experience pleasure on their own terms. Masturbation and pornography are a natural course of sexual exploration in her mind. She hates when people shy away from exploring their bodies. “Masturbation should be a daily practice. How can someone else please you if you can’t please yourself,” she says.
She describes herself as a pervert, not as a derogatory term but as a representation of her continued interest in her own sexuality as a woman. The double standards of social media censorship upset Bonner. “If my artwork makes you feel sexy or makes you feel like you are looking at a porno either is fine. Who am I to say how you should feel? It’s crazy how you can show people getting their head blown off, but you have to blot out a woman’s nipple.”
In Bonner’s eyes sexuality should not be taboo. When people see the word ‘pussy,’ it should feel like the norm. It’s not dirty. It’s a natural expression. Sex is how most of us got here. As long as it is safe and consensual, the sky’s the limit.
Bonner is unapologetic. She wants this for her art. She wants this for herself as a woman living in a sexual body. “Women’s bodies are a beautiful thing. I don’t get it when a woman comes up to me offended about the word pussy on my shirt. How can you be offended by your own body?”